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Sep 5, 2006 08:37 PM

Quality SF breads

[The Chowhound Team split this bread discussion from its original location in a post titled "2nd Best Restaurant in Berkeley" located here:
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DH laments the quality of West Coast bread? This is deeply, bewilderingly mysterious to me. I grew up in Berkeley--born in the same year the Cheeseboard collective opened, raised on its baguettes and on Acme Levain--and I went to college in New York state in the 1980s. I've been back to NY (city) many times since. The notion that NY city had better bread than Berkeley, in decades past ... I don't know. Really? I guess I'm begging an explanation. Perhaps this is like the bagel question? More about a native NYer's love of a certain regional character in their bread, less about actual quality? Because to genuinely make an argument in favor of New York loaves over Berkeley ... especially in the 1980s and early 90s ... ((I mean, this is the same NY city that actually benefited from the arrival of Starbucks, right?)

Help me out. Educate me. Does somebody really feel that there were NYC bakeries beating the Cheeseboard and Acme in decades past?

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  1. And if so, which ones?

    Not that I put the Cheese Board's hippy-dippy loaves in the same league with Acme's.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      not even the sour baguettes? I'm with you on the other stuff.

      also, what's your take on the Tartine country loaf?

      1. re: Daniel Duane

        Tartine and Della Fattoria are the only two bakeries I know of in the area that I consider to be making bread on more or less the same level as Acme.

        I hope that Tartine's expansion means they can bring back the wider variety they used to make at Bay Village.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Acme's bread pales in comparison to Tartine's.

          Did you say Tartine is expanding? I had not heard? What's the scoop?

    2. Don't you know, everything is better in NY, especially when a ex-pat NY'er living on the West Coast is explaning it. :)

        1. I think it's more of a style thing than a quality thing.

          Some people don't like sourdough and/or the "Bay Area" style of bread (I guess you could call it another tentacle of Chez Panisse influence, since Chez Panisse spawned Acme, and Acme influenced everyone else). I know NYers who bemoan the lack of good rye bread (although I'm not sure exactly what it is they find lacking in local rye breads).

          In the East Bay, you might want to try Feel Good Bakery in Alameda for bread that's a bit more French-influenced (the baker trained in Paris).

          20 Replies
          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Lots of geographic factors impact bread flavor from the composition of the water to the bacteria in the air. NYers are seeking a bread that simply cannot be replicated here, regardless of technique. Same goes for bagels and pizza.

            1. re: Morton the Mousse

              But as I said, something not being what one is looking for is a style thing, not a quality thing (the bread that is, not the bagels and pizza). The original poster said her DH bemoaned the QUALITY of Bay Area bread, and from everything I've heard, that's a ridiculous complaint.

            2. re: Ruth Lafler

              Good rye bread is lacking. We've found three or four over the years but they all went out of business.

              Pure Grain German Bakery in Vacaville is good but I have yet to find a local retail outlet.


              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Agreed: I feel that ACME and Feel Good make the closest baguettes I've had to French baguettes, and I lived in Paris for a year and gorged on Eric Kayser bread.

                I went to Tartine today but they were out of their country loaves. It's been awhile since I've had them, but I thought they were excellent and held up well even after a few days.

                Bouchon doesn't even come close in terms of flavor.

                I don't consider Cheeseboard sourdough baguettes as real baguettes, but that doesn't mean they aren't good- they're just a different kind of bread.

                I was in New York in July and didn't find good bread, not even at the Le Pain Quotidien stores (which are popular in Paris). The Bouchon out there also seemed to sell only pastries, not bread.

                1. re: chezchristine

                  That's one of the downsides of Keller opening his own bakery. The bread served at the French Laundry used to be Della Fattoria, which is a great bread baker.

                  1. re: chezchristine

                    Yep. ACME baguette's are excellent. They're even better if you pop them in to the oven for 30-60 seconds to crisp up the outside. It comes really really really close baguettes in France when you do that (texture-wise, taste-wise, there's still a noticable difference as ACME has a distinctive taste).

                    As for breads in NYC. I think Tartine's bread is every bit as good as Balthazar's and Pastis'. I like Tartine's better because it's softer on the inside but if someone likes their bread a little chewier and denser, it may be exactly why someone else likes the Balthazar version better.

                    As for bagels and pizza crust though, I agree with Morton the Mousse that be it the water composition, humidity, bacteria/yeast in the air,'s hard to replicate/beat NYC bagels and pizza crust.

                    1. re: chezchristine

                      Feel Good is a pretty good bakery, but not up there with Acme.

                      Bakers of Paris (not as widely distributed as they once were) comes the closest in these parts to your average everyday French baguette.

