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A Cup of Java : Coffee: It Gives People an Excuse to Gather, Sip and Reveal What They're Thinking


Coffee makes politicians wise (according to Alexander Pope), fills 400 million cups in the United States daily (according to the World Book encyclopedia) and was discovered more than 700 years ago by Ethiopian shepherds who noticed their flocks nibbling green shrubs and staying up all night (according to a legend we wonder about).

But the best thing about coffee may be that it gives people an excuse to gather, to sip and to disclose what they're thinking. And you never know what someone's thinking until you listen, especially in a place like Ventura County, where the population swells daily with new surfers, Seabees, Angelenos, agricultural workers, Oxnard youths and Simi Valley seniors.

And so, seeking the hidden truth about this place, Ventura County Life went out for coffee--a dozen cups of it, in sturdy mugs and fine china, by the ocean and the avenue. Through eavesdropping and inquiry, we met a sleeping snake and a crew-cut revolutionary, heard talk of camel-mounting and numerology. We pondered an insect collection, and the subtle circumstances said to produce a pink moment.

And we switched to decaf.

Live Lions and One Dead Deer

Cactus Patch Cafe

197 E. High St., Moorpark

The Scene: Amiable and countrified. On the wall behind the counter, the stuffed head of an eight-point buck. A rack of mugs belonging to George, Andy, Nina, Howard and someone who loves his or her spaniel. Also, some Western art, assorted firearms and hatchets, and a lariat dangling from the ceiling. On first and third Thursdays, Lions gather here--the dues-paying variety.

The Cup: White, of standard cafeteria stock, with a red leaf pattern running around the top. Liquid cream in a stainless steel cup on the counter--65 cents.

The Soundtrack: Music involving a fiddle on the sound system. Soft clinking, as a busboy strides down the aisle with seven coffee cups, empty, in one hand. And lots of chat, it being 9 a.m. on a weekday.

The Truth: None of the regular customers really loves his or her spaniel that much; somebody just left the mug behind one day.

Where Oil and Water Mix

The Cliff House Hotel

The Shoals Restaurant

6602 W. Pacific Coast Highway,

Mussel Shoals

The Scene: A 43-year-old family-run hotel and restaurant with a lap pool, half a dozen palm trees drooping over it, and a bizarre position near the Rincon shore between two oil platform bridges.

The Cup: In the morning, free to hotel guests and stealthful interlopers--but forbidden to others, since the restaurant is closed then--$1 with a dinner (which begins at $11.95) or just dessert ($4.25) from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The cups are plastic foam by morning, with cream in plastic thimbles. By night, china.

The Soundtrack: Waves crashing on rocks. Bird twitter. And Michele Porter, co-proprietor, saying, "Most of our guests are yuppie types from L.A. looking for peace and quiet. And finding it."

The Truth: The place looks downright dignified now, but through the early 1970s, Porter says, it was a bohemian apartment complex--lots of surfers and students from Santa Barbara's Brooks Institute of Photography, who for a while had their own darkroom on the premises. Notable detail: This is the westernmost cup of coffee in mainland Ventura County.

Coffee-Mate and a Snake

Little Manila Restaurant

3630 Saviers Road, Oxnard

The Scene: In the corner of a strip mall, between Tino's Pizza and the D-Mar Beauty & Barber Shop. Inside, duct tape on the red carpet, a pool table in the corner, and a reflecting ball above the central dance floor (this is Club Manila on Friday and Saturday nights). Also, a couple of aquariums and one terrarium (its scaled occupant was asleep), which may make Little Manila the only restaurant in the county offering snakeside dining. What kind of snake is it? "Ah, I don't know," says owner Sing Cunanan. "It's just here. . . " and he finishes the sentence under his breath.

The Cup: Shiny cafeteria white, with a green pattern on its side. It comes on a saucer, with a packet of powdered Coffee-Mate, for 50 cents. Prompt and solicitous service.

The Soundtrack: CNN on the big-screen television, the clinking of balls on the pool table. Among the four or five patrons on a Monday afternoon, lots of animated talk--and all of it in Tagalog or other Philippine dialects.

The Truth: Unascertainable, until we learn Tagalog.

The Numerologist's Tale

Le Petit Boulangerie

968 S. Westlake Blvd., Westlake Village

The Scene: A popular morning stop in a leafy, tile-topped upscale mall. Lots of red and white, and at 7:45 on a Friday morning, a steady procession of prosperous coffee consumers.

The Cup: A high-powered plastic foam cupful--75 cents. Cream on the self-service counter in plastic thimbles or an iced carafe.

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