This holiday season, venture beyond the multi-national latte when you're out and about on LA's Eastside. This list is by no means exhaustive and far from objective. Check out these picks and, please, add your own.
Most Likely Setting for a Vanity Fair Interview and Best $8 Cup of Coffee: LAMILL. With tableside barista service, an exotic menu, and a Beverly-Hills-Regency-meets-Silver-Lake decor, LAMILL is exactly where you'll want to take your out of town guests this holiday season. Their beverage menu is a monograph - it might even have footnotes. LAMILL's special brewing methods produce rich, aromatic coffee, free of sediment. Watching them make it is half the fun. When you want something different, go to LAMILL.
Best in Bookstore: Yes, Virginia, there is a bookstore in Echo Park. The added twist is Stories' café: sandwiches (turkey pesto on walnut raisin, grilled cheese on brioche), veggie chili, and salads. Their coffee is Cafecito Organico - the brand sold at local farmers markets. Pick up a new book or an old classic you promised yourself you'd read after grad school (Moby-Dick anyone?). Plop yourself down on Stories' back patio for an urban idyll. Since the café opens at 8:30 a.m. on weekdays, bring your Times, and have a baked egg or a bowl of oatmeal with your morning joe outside. On December 12, Stories is part of the first-ever Echo Park Shop Hop along with neighbors 826 LA and The Echo. Have an espresso and get your picture taken with Santa. Try that at The Grove.
Best Old School: When it comes to coffee on the east side, Café Tropical is OG - original gangster - so old school it doesn't sell any variation of its café con leche except decaf (and that will cost you extra). Their coffee is bold, strong, and hot. They sell Cuban sandwiches (pork, ham, pickles, mayo, plantains, and cheese grilled on egg bread), juices, smoothies, and fresh bakery items - including the pastry that made them famous - the guava cheese pie. If you have to go anywhere this holiday, bring one of these as a season's greeting. It's acclaimed by hipsters from Berkeley to Boston (see for yourself on Yelp). Café Tropical may be the most successful business in the 90026 without a website; that right there is worth patronizing. If you visit the Trop, don't leave anything behind. They'll decorate with it.
Sauvest: Intelligentsia is not kidding around: they're chasing the perfect espresso. Every latte and cup of single origin coffee I've had there is memorable, both for its taste and the attention with which it's prepared. This commitment to detail is apparent, from the typography on the menu to the award-winning design of their space. On a stretch of Sunset that's jam-packed with coffee choices, the nearly constant line out the door is their best testimonial. It's entirely worth the wait. The Silver Lake location was Intelligentsia's first outpost west of Chicago; now there's one in Venice, too.
Best Place to Go with Kids: Swork is located at the corner of Eagle Rock Blvd and Colorado - ground zero for the area's decade-long renaissance. Swork has a play area, gelato, and their own version of the ice-blended, the Sworkuccino. They also sell beans, so you can Swork at home or send Aunt Sally some Swork in Toledo. While you're there, shop at Owl Talk, sisters Kathy and Sharon Kroner's consignment shop, and Twerp's, a fun children's store. Two or more parents can join forces, one watching the kids at Swork, sipping a Latin Latte (espresso, steamed regular and condensed milk, foam, and nutmeg), the other doing some hassle-free Christmas shopping. This might be one of the only times when the parent watching the kids has the best afternoon.
Best of the Westside Downtown: Urth Café positively owns the practice of latte art - they can make a swan, a leaf, even Hello Kitty on top of a latte. They brew and serve organic, fair trade coffees in sweet, mild, and strong variations. A perennial favorite is the vanilla honey latte. Plus, Urth sells real food: omelets, waffles for breakfast; soups, salads, turkey burgers for other times. Their uber cool Downtown location is also their roasting plant. The perfect place to stop before or after you take your mom and sister to see Mary Poppins. Urth's pastries are incredible. When don't care what you have to spend on a pie, just so long as it seems like Martha Stewart made it, get it here.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place with Pedigree: Figaro Bistrot stands where Beck got his start - on the site of the legendary Onyx - a coffee house where coffee was never the main attraction. In absolutely every way, that's still true at Figaro. Their coffee is nice - the lattes come in the big, hand-warming bowls - but their setting is remarkable. There are not three more beautiful rooms and a patio anywhere on the East Side - maybe anywhere in L.A. Figaro has the genteel elegance one expects in sophisticated cities, like Rome, or London, or Paris. It's more surprising here, in the middle of Southern California, so it's more satisfying. The food is delicious - Oeufs Bénédicte, salade d'Endives et Roquefort, Boeuf Bourguignon and pommes frites any time. Elegant in a thrown together way. Figaro doesn't have wireless internet, so this is a place you can really talk or actually write. You'll return to the wired world refreshed.