Sweet City: Best Bakeries
A hazelnut gâteau, Chantilly cream puffs — or even straightforward from-scratch brownies — can intimidate the most accomplished home cook. But the region’s ever-expanding assortment of dessert-rich bakeries means the end of toiling over soggy apple tarts or falling soufflés. Head to one of these 20 top spots for a just-filled cannoli, a pumpkin charlotte or a decadent sticky bun. Sure, there’s still the effort of picking up the goods. But until Le Bec-Fin’s dessert cart starts home delivery, we’ll happily take what we can takeout.
* Center City
Reading Terminal Market,
12th and Arch streets; 215-351-0735
Wednesday through Saturday, a warm, better-than-Cinnabon cloud of baking goodness emanates from Beiler’s, enveloping the northwest corner of Reading Terminal. It defies passersby not to stop to watch white-bonneted workers pound out dough and extract steaming, golden-brown cinnamon rolls from the silver oven. Resistance, of course, is futile when faced with dozens of those soft, buttery, raisin-, pecan- or plain-topped sticky buns.
Sweet tip: Shell out an extra buck for a whoopee pie, a round and feather-light dark chocolate sandwich stuffed with marshmallow fluff.
Known first and foremost for its artisanal breads, Wendy Born and James Barrett’s 12-year-old project nonetheless cranks out a mean fig bar, millet muffin, lemon pound cake and chocolate chip cookie. This is quite a feat, considering Metropolitan is the region’s longest running artisanal bread bakery, with several locations in Center City and outposts in Chestnut Hill, Ardmore and West Philly. We keep coming back for pound bags of crunchy granola, chocolate truffle tarts, iced cinnamon danish, and Normandy apple bread—and the Shelburne Farms cheddar to go with it.
Sweet tip: This year, try Metropolitan’s version of Italian fruitcake, a brioche-style dough dappled with bits of candied citrus and chocolate and dusted in powdered sugar.
Petit 4 Pastry Studio
160 North 3rd Street; 215-627-8440
Why this Old City bakery doesn’t have a line out the door on Friday nights—the way bars down the street do—is inexplicable. After all, Joe Moorehead’s artsy-chic shop is the consummate date spot or place to catch up with friends over shared slices of apple pie topped with crème anglaise, hazelnut almond torte layered with raspberry jam and chocolate buttercream, buttery-tart linzer tortes, or banana chocolate chip cookies. In the five years since Moorehead hung his vintage surfboard at this address, Petit 4 has changed little. The shop still makes a mean snickerdoodle—and continues to build amazingly sculptural cakes.
Sweet tip: In winter months, Petit 4 mixes up ganache-based hot chocolate and tops it with fresh whipped cream.
Tartes Fine Cakes & Pastries
212 Arch Street; 215-625-2510
One of Old City’s few remaining secrets is this petite, pale pink bakery across the street from the Betsy Ross house, open Tuesday to Saturday. In the late afternoon, patrons drift up to the service window for cookies (oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sugar, and our favorite, fresh ginger with chocolate chunks), bars (lemon, chocolate toffee) and, of course, light-crusted four-inch tarts. The repertoire of self-taught baker Teresa Wall includes heirloom apple, cranberry-walnut, pear and cranberry with ginger/brown butter custard, and sweet potato/pecan.
Sweet tip: After-hours cravings for Wall’s famous chocolate espresso
tarts can be satisfied at Monk’s in Center City.
* Philly Neighborhoods
Brown Betty Dessert Boutique
Liberties Walk, 1030 North 2nd Street, #601, 215-629-0999;
Repeat after us: Pineapple cupcakes. Coconut cream pound cake. Double-chocolate peanut butter cookies. Liberties Walk. Never heard of this last one? It’s the quietly emerging retail center just north of the Standard Tap on 2nd Street—a groovy pedestrian strip mall, if you will. The walk is home to this non-stuffy parlor of a pastry shop, a place to sit on an antique sofa and nibble at the first three items, old-fashioned treats made from the recipes of Elizabeth “Betty” Hinton, whose daughter and granddaughter run the place. Pop in after noon to pick up a snack—but call ahead if you require a freshly baked apple brown betty.
