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Why are there so few good bakeries

It's nearly 20 years since Marvelous Market opened. In the early 90s there was a burst of bakery activity, but it appears to have died. Marvelous isn't so marvelous anymore. Firehook isn't so hot. Uptown sort of disappeared. Philadelphia has the wonderful Metropolitan Bakery. Where are ours? The Swiss Bakery is so so. Le Pain Quoditien often burns their bread. Heidelburg is fine. Atwater is really good, but they only sell in DC on the weekends. Why don't we rate some good bakeries?

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  1. Our local favorite is Cenan's ("ch-nons") in Vienna.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Meg

      What do you recommend from Cenan's? The bread looks great but I haven't tried any. I have tried the croisssants (good buttery flavor but dry, like they were day old), eclairs (on the hard side, again but eclairs are hard to keep with since they need to be refrigerated and it ruins the shell) and a key lime cake that was pretty good but it didn't wow me. It was sponge cake w/ key lime syrup and mousse. I admit I'm really picky when it comes to baked goods. I love supporting small local stores like this so if I could find their strengths, I'd frequent it.

      1. re: chowser

        Cenan's farmer's bread is great for sandwiches, particularly The World's Greatest Sandwich (from "Spanglish"). They yoosta have a chocolate bread on occasion that was barely sweet and but I haven't seen it there in some time.

        1. re: Potomac Bob

          I'll give it a try, thanks! Do you get the sandwiches there? They also sound good but I haven't been there at meal time.

          1. re: Potomac Bob

            I went back today to try out the bread and also have lunch. I had the basic smoked turkey on a baguette which I really enjoyed. The baguette had good flavor, a nice crust, still crispy. The smoked turkey was, well, smoked turkey. But it's made to order and far better than the turkey on baguette I got from Pastry XPO. I also got a ham and cheese croissant for my daughter--again the flavor was good but still a bit dry, maybe it was overcooked. For dinner, I picked up a small loaf of farmers bread and a baguette. The farmers bread was nice and hearty and made good paninis. It would be perfect for the Worlds Greatest Sandwich (which I've never had but sounds amazing). The baguette was disappointing, especially compared to the one I had for lunch. It could be that it was hours later but the crust was chewy, no crispness and it was pretty tasteless. It didn't taste any better than ones from Giant. So, I'd go to Cenan's more for the bread end than the pastries but still be picky because, as with places with a large variety, it's hit or miss on what they do well.

      2. Breads Unlimited in Bethesda is another good local place. They make fairly good rye breads, and their danish are the best I've had in the area. I also happen to prefer their bagels to any of the bagel-only places around.

        Breads Unlimited & Heidelberg made good products which they sell at fair prices. Both seem to have loyal followings and are located in areas where people will spend the extra money compared to supermarket prices and products.

        Does anyone remember Bakers Place? I liked their breads. They were bought out by Marvelous Market which then gradually got rid of the Bakers Place breads. One guy at Marvelous Market told me they got rid of them "because they weren't traditional European breads." Who cares? They were delicious.

        People like bakeries. The lack of bakeries is one reason I can think of that a place with lousy products such as Cakelove is able to survive. They seem to be located where there aren't many alternatives.

        3 Replies
        1. re: potrzebie

          Perhaps it is the local taste buds that allow Cakelove to survive, not to mention Whole Foods lousy bread. Maybe there are just too few of us panaholics.

          1. re: ChewFun

            I really don't think your comments are helpful. Why is it you feel the need to attack locals? What is so great about being a panaholic? If you look at comments on this board, people are not fond of Cakelove. This area has much to offer, why don't you try to enjoy what the area offers.

            1. re: Martha

              I agree with the premise that we should insist on better bakeries. It might be more helpful to figure out what exactly we are lacking. In Miami, for example there are so many Cuban and South American bakeries that have excellent products: Cuban pasteles kept warm buttery, and gooey, (there is no equivalent here), Venezuelan tequenos (cheese sticks wrapped in pastry) , Colombina arepas.

              Or how about bureka? Simit and Kabob in Fairfax used to have some stuff that was ok, but they've cut back their offerings and now the boureks are just plain scrawny if they have them at all. It wouldn't kill us to have good Armenian lahmajeune, either.

              I suppose I could go on..... but I am not a bakery nut, just someone whe is dissapointed with what we have in the DC area.

              There are a couple of goodies to be had: logenbrotchen (pretzel rolls) at Hiedelburg, and of course the Ciabatta at Breadline. Specific items at isolated places.

              But I wish there was more and better.

