CURT DOUGHTY

There is nothing I want more in the world, right now, than some goddamn hot chocolate. The only cure for the cranky, self-pitying attitude that slinks over me during the darkening winter months (when the city turns frigid and lonely before I even leave the office) is a good cup of hot chocolate. I need one. Badly.

I like hot chocolate because it's familiar, it's lowbrow. Walking home at pitch-black 6:00 p.m., with only the gradually freezing homeless men for company on the streets, my mind is racing, obsessed with memories of my parents stirring Nestlé Quik into warm milk on late childhood nights. Slipping into Trabant Chai Lounge (1309 NE 45th St, 675-0668), I grin while following someone's yuppie-slang Italian order with my simple, "Hot chocolate, please." Then I realize I've forgotten my wallet. "No worries," says Mike, the owner, who seems too young to be a respectable store-managing citizen (he's got a ponytail, for Chrissake) and who comps me a Mexican hot chocolate (8 oz, $2.50). It is a knockout. I learned months ago not to linger on the sofas in Trabant unless I'm hoping to get hit on by a poet/blogger who will insist I come to his open mic night, so I hunker down at the counter and swoon alone over each cinnamon-spiked sip.

El Diablo Coffee Company (1811 Queen Anne Ave N, 285-0693) has an equally fantastic Mexican hot chocolate (12 oz, $2.50), a sweet, grainy swirl of cinnamon, vanilla, and bitter chocolate, identical to Trabant's but without the poet-cluttered sofas. I wander in there one night and find that, surrounded by the store's campy orange! yellow! and red! Mexican murals, it's impossible to sit and mope dramatically under the rain clouds.

At Chocolati Cafe (1716 N 45th St, 633-7765), it's a different story—they have a loft where I can hole up and watch the rain. Downstairs, the barista ladles glorious melted chocolate from a steaming silver Crock-Pot into each customer's cup. Chocolati serves half a dozen kinds of hot chocolate, all of which are burdened with cute names. Skip past all the sissy raspberry or peppermint things at the top of the menu—they're as nauseatingly sweet as theme-park candy—and get yourself an eyelid-flutteringly good caramel Turtle (8 oz, $2.25) or Chocolate Europa (8 oz, $3.95). The pretentious name and price of the Europa are well earned; the drink tastes exactly like flourless chocolate cake, which, as we all know, is the most luscious creation of man since the pumpkin malt. After testing everything on the menu, I mix my leftover drinks together to make a hot-chocolate Suicide. Skip that, too. It's awful.

Rocky Rococoa, another melted-chocolate ladler, bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and hawks his home-brewed, thick European hot chocolate from under a white tent at the Fremont Sunday Market (N 34th St and Evanston Ave N, 781-6776). It's sleeting when I buy a cup ($2.50), which doesn't taste anything like chocolate. It mostly just tastes hot, with a vague creamy aftertaste. Which is fine, for a freezing Sunday morning.

Hands down, though, the most reliably delicious hot chocolate in Seattle is at B&O Espresso (204 Belmont Ave E, 322-5028, 12 oz, $2.50). It's creamy, tastes like real chocolate (not squeezed-from-a-bottle sludge), and comes with a giant spoonful of the type of thick, homemade whipped cream my grandma refers to as "shlog." B&O beats out famous chocolatier Dilettante (416 Broadway E, 329-6463) up the street, whose much-lauded Ephemere chocolate is somewhat disappointing in hot-chocolate form (8 oz, $2.25), a little too plain and bitter, and not served in the enviable dimly lit intimacy of the B&O.

These serious hot-chocolate shops are the exception, though, since most hot chocolate in Seattle is made with a couple squirts of either Hershey's milk or Ghirardelli dark. However, hot chocolate can be exquisite even if the taste is typical: For cocoa consumption, ambiance is just as key as flavor. I slog into Katy's Corner Cafe (2000 E Union St, 329-0121) on an early morning when the sky is oppressively gray. While the place serves up that plain, cheap Hershey's (8oz, $1.25), Katy herself is a friendly, shorthaired, cute thing who's always, always behind the counter. Katy's neighbors-turned-regulars wander up from residential streets for a cup of coffee and sit, as I do, lazily turning pages of glossy paperbacks and mulling over the possibility of playing Scrabble someday with someone on the store's communal board.

smirk@thestranger.com