Sweet tip: Think Magnolia’s cornered the cupcake market? Order a dozen of Betty’s buttermilk pound-cake variety with chocolate buttercream, and get back to us.
184 East Evergreen Avenue,
Chestnut Hill; 215-247-6887
Tucked away in the heart of the Hill, this rustically hip spot offers rough-cut plank tables, unframed art, and servers wearing funky glasses. Owner Grey Heck has a degree in pastry from Napa’s Culinary Institute of America. The result: Dense cupcakes frosted in buttercream flowers or injected with lemon curd, caramelized Granny Smith tarts, double-thick cream cheese brownies, plenty rich raisin scones, and downright orgasmic mocha-mousse-filled chocolate cake — wearing a crown of chocolate-covered coffee beans.
Sweet tip: The name’s Cake, but this place also does a bang-up job on sugar cutouts, chocolate rum balls, gingerbread people, and mini peanut butter, double chocolate, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and ginger cookies.
719 South 4th Street (at Fitzwater Street),
Baking is hard enough as is. Take away staple ingredients—white flour, butter, eggs, granulated sugar—and baking anything tastier than your basic granola bar seems downright impossible. Still, if anyone’s up to the challenge, it’s Laura Grove. A cheese-eating vegan who trained under Metropolitan’s James Barrett, she opened the back-room bakery in Queen Village’s natural foods market in 1991. Her greatest achievements: crispy toffee cookies, berry cobblers, organic fruit muffins, chocolate birthday cakes, earthy pumpkin pies, and something called a Mikerific—banana sponge cake topped with peanut butter and iced with dark, dairy-free ganache. Look out, Kandy Kake. The vegans are coming.
Sweet tip: Essene’s oat bars, thick rectangles filled with locally made organic jam, rule.
Famous 4th Street Deli
4th and Bainbridge streets; 215-922-3274
The éclairs in Famous’s gleaming pastry case are approximately the size of women’s bedroom slippers. In a size eight. Maybe 10. Custard-filled and chocolate-dipped, the choux sandwiches are delicate in taste but nearly oafish in appearance. Indeed, ever since Kibbitz entrepreneur Russ Cowan took over the place in April, Famous’s unofficial motto has been “Bigger is better.” Black-and-white cookies could double as frisbees. Cream-cheese-rich rugelach, filled with almond, apricot, raspberry or chocolate, are bites- (not bite-) size. Layer cakes—coconut-dusted lemon, mocha-frosted checkerboard—are not only impossibly moist, they’re also as thick as ceiling beams, and available by the “chunk,” or whole, if you dare.
Sweet tip: Yes, they still give out David Auspitz’s famous chocolate chip cookies after each meal. As if you had room.
7933 Frankford Avenue, 215-624-1091; holmesburgbakery.net
The senior citizen on this list—at an impressive 105 years—Holmesburg epitomizes what older folks call a “Philadelphia-style” bakery. Turns out our fair city is known for shallow, rectangular cheesecakes with rich pie crusts, tart-like coffee cakes topped with slices of fresh plums or peaches, feather-light Polish chrusciki, sweet and yeasty cheese-filled babkas, crumb-topped Melrose danishes, and cream-filled doughnuts. In other words, Philly—via Holmesburg’s treats—represents a diverse group of immigrants that settled here more than a century ago.
Sweet tip: December’s the time for springerle, German anise-seed cookies stamped with images of birds, houses and leaves.
1009 Christian Street, 215-923-3092;
Gus “Isgro” Sarno can go on forever about cannoli. The fried-and-filled pastry wrap is an obsession he inherited from maternal grandfather Mario Isgro, who founded this Italian Market business 101 years ago. Sarno will tell you each shell must be 1.5 millimeters thick, and that a special blend of homemade red and sweet white wines makes it blister. He can quote the exact moisture content of the cinnamon-kissed ricotta-chocolate chip filling (63 to 64 percent). Still, that doesn’t mean the shop neglects its other wares. The second-best-seller is cassata, Italian rum cake enrobed in pebbled almond candy. And during the winter holidays, a close third is the precious, pistachio-chocked, stick-to-your-molars torrone, sold by the rugged brick.