        2. I believe if you were to look at many major metro areas, there would be a lack of quality bakeries. Rents are high, people are much more health conscious and in a hurry. How many people are going to make a second trip to a bakery? I was lucky enough to live near the original Marvelous Market when it opened, so I could easily walk to it. Their olive bread was to die for IMO. I was also in my 20s and didn't have children. Then I lived near the Reston Marvelous Market, and could go to that easily with my first child. Now I have two children, shop at Whole Foods, and buy my baquettes, sour dough bread, and olive bread there. We like the bread, and I'm not sure any difference in taste would warrant an extra trip. But I do miss having a good local bakery as we had when I was growing up, but those simple days are gone. When I go to Europe, I also wish we had good local bakeries as they have. Alas.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Martha

            "Rents are high"

            You nailed it with those three words. Any time you're scratching your head wondering why a good business failed, it's usually rent that kills it. Seems many landlords would rather hold a property vacant, than give an inch on the rent.

            Rant on rents over.

          2. There are some excellent ethnic bakeries in and around DC. I tried some small baguette-style rolls made in a Latino bakery downtown and sold in the local bodega. Excellent toasted, with a good bready-flavor. There's also a Middle Eastern bakery in Woodbridge I believe that sells a long lavash-style bread. Shoppers used to carry it but dropped it. Then I found it at the local halal store. Great for pizza, wraps, or just drizzle a little olive oil and herbs and bake for 10 minutes.

            1. Several reasons but mostly profit margin. Let's look at the market: many people in this country simply do not know what good bread is, and will settle for the supermarket "baguettes" that are wrapped in fancy paper bags but are really just white bread inside. So there's little incentive for wide-scale baking in the Parisian tradition because the larger public doesn't demand it.

              Running a bakery along european tradition is expensive and carries a very small profit margin. In France, there's a wide social safety net, so low-margin businesses are able survive. I think the reason Marvelous Market and Firehook started out good but then slipped was that they became popular, but had to make compromises in the form of automation to keep up with new demand.

              You can good bakeries in cities, but in the burbs, consumers are used to getting everything they need in grocery stores. So that's even less business for the small bakeries.

              Bread and pastries are a very central part to French and Italian food traditions (like rice in Asia, if you ask me), which is why you see boulanger patisseries on nearly every block in residential neighborhoods. Here, too many americans are fine with Wonder Bread.

              That being said, Marvelous Market is still my favorite baguette (parisian -- not the sour dough). What they call the "Striatta" is nice too. I don't care if it's not the "best" in the city ... it's within walking distance to where I live, and not having to go far for something as fundamental as good bread makes it taste even better.

              18 Replies
              1. re: MartinDC

                "Several reasons but mostly profit margin"

                Is that because of the rising cost of flour?

                Or the lack of demand, expensive rents, and labor issues?

                1. re: WestIndianArchie

                  I forgot to mention the rising cost of wheat. But they are all reasons.

                  But it always comes down to demand. If enough people patronized good local bakeries, then there would be good local bakeries.

                2. re: MartinDC

                  I think you are probably right. It's a combination of taste and economics. I do like Marvelous Market's baguette. Also, why do most artisanal bakeries opt for French and Italian models and not German/Austrian? Perhaps it is because France and Italy are synonymous with good food in the American mind and Germany/Austria are not. However, Germany/Austria may have a more rich bread tradition than France and Italy.

                  1. re: ChewFun

                    heidelberg is german/austrian model....

                    i thought firehook's baguettes used to be outstanding. i'd get one at arrowine for my cheese. it always sold out fast. haven't been there lately, though...

                  2. re: MartinDC

                    Unfortunately, even France is suffering from mass-produced, awful baguettes. The more we're in a hurry, quality often is the first to suffer. When I was last in France, I had to worst baguette I've ever tasted. Fortunately, we were staying in St. Remy de Provence and the bakery there (Le Petite Duc) had wonderful baquettes, baked goods, and the best hot chocolate.

                    1. re: MartinDC

                      What you've said seems to make sense but there are some great bakeries in SF and NYC, also high cost areas. Maybe it's the market more than the cost/price of bread. I agree w/ others that people are happy w/ grocery store bread and can't tell the difference.

                      1. re: chowser

                        I was going to write something similar. I agree in NYC--despite high rents--there are many bakeries around. In the DC 'burbs (VA) I've seen some people try to set up independent bakeries, but sadly, they fail--even the good ones. I think that around here people only want to buy their baked goods from the supermarkets, which is too bad. If there were more decent bakeries in the area, I would make the extra trip. There's one bakery in old town Herndon that makes good breads--Harvest (I think that's the name? I know where it is but am blanking on the name.). I go there every now and then but often parking in the area during the day can be an issue.

                        1. re: MizYellowRose

                          The bakery in Herndon is Great Harvest. The Great Harvest in Vienna does not bake its own breads - they come from the store in Herndon.

                          1. re: Potomac Bob

                            Thanks for the info! In fact, I'm planning to stop by Great Harvest in Herndon tomorrow.