                      Acme's artisanal style is as rare in France as it is here. Personally I prefer the pain d'epis, same dough as the rustic sweet baguette but more crust per pound.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        How many of Feel Good's breads have you tried recently? They've continued to improve over the couple of years they've been open.

                        I think their French baguette is the closest to what you would get in France I've had: a little lighter, crisper and less chewy than Acme, which has been influenced by the local heavy-crusted chewy sourdough style. As I mentioned a thread a while back, I served the epi at a wine tasting and several people commented that they thought it was better than Acme. Feel Good's wholey moley (unseeded) is the best whole wheat bread I've ever had, and again, has gotten raves when I've served it to fellow chowhounds.

                        Don't get me wrong: I love Acme. I think from top to bottom their product line ranges from very good to superb. But I think Feel Good's best is right there with it.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I've had their sweet and sour baguettes, epi, and a couple of other loaves in the past two months. Re the baguettes, on a scale of 1 to 10 with Semifreddi being a 3, Acme rustic an 8, and Poujauran a 10, I'd give Feel Good a 6.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            replying to Robert Lauriston ....

                            I'm still not sure which baguette you had -- they don't make a baguette designated as "sweet" and "sour."

                            They also bake throughout the day -- the best baguette is always the one that's still warm from the oven <vbg>.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              They had two different plain baguettes that day, so I got one of each. One was sweet, one was sour. Dunno what they call them.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                I think Feel Good's walnut levain is the best around. I wont compare any other Feel Good loaf to Acme, but FG's walnut levain is superb. I hate to get in the middle of "this is the best" arguments, though. We all have different tastes. I'll try to get an Acme walnut levain and an FG walnut levain on the same day and then I can tell specifically why *I* think FG's is better.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  Well, I agree Molly -- I'm not saying Feel Good is the best, I'm just disagreeing with Robert's assertion that Feel Good shouldn't be considered in comparison with Acme.

                                  Feel Good actually makes three different baguettes: French, "rustic" and "triple levain."

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    I don't have an opinion about walnut and other flavored breads since I rarely buy them. Except that Phoenix Pastificio's olive bread is foodie crack.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      I hear you, Ruth.

                                      And, I'll still do a comparison, Robert. It gives me an excuse to eat lots of walnut bread.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        I like Acme's breads a lot, but I agree that their baguetes are denser and chewier than what one gets in Paris. The closest thing I've found to Parisian "baguette tradition" is the rustic baguette at La Farine. As for Acme, my favorite shape for the rustic sweet baguette dough is the ciabatta.

                                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I totally disagree that the Bakers of Paris baguettes are like those you find in France. I don't think there is anything comparable to what you find in France in either croissants or baguettes in this area.

                                        I have visited France over 20 times in the last 20 years so I do have experience. My partner is French and he has yet to find anything comparable.

                                        Instead of trying to replicate tastes I would enjoy abroad, I have found it more satisfying to approach Bay Area bread simply for what it is: its own thing, its own style, its own strengths.

                                        My personal favourite bread is Acme's Epi. My SO's favourite is their Levain. They are both very good.

                                        Needless I do sometimes miss the granary, crusty bloomers and split tins from my own home country (England). No one makes anything like those here.

                                        1. re: Sixy

                                          Bakers of Paris baguettes are the closest thing I've found around here to the flavor and texture of average, everyday French baguettes--not the best artisanal baguettes, but what you get at the supermarket or an average cafe. That's not a high compliment on the bread, just a comment on a different flavor and texture that nobody else around here even tries to create.

                                          Usually I'd prefer Acme, but BofP is nice for certain purposes, such as dunking in fondue.

                                          1. re: Sixy

                                            I guess I must have been lucky in that all the many Parisienne baguettes I have ever tasted were mostly exceptional then. Its true I have never bought them in a French supermarket though - so maybe that is what you are referring to as average.

                                            It is important to note that the French boulangerie - bakes twice a day - for your breakfast and for your evening meal which would give them the edge, especially for bread consumed in the evening.

                                            1. re: Sixy

                                              The Acme on San Pablo bakes *all* day.

                                              In one of Adam Gopnik's New Yorker pieces on Paris, he said he asked someone there where to find good bread, and he answered, "Berkeley." And in fact Acme's levain long ago surpassed its Poilane model.

                                      3. Even when it comes to rye bread, L.A. beats NYC. According to Mimi Sheraton (late food critic of the NYT) anyway.

                                        I've recently gotten back to really liking Acme's Upstairs Bread. A hint of rye, wheat and crusty and soft.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: oakjoan

                                          I agree completely about NY vs LA on rye bread. I go for a pastrami or corned beef sandwich at Fine & Shapiro or Katz's and think I'd rather have Acme NY Rye or a good LA corn rye than the vsey soft rye they put it on.

                                          I'm also a fan of Olivia. Though I haven't been to Oliveto in years.