Bakeries are supposed to be a thing of the past. Grocery stores are one-stop shops these days with dozens of breads, pastries, cakes and candies, often made in-house. While some of those grocery store treats might be pretty good, it's much more fun to make a special trip for dessert.
Pittsburgh has an amazing number of stand-alone bakeries with an incredible variety of sweet and savory treats. In fact, the Steel City has so many bakeries that it's impossible to mention them all; instead, here are some of my favorites, including older spots that have stayed under the radar and newer establishments that have added something special to our options.
Follow the Pittsburgh sweet trail from neighborhood to neighborhood -- you'll be amazed by the hidden delights.
Better-Maid Donuts, West End
This doughnut shop came under new ownership in 2003 when brothers Al and Ken Smith bought the business, but it's kept its old charm. The cake-like doughnuts are old-school, too, some filled with cream, others topped with various glazes and lots of chocolate and colored jimmies. Plain doughnuts are light on the sugar and taste almost savory, which makes them a pleasant contrast to a sweet glaze. Don't miss the seasonal pumpkin doughnuts, slightly sweeter, with warm spices reminiscent of mulled cider. The shop opens at 6 a.m. daily, but closes as soon as they're sold out -- often as early as 9 a.m. Located a half mile past the West End business district, it's easy to spot; just look for the cluster of cars.
Food Glorious Food, Highland Park
Owners Brad Walter and Tom Hambor pack more than a week's worth of delights into this Saturday-only bakery. It seems impossible that just two people could turn out the incredible array of pies, cakes and desserts. Options range from the simple apple pie or pumpkin roll to the over-the-top marjolaine, a flourless hazelnut and almond cake layered with chocolate, praline and vanilla buttercreams and covered in a thin layer of ganache.
Some personal favorites include thick focaccia topped with artichoke hearts or whole black olives; feather-light biscuits, and, on the sweeter side, lacy, chewy oatmeal florentines. The bakery opens at 10 a.m.; go early for the best selection and prepare to wait in line.
During the rest of the week, the duo keeps busy with a catering business and cooking school. Check out the winter and spring class schedule on their website.
Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery, Millvale
Millvale already feels like a European village with rows of petite shops in the shadow of the gorgeous St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church perched on the hill, and stopping for a pastry or a piece of cake at this authentic French patisserie will certainly help cement that impression. Try a sweet brioche in the morning, an intricate slice of opera cake for an indulgent afternoon snack or a family-sized quiche for a light, easy supper.
These days, trendy and traditional go hand-in-hand and Mr. Chatellier's authentic variety of sweets includes of-the-moment macaroons. A tray of the brightly colored cookies has pride of place near the shop entrance, lemon yellow and pistachio green lifting winter spirits as soon as you walk through the door. Sweet without being cloying, the almond meringue cookies sandwiched around a thin layer of rich buttercream are a wonderful combination of crisp and melt-in-your-mouth textures.
Vanilla Pastry Studio, East Liberty
A cupcake-shaped sandwich board is the "X" that marks the spot in front of this chic East Liberty sweet shop. Leave behind the noise and dirt of Penn Circle construction for a sanctuary with mint-green walls decorated with framed photos of cookies and a tray ceiling filled with white, pink and green paper lanterns. Cozy couches and chairs are arranged for perusing albums of wedding and specialty cakes or simply watching the bakers at work through a large glass window at the back of the room.
A well-edited selection of sweets are wrapped up in cellophane or displayed on cake stands, including granola, scones, muffins and, of course, cupcakes. The trend may have started to die, but top-notch versions like these will never go out of style. Moist cake topped with the lightest, smoothest buttercream possible, they're rich without being overwhelming. Don't miss the lemon, which manages to capture the flavor and brightness of the whole fruit.
Vanilla's other treats are worth sampling as well, especially those that sound a little unusual, like the pineapple quick bread. Chunks of roasted pineapple infused the cake with tropical perfume, a beach vacation and dessert all wrapped up in one incredible bite.
La Gourmandine, Lawrenceville
Fabien and Lisanne Moreau's bakery was a wonderful addition to Lawrenceville when it opened in June 2010, and it's only gotten better. The variety and quality of traditional French pastries is incredible, from the flaky, well-browned croissants, to mildly sweet pain aux raisin. Try one of the chocolate eclairs or lemon tarts and you'll see why French people typically buy dessert for dinner parties.
La Gourmandine also offers a number of lunch options, including sandwiches on crusty baguette, individual quiches, and, more recently, soup with a freshly baked roll.
Sustenance Rustic Craft Bakery, Strip District
The Pittsburgh Public Market has lots of edible goods on offer, but the most exciting new option may be the baked goods at Sustenance Rustic Craft Bakery. Sarah Kelby Lewis makes up for a lack of professional training with passion and point of view. She started baking for the public at the East End Food Co-op, the perfect place to experiment with the whole-grain flours, alternative sweeteners, unusual spices and locally grown fruits and vegetables that now influence her creations.
Many people respond to her healthier spin on sweets, but the fact is that her desserts don't taste like healthful versions of something delicious, they just taste delicious. Some of her most popular treats include maple shortbread, fig bars and grains of paradise cookies. Other desserts are a little more divisive, like the coconut cashew cookie, which looks like a macaroon, but is made with cashew butter, quinoa flour and agave nectar. According to Ms. Lewis, some people love it, others take one bite and know it's not for them.
The Sustenance booth at the Pittsburgh Public Market is open during all market hours. Ms. Lewis' baked goods are also available at 21st Street Coffee in the Strip District and Downtown, and people also can contact her for special orders.
The Sugar Cafe, Dormont
Kelly James, previously the pastry chef at Sonoma Grill, hopes to open The Sugar Cafe in Dormont later this winter. She plans to serve La Prima coffee, a light breakfast and lunch menu and lots of desserts, including a few plated options for eating in the cafe.
Over 21 years in the restaurant industry, Ms. James has worked every angle of the business, from server to bartender to cook, but at Sonoma Grille, she's focused solely on plated desserts. Now, she's looking forward to experimenting with savory baked goods, salads and sandwiches, as well as the kind of baking she didn't get to do as much of as a pastry chef: Cookies, cheesecake, muffins, danishes and more.
Ms. James has been focusing on the food menu, but she hopes that the cafe will become a community gathering spot as well, and she plans to have plenty of seating and offer free Wi-Fi.
Still, it's called the Sugar Cafe for a reason. "I'm trying to keep the menu a little on the lighter side, because I certainly want people to be hungry for dessert."