                            1. re: MizYellowRose

                              My brother and his wife live in Reston, and I stopped in Herndon to get Great Harvest bread for them when I went over for dinner one evening. I was very disappointed. It was all bread baked by the direct method--though some loaves had some interesting grain combinations. You need time to let the enzymes bring out the flavor in a loaf. The experience made me wonder whether people around here have been exposed to good bread. In the past, the only wheat raised in the area was soft wheat. As far as I can gather, breads in the Tidewater area were either based on maize or were quick breads like biscuits. A baker can made world-class bread, but if people won't buy it, he or she will not succeed. That's why I welcome things like the Bittman-Lahey Loaf and the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I think they raise awareness about what a baker can really do. Still, I recall one day in Wisconsin, where I had baked weekly for our monastery, the cook put out a supermarket "Italian" loaf. One of the friars enthusiastically asked if I had baked it. I was amazed that he couldn't tell the difference. If you were raised on the sandwich loaves of the post war era, you may not so easily recognize an honest loaf of bread.

                              1. re: Father Kitchen

                                I agree that people aren't exposed to enough good bread to tell the difference. For a while, I'd bring home made bread to my in-laws--from bread that took a couple of days to make to no knead to a fairly quick focaccia and everyone thought I picked them up from Safeway. I don't bother any more for them because it was far too much time (there are 30 of them when we get together) when no one appreciated the difference. Don't get me started on home made pasta...

                                1. re: chowser

                                  The irony is that in Bodega Bay, of all places, Alan Scott has been baking three days a week and selling just one kind of loaf, mainly to local restaurants--his desem loaf. So if you learn the taste of bread, you keep coming back. I admit, though, that in 1967 when I went to the seminary in Rome, I didn't appreciate the bread at first. Fortunately, we had a very good artisan bakery, and it wasn't long before I looked forward to it.

                                2. re: Father Kitchen

                                  You know, 'not recognize' and 'not appreciate' might not be the right way to put it. A lot of people actually DISLIKE what the people in this thread would consider real bread. I love the bread from Bonaparte bakery at Savage Mill. One time I was eating in their cafe and watched a couple who'd ordered sandwiches - who'd obviously had no idea what they were going to get. They were clearly appalled. I heard them complain about how hard the bread was to chew. They really seem to have never seen anything like it. They left most of their lunch on their plates.

                                  And really, you have to feel sorry for them. I mean, if you put it in the context of expecting supermarket bread, you can see why it might be a kind of inexplicable and nasty experience. And it's
                                  certainly not that they couldn't tell the difference - they sure could, and they were NOT happy.

                                  This is why the rest of us can't get artisan bread on every streetcorner. We are a specialty market. Not everyone wants what we want. That couple was exposed to what I would call good bread right there and then, but it did not make them want to buy it. You know, for all we know, in the old days, there were people who would have much rather had Wonder Bread, if only it had been invented. So nowadays, maybe not everyone would like 'real' bread no matter how much exposure they had to it.

                          2. re: chowser

                            Understood, but it's a regional think I imagine. NYC and SF are similar in that small neighborhood markets flourish there. There is a tradition of buying food in specialty shops and not stocking up so much on more than a few days worth of food. DC in comparison has lost nearly all of its specialty shops. Which is odd because of its particularly high international population.

                            1. re: MartinDC

                              The culprit is the 1958 DC zoning law. Small shops interspersed in residential neighborhoods were zoned out. The ones that existed were allowed to continue but when they closed, the space couldn't be converted to other uses. If it was a dry cleaners, you couldn't open a grocery. If it was a grocery, no bakery. The existing use was "grandfathered." If the storefront was left vacant for a designated period of time, the right to any commercial use lapsed.
                              Rules were passed about sales of any alcohol near schools and churches plus giving neighborhoods the right to contest licenses - although that is as it should be.
                              That's why DC doesn't have corner markets and other conveniences like NY, Boston, SF, Paris, and "real" cities.
                              Even the process for setting up a farmers' market is a nightmare of regulatory redtape at DC's Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs.

                          3. re: MartinDC

                            The Parisian boulangeries aren't even baking in the Parisian tradition anymore. Do an internet search and you'll discover the growing trend for local French boulangeries to buy dough from huge commercial bakeries and simply bake on premises. This is from a country which, as you say, puts bread at the center of its food traditions.

                            I'm surprised as posters moan about the lack of good bread in the DC area, someone isn't mentioning the good bread that is available at Farm Markets. I know I've gotten excellent bread at the Montgomery County Farm Women's Market, although I don't go there often enough to supply the stall name.

                            1. re: Indy 67

                              The problem with the Farmer's Markets, is that they aren't really that convenient. And were I to buy a baguette from a Farmer's Market on Sunday, it's not like I can save it for a meal on Wednesday.