Sweet tip: Call ahead to order the grand cannoli—a tower of two dozen minis.
7725 Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill, 215-248-9235; 45 East State Street, Doylestown, 215-348-9775; nightkitchenbakery.com
Open for 23 years—with three different owners—this bottom-of-the-Hill spot still possesses its original folksy charms. Owner Amy Edelman and her baker husband, John Millard, stick to the first two owners’ recipes, and have made only a few small changes for the better—like substituting butter for margarine in the icing, making chocolate bread pudding from Friday’s leftover challah, decorating cakes with fondant cutouts in the shapes of barnyard animals, and opening a Doylestown location. It’s the standbys customers return for: thick shortbread cutout cookies in cocoa-y chocolate and chocolate chip, lovely scones, and tart lemon squares.
Sweet tip: Edelman asks for a week’s notice for special-order cakes. The mocha mousse and the lemon curd are birthday favorites.
1523 South 8th Street, 215-334-1816;
Even if it didn’t make the best sfogliatelle in town, we’d still come back to this iconic 82-year-old South Philly pasticerria—for the atmosphere alone. On line-out-the-door Saturdays, the white-uniformed counter clerks approach wits’ end, kids can’t keep their fingers out of the center buffet, and the person ahead of you in line inevitably can’t choose between ricotta and chocolate Italian cream cannoli. Still, the Termini experience never becomes annoying, because the weekend keyboardist and accordionist heartily thump out the theme from The Godfather, and the reward for your patience can be a box of dense, chewy pignoli.
Sweet tip: Kids getting out of hand? Send them into the kitchen to see how the torrone—a chewy pistachio nougat—is made.
* The Main Line
Aux Petits Delices
162 East Lancaster Avenue, Wayne,
This black-and-pink-awninged jewel-box shop is to French pastry what Cartier is to cocktail rings. Welcome to the terroir of reigning Main Line patissier Patrick Gauthron, where gold-leaf swirls embellish ganache lids of opera cake, red raspberries glisten atop custard-swaddled tarte barques, and dark-and-white-chocolate-striped spirals bedeck crunchy-creamy hazelnut and chocolate mousse delices. Occasions are celebrated to the utmost: There are three-foot-tall, $125 chocolate bunnies at Easter; rich meringue-mushroom-topped bûches de Noël at Christmas, truffles packed into pretty navy and gold boxes for Valentine’s, and, for lazy, luxurious mornings, flaky and delightful pure butter croissants.
Sweet tip: Break this New Year’s resolution the way the French do: Order a king’s cake (almond cream-filled choux) for Epiphany.
The Carrot Cake Man at D’Innocenzo Pastries
Lancaster County Farmers Market,
389 West Lancaster Avenue, Wayne;
Wearing his signature bow tie and straw hat, Vernon “The Carrot Cake Man” Wilkins offers his signature item—in a choice of flavors—from a corner of D’Innocenzo’s conglomerate-style bakery. In the past decade, he’s become a Main Line fixture, offering up toothpick-speared cubes of his crunchy-crusted, carrot-threaded wares to compliant farmers’-market shoppers every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. With just a hint of nutmeg and a side of cream cheese frosting, these one-slice-is-not-enough sweet breads come in coconut, walnut, pineapple, pistachio and banana, but the most popular flavor is peach. Wilkins’s own favorite: apple.
Le Petit Mitron
207 Haverford Avenue, Narberth;
This über-traditional patisserie is just the sort of reason people move to Paris … or Narberth. Patrick and Isabelle Rurange—the husband-and-wife team formerly known as “that French couple that makes the croissants for La Colombe”—have spent the past four years helping to transform their township’s workaday image, one royal cake at time. Today, regular customers include morning R5 riders who stop by for a cup of joe and a pain au chocolate—and area families for whom Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without Le Petit Mitron’s pumpkin charlotte, and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the Saint Honoré (a decadent cake built of caramel-coated cream puffs).
Sweet tip: On weekends, the Ruranges run specials, delicious experiments that might involve dark chocolate mousse, fruit-flavored chiboust, or delicate tufts of crème chantilly.
