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Thursday, January 22, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some Seattle Coffee Houses Have A More European Flavor

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When they head for Europe, Seattleites know what they want to see: French fashion, London galleries, Alpine slopes and German bierkellers. Conversely, when Europeans disembark at Sea-Tac, many of them also know where they want to head.

These days, it's not in pursuit of "le grunge" or the "Twin Peaks waterfall," but to savor a more down-to-earth, almost ubiquitous export. Euro-hipsters seek out Seattle's specialist coffees - but maintain careful caveats about where they sip. Often they eschew the cheery, clean, corporate chains for the kind of coffee bars they recognize.

Outside the First and Virginia site of Tully's, for instance, Massimo and Marina Borza seem content to look through a window. They display an almost anthropological air - just as they did earlier in front of the Pike Place Market Starbucks. "To observe this phenomenon," says Massimo, "is quite interesting. But for us to have a coffee, well, we want art. We want some people to speak with. So we can learn about the city."

In short, they want an address further down First Avenue: the Lux Coffee Bar, whose name and address were given to them in Milan. "It came from a friend in a band," says Massimo. "An Italian band," Marina emphasizes.

There are lots of funky and creative touches in the Lux that attract the Borzas: a 12-foot hanging metal sculpture of a shark, executed by the local artist Peter Requiem; metal chairs and tables (by artist Mark Rudis); a tentacled glass chandelier (by artist Bill Akers). The Borzas admire the cafe's glittering sign (an Italian glass mosaic by artist Cassandria Blackmore).

The cafe mixes baroque class with industrial chic in a low-key style. Customers like the Borzas fit in smoothly with a loyal crowd of locals.

When it opened, almost four years ago, the Lux was the first tenant in a deserted building. Now, its Belltown neighborhood is nearing capacity. Owned by Lisa Kender, the Lux has a growing, world-wide fan club. (Last year, its selection of "visiting regulars" included British film director Isaac Julien, MTV Europe's head of production Lorraine Alexander, and Tim Leighton-Boyce, of England's New Deal Skateboards).

"The whole world," says Kender, "is full of structure. But my customers don't want an assembly line. They come here for talk and art and the space, someplace which feels creative and keeps their juices flowing."

Her European clients reveal a twist in caffeine cosmology. Seattle baristas may be famous for confounding the public with terms. But in cafes like this one, the barista gets new riddles. Like what a Swiss student means by a "Mexican" (a single shot of espresso with a twist of lemon). Or pleasing an Italian banker with a "senza schiuma."

"That means without the foam," says Massimo Borza solemnly. "Italians always know that foreigners will want the foam. At home, drinking milk in coffee after 11 a.m. - that would be a social death! Maybe a dash of cream in espresso, if you are a woman. But not the big, sweet, milky things Americans drink."

Here in the land of choice, such simplicity seems a paradox. But Kender's is not the only place it registers. Zeitgeist, at the other end of town on South Jackson, also attracts a lot of visiting Europeans. Most prefer their coffee to be simpler, stronger, smaller - a distinct contrast to the triple- mocha crowd.

Both, however, love the look and wares of Zeitgeist: raw brick, lots of art, film screenings, newspapers, pastries. Painter Bryan Yeck is one of four founding partners who, like Kender, renovated the space themselves. "We always wanted a kind of European feel. The kind of place you'd like to live in, read in, sketch in, talk to your neighbors in." Like the Lux, the cafe was not designed; it evolved as the partners found appropriate pieces. Says Yeck, "There was no blueprint, no swatch book."

The result: another scheme that mixes elegance and street flair, high-tech lights with rough brick walls. For the European visitor, it's a winning combination, as it is for locals working in Pioneer Square. "I like its psychology," says photographer Mattias Moller as he passes by the door. "But it's pretty funny to watch the coffee people order."

Moller, who lives in Denmark, includes the Europeans. "There's a big confusion, especially among the French, between our cafe au lait and your cafe lattes. But one is made with dripping coffee, one espresso."

One thing everyone can agree on is the art. Here at Zeitgeist, as at the Lux, it receives special attention. Michelle Gomes curates Kender's shows every month; at Zeitgeist, Bryan Yeck is in charge of visuals.

Euro-visitors are as keen on the films as the paintings. But, often, they discover the cafe because of its coffee. Illy Caffe, under the recent guidance of Ricardo Illy, has now become one of Europe's most popular brands. When Yeck takes his turn as barista, he says a lot of people seem glad to see it, especially customers from Italy, Spain, France and Portugal.

If Illy is familiar, some of its formats need decoding. Like the Portuguese writer who requested a "bica" (slang for one straight shot of espresso). Or the Iberian chef who was insisting on an "escosa." "Actually," says Bryan Yeck, "that's a `corrected coffee'; it's always served with grappa on the side. In the end, he settled for a really, really strained ristretto."

Finding a sympathetic ear, one attuned to global discourse both large and small, is enough for visitors like Massimo Borza. He is sending home 10 postcards of the Lux. But by the time the addressees receive them, the Lux may be not be able to afford Belltown. The rent's going up. For now, Kender continues to serve coffee and calm worried customers.

"It seems incredible," says Marina Borza. "There are already so many coffee supermarkets. Places like this, places with such personality. If you lose them, there is no true Seattle coffee."

The Lux Coffee Bar is at 2226 First Ave., 206-443-0962. Zeitgeist is at 161 S. Jackson, 206-583-0497. Zeitgeist opened a show by Dan McKay Jan. 14; artist reception 6-8 p.m., Feb. 5.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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