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Best Barrista
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Best Café Ambiance--TIE

Cup Café
308 E. 10th St.

Cuppuccinos Coffee House
3400 E. Speedway Blvd.

READERS' PICK: Outside at the Cup Café may be the closest we get to a Left Bank, Parisian sidewalk café in Tucson. Smoke wafts up from patrons hunched over their third or fourth refill of the house blend, or the odd, tall glass of iced Raspberry Zinger. Couples of all persuasions (surely none of us need persuading) lean into deep conversations often cumulating in a kiss or a nuzzle. Overheard: "I don't know, but I just don't think you should do that to a chicken." Last night's band slinks out of the adjoining Hotel Congress into a bright morning light that reveals dyed hair surreally shiny. They slouch in for a bite before hitting the road for San Antonio or Austin. A waitress in a sexy lace slip and Dr. Marten's takes your order. Dogs pant happily next to their humans, shaded by the striped green awning and a shady mesquite. The metal café tables face the sidewalk, where the Parade of Contenders--regulars shuffling in for their first brew of the day; the inventively pierced, ultra-hip Hotel Congress staff; patrons ranging from nuclear families to human fall-out--traipses by. Inside, "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" drifts out from the kitchen. Local art includes a lamp shade made out of photographs by Robin Stoutenburg. Somebody's old paper is left for you to read on a long, padded-leather oak bench. A rotating case of pies, cakes and puddings sends out its siren's song. Here, under the rotating fan swirling from the high ceiling, sometimes it's 1956. Sometimes, when the Mad Max crowd comes in, it's 2026. Take your pick--the Cup serves up a blend of times and mental spaces.

In an ironic quasi-fratboy idiolect, one friend abbreviates this popular coffee house to "poochie's," but to our vast relief it doesn't seem to have caught on. Whatever you call it, Cuppuccinos Coffee House is about as laid back as a java joint can be: It's easy to start up a conversation here, and sooner or later everyone you know shows up anyway. There are always at least three novels being written here at any given time--longhand, of course. The coffee's great, too: The beans are from Wilde Rose, and the burbling espresso machines pound out a mean one every time. Drop in some evening when they're having live music, fiction or poetry readings. All told, it's a little outpost of The Real Tucson out there amongst the mini-mall sprawl; an embassy of humanity in the lands of endless retail.

Cuppuccinos sports punched-out ceilings with exposed ductwork (painted appropriately pomo black), a half-exposed (or maybe just "posed") brick wall, and a totally unnecessary steel beam that forms the unavoidable focal point of this inventively transformed strip-mall suite. Cuppuccinos presents an alternative to the slacker coffee scene closer to downtown, and caters to a refreshingly mixed clientele of midtown business owners, UA students, suburbanites and disaffected Tucson intelligentsia of all ages. They're also committed to exhibiting rotating shows by local artists, and hosting semi-frequent live music.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: We're not sure what lies ahead for the lovely Café Magritte (254 E. Congress St.), though rumors of a pending sale to another local restaurateur are circulating. A perennial favorite among the downtown crowd and those in the know, Magritte's has been serving incredibly savory food alongside the often visionary art abundantly displayed on its walls (and ceilings, and ahem, in the bathrooms). Au revoir to Magritte's co-founder, designer and downtown champion Camille Bonzani. Congress Street won't be quite the same without her warm smile and delightful café.

CLUE IN: Brimming with an alternative feel that wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco or Seattle, Epic Café (745 N. Fourth Ave.) does the coffee house thing just right, mixing well-blended coffees and teas with snacks and small meals, and an eclectic range of music on the CD player. That mix in turn draws an equally eclectic cross-section of hipsters, students and downtowners, who sit at the indoor and outdoor tables for hours on end, discussing existential philosophy, quaffing cappuccino, and scribbling in their notebooks. The ambiance is just right for a principled argument over some ultimately irresolvable issue--say, whether soccer is a real sport, or whether the Farrelly Brothers ought to be flogged for crimes against art--and that's just what a coffeehouse is all about.

Case History

1996 Winner: Café Magritte
1995 Winner: Milagro Fine Coffees

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