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Just blocks from Wrigley Field on Southport Avenue in Chicago, Ethel's Chocolate Lounge is nestled among a fashionable mix of bars, boutiques, and restaurants. Grazers who have already hit the nearby Cuban and sushi spots often stop in for a Dark Chocolate Creamy Caramel or Pi?a Colada Truffle before heading elsewhere for a cocktail. After 7 p.m. on weekends, it's nearly impossible to find a seat on one of the leather couches as patrons drink espresso-fueled hot cocoa and dip pound cake in milk-chocolate fondue.
Part coffee house, part Willy Wonka fantasyland, chocolate lounges like Ethel's are popping up across America. Mars, maker of confectionary stalwarts such as M&M's, has launched 10 Ethel's storefront locations in the Chicago area since 2005 and is expanding into other markets this year. The laid-back Moonstruck Chocolate Caf?, which opened in Portland back in 1993, now has seven locales, mostly in Oregon and Illinois. Bittersweet, tucked in a swanky strip of shops in San Francisco's Pacific Heights, has an international feel with delights from Europe, South America, and Africa. Leonidas Chocolate Caf?, started by a Belgium confectionary company that has been around for nearly a century, has two locations in Southern California that evoke the more classic feel of a sidewalk caf? in Brussels. And starting in June, chocophiles in Manhattan will be able to get a fix 24 hours a day when Max Brenner, a European-trained chocolatier, opens shops in Union Square and the East Village.
The rise of the chocolate lounge parallels growing consumer appreciation for chocolate's complexities. "There are a lot of parallels between wine and chocolate," says Clay Gordon, a chocolate educator whose Web site is chocophile.com. Even the most discerning epicure would be impressed by the high-powered credentials of the cocoa bean. Wine has 200 to 300 chemical compounds that give each variety its distinct flavor and aroma. Chocolate has more than 1,500.
Add in the popularity of the Starbucks (SBUX) milieu, and the chocolate lounge is a recipe for success. "The environment heightens the experience," says John Haugh, president of Mars Retail & Gourmet Chocolate. It also heightens the prices. The typical $1.50 to $2.50 for a single truffle or piece of toffee is similar to a Starbucks-style markup for a cup of joe.
Even chocolate snobs would be impressed by the high-end morsels from Vosges Haut-Chocolat, sold in cities around the globe including London and Honolulu. Bright and sparse, the purple-accented boutique in Chicago's Lincoln Park has just three small tables, making it more of a grab-and-go kind of place. The selection is by far the most exotic and upscale of the lot. The Tlan Nacu truffles combine Mexican vanilla beans with dark chocolate. The Ancho chili powder and Ceylon cinnamon in the Red Fire truffle give the dark chocolate a spicy kick. The Aztec Truffle Collection, a 16-piece assortment that includes these two types, costs $38.
Ethel's offerings are far more basic. At $1.50 a piece, there's a little something for everybody, from the liquor-filled Chocolapolitan to the Passion Rumba, a chocolate stuffed with an oozy dose of fruit-flavored ganache. You can also find peanut-butter inspired treats like the Peanut Butter Cup, a fancy-schmancy version of a Reese's (HSY), and the PB&J, "like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, dipped in chocolate fondue," says customer Molly Raymond, a corporate librarian.
With an understated Parisian-style elegance, La Maison du Chocolat in midtown Manhattan is both a chocolatier and patisserie. The coffee mousse cake ($6) pairs well with the semisweet hot chocolate ($8), one of the most popular items.
Atmosphere often gets equal billing with the confectionary delights at these chocolate dens. Charbonnel et Walker Chocolate Café in New York's Saks Fifth Avenue department store features a two-foot-high chocolate fountain. A conveyer belt showcases the ample selection of desserts, which include British-style flavors like banofee pie and more traditional treats.
At Jacques Torres Chocolate in New York's West Village, you can sip $3 hot chocolate or nosh on the mudslide cookies at $2.50 each while watching chefs turn cocoa beans into chocolate bars. The energy at Jacques Torres is great for kids. But the noise of the café can be a turnoff if you're looking for a quiet place to read.
Moonstruck plays up its Pacific northwest roots with a relaxed setting that encourages patrons to sit for a while and get comfortable. "Each café takes on the personality of its neighborhood," says Chief Operational Officer Delman Fuhrman. The café at the University of Illinois campus is open late, while a suburban Portland (Ore.) space draws families. It also has one of the most extensive drink menus, far outshining its truffle selection. The Peppermint Patty, a rich hot cocoa with steamed milk and mint, is the perfect partner for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Ice cream shakes like the Brown Cow, made with root beer, are reminiscent of old-fashioned soda shops.
Made from Belgian chocolate melted on site, the hot confections at Leonidas ($2.65 to $4.80) get high marks. At the Pasadena store, the best sellers are the Raspberry Rhapsody (hot cocoa with a shot of raspberry flavor) and the Mexican Cocoa (a blend of almond, cinnamon, vanilla, and chocolate). They may not have the same jolt as a Starbucks drink. But as far as the experience, a choco lounge is a tasty alternative.
By Adrienne Carter, with Lauren Young and Susann Rutledge in New York, Larry Armstrong in Pasadena, Calif., and bureau reports