Drip. Espresso. Latte. Macchiato. To many, coffee is manna from heaven. Coffeehouses have become the new bars. No longer does the line, “Would you like to have a drink with me?” reign supreme. Instead, “Would you like to go out for coffee sometime?” has taken over, as first dates happen over mochas instead of Manhattans. This week, On the Menu hits up the best coffeehouses in the area, where the goal is not just get in the door, get coffee, and get out the door, but to come in and have an experience, along with a cup of java.

The Cat’s Meow

Located across the street from the Santa Barbara Courthouse, Coffee Cat is a charming cafe with a bright and cheery interior. Outside is sidewalk seating, perfect for working on that novel on a warm Sunday morning.

The cafe serves coffee, espresso drinks, smoothies and sodas, along with lunch sandwiches and crepes, owner Jason Womack said.

“The thing we do that other cafes don’t do is we make crepes every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” he said. “We have sweet and savory crepes.”

To make good coffee, they start with the best ingredients.

“All of our coffee is organic fair trade, roasted by a local roaster,” Womack said.

Coffee Cat offers free wireless, and a quick glance around the room proves that it is an important drawing point for many patrons.

The cafe has a few house specialties, including the honey hazelnut latte, the orange mocha and the Cappuccino Royale.

“We pride ourselves on our cappuccinos,” Womack said.

At his suggestion, I tried the Cappuccino Royale. It’s a double short capu, and it was creamy and smooth with excellent foam, but the coffee was a tad bitter for my taste. Even so, the Coffee Cat is a perfect place for working on that new short story – or the essay – while sipping a good ol’ cup of joe.

Second Star to the Right, and Straight on ‘Til Morning

The cozy, inviting atmosphere of Northstar Coffee is bested only by its amazing coffee. The large armchairs are arranged around the fireplace with small wood tables adding to the comforting feel of the coffeehouse. Yet, it’s not just a coffeehouse, it’s a center for mingling and conversation.

“This is not a conveyor belt, this is a living space,” business manager and UCSB alumnus Warren Richards said.

The baristas there are quite creative, and most have mastered the skill of creating designs in the foam, which they do when time allows, Richards said.

“[The foam designs are] the kind of attention to detail we try to give to our customers,” he said.

Not only serving coffee, Northstar has a bunch of tasty foods for customers to enjoy.

“We have a pretty extensive lunch menu – soups, salads, and in January we’re going to have gelato,” Richards said. “That’s our big thing for the new year.”

Its coffee menu is full of variety, with everything from hot espressos to iced and blended drinks.

“Our blended mint chip mocha tastes like melted ice cream,” Richards said. “It was my goal to have the best latte in town.”

I tried their latte, complete with a spiral foam design, which lived up to the high expectations. It was smooth and strong, bold but not at all bitter or burnt.

Northstar also serves up entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays. The cafe is a place for the community.

“We want to have [Northstar] be somewhere where people come to appreciate the arts and talk about politics, … movie discussions and book debates,” he said. “Rather than alcohol, … coffee stimulates the mental abilities.”

Drip It Good

Located 30 seconds from Embarcadero Hall, I.V. Drip is perfect for a quick morning mocha or a late-night latte.

“In the morning, we have specialty coffees, bagels with gourmet cream cheeses,” owner Tom Leu said.

Different items on their varied menu are more popular in different parts of the day, with smoothies in the afternoons and cookiewiches at night topping the list.

“[The smoothies are] all fresh fruit, from acai to mango and strawberry,” Leu said.

Leu recommended I.V. Drip’s cappuccinos, Ghirardelli white chocolate lattes and the caramel frappes. I had an iced raspberry latte at the recommendation of the barista. It was refreshing, with the sweetness of the raspberry perfectly complementing the natural bitterness of the coffee. Their drip coffee is always served fresh from the roaster and the pot.

“None of our coffee is more than a week out of the roaster,” he said. “And all of our drip coffee is only kept for two hours – we dump it out before it gets stale.”

I.V. Drip is also the only place in Isla Vista for certain confectionary goodies.

“We’re the only place that serves doughnuts; we have ice cream, banana splits, fresh-baked cookies,” Leu said.

Jonesin’ for Java

Long-time I.V. staple Java Jones is often frequented by both coffee connoisseurs and study groups. With two locations downtown and one in San Diego along with the one in I.V., Java Jones is well known as a place for not only a good cup of coffee, but also a good time.

The place is very relaxed, and the atmosphere is what really draws people in, manager Nicole Rillorta said.

The open windows blend the line between outdoors and in, and the funky assortment of couches offer a perfect place for a discussion or a study session.

“I come here because of the music, because the people here are not required to play crappy satellite radio elevator music. … People play really interesting stuff here,” said Andrew Jewett, a frequent patron of Java Jones.

Many people swear by their “Splendid Blendeds.” I tried their blended Snickers mocha, which was a perfect combination of chocolate, caramel and coffee. Their lattes are also top quality.

“We make very good foam, very good blended drinks and chaigasms – chai and espresso,” Rillorta said.

Whether you need a quiet place to study, wax philosophy with your beatnik friends or to have that serious conversation with your significant other about where your relationship is going, Santa Barbara has much to offer those desiring a comfortable atmosphere and the caffeinated splendor of coffee. Drink up!