15 Bridge Avenue, Berwyn, 610-644-1868; sweetjazmines.com
There is no such thing as a plain cheesecake at Kimberly Davis Cuthbert’s adorably green-and-violet bakery. There is heady amaretto cheesecake. There is sweet-tart lemon blueberry cheesecake. There are apple-cinnamon, raspberry mango, pumpkin spice, and cappuccino/white chocolate cheesecakes (45 kinds in all). But sorry, the closest this shop comes to plain is vanilla—and vanilla usually involves a cherry center and dark chocolate shavings. No plain, only fancy, which is fine with Sweet Jazmine’s devoted customers—Renee Chenault-Fattah and Chaka Fattah and Senator Vincent Hughes and Sheryl Lee Ralph ordered their wedding cakes here.
Sweet tip: For an almost-homemade dessert, pick up a jar of Cuthbert’s dark butterscotch sauce, which comes with the world’s easiest recipe for bananas Foster. (Just add bananas.)
26 East Afton Avenue, Yardley;
Cramer’s is not the place to go for a complicated French framboisier. It’s a place where you stock up on powdered-sugar-dusted walnut crescent cookies. Or zucchini bread. Or Polish poppy seed rolls, plain-dealing pound cake, jam-filled cream cheese cookies, holiday butter cookies—and maybe a cinnamon doughnut. Founded in 1946, this all-American bakeshop isn’t above using a little shortening and a splash of food coloring. Nor, thank goodness, is the staff above coming to the rescue when you dash in just before closing, all out of breath, and beg for a Superman cake inscribed with “Happy Birthday Max.”
Sweet tip: Believe it or not, Cramer’s pumpkin-spice chocolate chip cookies outsell the classic Toll Houses.
Zakes Cakes and Cafe
444 Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, 215-654-7600; zakescafe.com
Enter this pretty, side-of-the-road stone Victorian house on a Friday afternoon around 1:30, and count how many times you hear the phrase, “Dessert? Oh, I shouldn’t. … ” Zakes is the consummate ladies-who-lunch spot, with rooms painted the color of raspberry chai, and grilled chicken and chèvre salads that may be tasty, but really are only a prelude to plated-up cream puffs with fresh blackberries, deep-dish apple pie, and a bevy of mild cakes that inspire requests for extra forks. The place is popular from breakfast (think lemon-raspberry, orange-pecan and cranberry-pear muffins) through light dinner—by which time they may, unfortunately, be out of éclairs.
Sweet tip: For Passover, Zakes bakes chocolate soufflés, raspberry shortcakes and black-and-white gâteaux.
* New Jersey
15 Haddon Avenue, Westmont;
Since 1939, this South Jersey bakery has been turning out the ultimate in comfort fare: crispy cake doughnuts whose centers have been cut open to make room for copious clouds of extra-sweet, extra-secret-recipe white cream filling. Or go for the cake-like cream cheese and fruit muffins, raisin “tea biscuit” scones, thickly iced cupcakes, and 60 varieties of cookies: classic chocolate-dipped brown derbies, nut-and-chip-chocked Hollywood Hills, and lumpy, confectioner’s-sugar-dusted Cape Mays that are thick with raisins, whole walnuts and dried apricots.
Sweet tip: The McMillan family promises its fruitcake defies stereotypes—and offers free samples to all doubters.
Village Walk, 1990 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill, 856-424-MIEL, and 204 South 17th Street, 215-731-9191; mielpatiserrie.com
Named after the French word for honey, three-year-old Miel Patisserie has two, dichotomous homes: Miel Cherry Hill is strip-mall convenient. Miel Center City is marble and mahogany. Jersey is where the goods are made: five-star crumb cake, chocolate mousse, a classic French gâteau, and 16 varieties of chocolates (including fleur de sel and Szechuan pepper). The man behind it all is Rocco Lugrine, who hails from the pastry kitchens of San Fran’s Panorama and our very own Brasserie Perrier, and who now bakes birthday cakes for M. Night and casts (even when Joaquin Phoenix requires a vegan creation).
Sweet tip: Gotta impress on the run? Pick up a Miel gâteau, an impressively complicated layering of chocolate mousse, vanilla Bavarian cream, chocolate génoise and rich ganache.