Just steps from the beach on a lively stretch of Main Street stands the Santa Monica branch of Urth Caffé, housed in a beautiful Spanish-style building bedecked with colorful tilework and lush, vibrant greenery. This is just one of several outposts of the mini-chain that could easily be called a Los Angeles institution; its top-notch organic coffee and tea and consistently high-quality, health-conscious food offerings have made it a mainstay for over 15 years - and have put it on the map as one of L.A.'s best coffee shops.
Impressively, the restaurant's distinct aesthetic is consistent across each of its six locations; its trademark custom metal chairs, courtyards with charming tiled fountains, and shelves lined with gleaming tins of tea offer a familiar warmth that makes its regulars feel at home. No matter the location you choose, you're greeted by a massive glass case filled with gorgeous, meticulously decorated pastries and desserts, behind which hordes of hunter-green clad employees buzz around, grinding fragrant coffees and swiftly filling orders to keep the ever-present line moving. It feels overwhelming and comfortably familiar all at once, perhaps due in part to Urth's commitment to quality and consistency - each item on their lengthy menu is crafted with care and is easily customizable.
In 1989, dissatisfied with the destructive and chemical-laden coffee manufacturing process that was (and unfortunately still is) the standard, founders Jilla and Shallom Berkman set out to create the first exclusively organic, heirloom coffee company in the world. Just two years later, in 1991, they opened the very first Urth Caffé in Manhattan Beach. The operation grew slowly, and by the mid-2000's, the healthful meals and organic coffees served at Urth's locations across Los Angeles had formed a cult following. The restaurants also became a hotspot for celebrity sightings, and made regular appearances on HBO's Entourage. Today, the fervor still exists - tourists and locals alike flock to the six locations to sample quintessential healthy Southern California fare and to sip photo-worthy coffees and teas.
While Urth Caffé is now well known as a full-service restaurant, excellent coffee remains at the heart of the operation. It's probably safe to say that Shallom Berkman is coffee-obsessed; his stringent high standards ensure that the words "organic," "fair trade," and "sustainable" actually mean something when used in reference to Urth's coffee. Berkman establishes and maintains relationships with ethical coffee growers around the world, often educating them in best practices for growing organic coffee, then oversees the meticulous roasting process back at Urth's Downtown LA headquarters. Here, the coffee is roasted in small batches using cast iron roasters, giving the team the ability to fine tune each coffee's flavor on an individual level.
Just as Urth offers a variety of different types of coffee beans, the menu also features a wide array of serving styles - options are kind of their thing. It's actually fortunate that there's almost always a line out the door here, because having a few extra minutes to decide is a godsend when you realize just how overwhelming the menu of drinks can be. Not only are there about three times as many options for espresso drinks as any normal coffee shop, but you're also faced with the choice of how you want your espresso: Urth Italia (dark roast) or Urth Dolcé (light roast). Beyond espresso, you can sample traditionally brewed coffee, French press coffee, tea lattés, boba teas, juices, and smoothies. Customization options include at least seven different types of milk, ten natural flavorings, and additions of real whipped cream, boba pearls, or extra shots, and they'll even make anything unsweetened upon request. So yeah, those of us who have trouble making decisions should probably just avoid looking at the menu at all.
For the first time in the Great Cappuccino Project, I was faced with a quandary when ordering: Urth actually features two different cappuccinos on their menu. One is called simply "cappuccino," and the other is an "Italian cappuccino." Fortunately, I'm no stranger to Urth's Santa Monica location, and I've been able to stage repeat visits in order to sample both - in the name of science, of course.
The simply titled "cappuccino" recalls memories of the foam-explosion we experienced back at Funnel Mill: this is the 90's style, wall-of-foam type of cappuccino that you order before settling in for a Poetry Slam. It's unfortunately a bit of a let down if you don't know what you're getting into; after seeing countless Instagram photos of Urth's coffees featuring top-notch latte art, the tall mound of foam on top looks bland and a little sad. But once you take a sip, things start to look up. Under that big fluffy cloud lies Urth's trademark flavorful espresso - sharply bitter with a robust flavor profile that remains steady throughout your sip. It's a classic example of "don't judge a book by its cover," as long as you don't have an aversion to milk foam. And if that's the case, then you probably shouldn't be ordering a cappuccino anyway.
If you're looking for a more decorative, sexier cappuccino, the Italian variety is your best bet. With intricate design work etched into a modest layer of a thin, velvety micro-foam, this cappuccino more closely resembles the ones we've found at the hip, "third-wave" coffee shops in Los Angeles. The espresso is consistently robust and flavorful, and it combines with the milk to create a drink that is lusciously smooth. No ugly ducklings here; this drink is dressed to impress.
I could go on for days about what to try (and what to skip) at Urth Caffé, but if you live in L.A., you probably could, too. It is a mainstay for good reason - it's the perfect spot when you're looking to soak in some California sunshine and enjoy a reliably delicious and healthy meal alongside a well-crafted cup of coffee.
2327 Main St.
Santa Monica, CA 90405