A steaming caffe latte may be the coolest accessory of late, and not just in real life. Several sitcoms have bypassed bars or restaurants as the hangout of choice and moved the action to where the real buzz is: coffeehouses. On Frasier, Niles and Frasier fret over the chocolate shavings on their cappuccinos at Cafe Nervosa. The six pals on Friends spend so much time in the homey Central Perk cafe that you wonder why they bother to rent apartments. And this season, Ellen became the owner of the literary cafe called Buy the Book on Ellen. ''You've seen a lot of bars on TV,'' notes Ellen executive producer David Rosenthal, ''but we just felt you hadn't seen a lot of coffee shops at least not until last season.''
The producers of these series merely looked out their windows for inspiration. ''Our show is set in L.A., where there's been a tremendous proliferation of coffee shops,'' says Rosenthal. ''On my street, there are two Starbucks within 10 blocks of each other, and they're always packed.'' The creators of Friends also woke up and smelled the brewing trend. ''We wanted a place where the cast wouldn't have to fight the ambient elements: too much music, too much ruckus,'' says Friends executive producer Kevin Bright. ''Plus, we didn't want to give the impression that they were hanging out drinking [alcohol] all day.'' Neither did the Frasier crew. ''We certainly didn't want to do a bar, for obvious reasons,'' says David Angell, executive producer of the Cheers spin-off. Since Frasier is set in Seattle, opting for an espresso bar was almost inevitable.
But are the actors really drinking coffee? Some of the Friends buddies sip tea or water when the cameras are rolling. Others don't mind getting wired while they work although decaf comes in handy after 17 takes. Ellen's David Anthony Higgins, who plays the aptly named Joe (Buy the Book's coffee connoisseur), sometimes whips up cappuccinos on the set's working espresso machine for the cast between takes.
But even Joe might feel put out by two of television's most high- maintenance coffee consumers: Lois and Clark. Though the duo haven't patronized the new espresso bar in the lobby of the Daily Planet, they have visited a cappuccino cart. Lois' diet-conscious order: ''a short, nonfat mocha, decaf, no foam, no sugar, no whipped.'' For the Man of Steel: ''a grande latte, full cap, whole milk, three sugars.'' Why not go all the way, Supe, and get the chocolate shavings, too?