Plus, nine restaurant breads worth every penny.

By Regan Stephens
Updated December 05, 2019
Andrew Thomas Lee

In all my childhood memories of celebratory visits to red gravy restaurants in South Philly, we'd barely take off our coats before a shallow, silver bowl stacked with thick slices of Italian bread would be dropped, with love, on the table.

It was warm, and welcoming, and you know what? It wasn’t that good. I mean, it was fine for staving off hunger until the antipasti arrived, or sopping up the remaining layer of marinara sauce at the bottom of a baked ziti, but it was mostly just filler.

You know what’s good? The bread chefs and bakers labor over. The loaves and rolls and pita and naan they craft with the same thoughtful ingredients as the rest of their menu, with the same skill and expertise that come from years of training. In the last few years, a trend has emerged—one that not everyone is happy about. Restaurants have started eschewing the free bread basket in favor of nothing, or of a much better bread basket that costs a few dollars.

Dominic Piperno, chef and co-owner of Hearthside in Collingswood, New Jersey, charges for his, and for five bucks it typically comes with three different kinds of their fresh-baked bread, like rosemary parmesan focaccia, sourdough, and whole wheat baguette.

Michael Persico

"There is a precision to making bread; it's a labor of love,” he says. “At any moment there are at least five different types of bread on our menu, and each takes time—some doughs I'm actively working today won't be ready until tomorrow—and technique. They are all prepared fresh every single day."

Austin-based pastry chef Sarah Listrom also calls the daily bread-making process a labor of love, and notes, “All of our breads at Vixen’s Wedding are made in-house daily, with different techniques and locally-sourced flour from Barton Springs Mill, making the $5 serving price well worth it.” Samantha Kincaid, pastry chef and co-owner at Philadelphia’s Cadence, says that charging for bread isn’t only about recouping costs of the product and labor associated with it. “It’s also to show people that food, especially of high quality, is not cheap,” she says.

The sheer entitlement of expecting free bread is a little galling, when you think about it. Imagine, if you will, feeling the same entitlement to a free anything else on the menu—an oyster, perhaps, or a plate of pasta? (Which, by the way, is made up of roughly the same ingredients.)

Can you believe they’re charging for this handmade creste di gallo? Pardon me for a moment while I text my friends and write a scathing Yelp review.

I know, the free bread basket is a token of hospitality, of welcoming someone to the table, and it’s steeped in decades (centuries?) of tradition. But so was the practice of men ordering for women in restaurants, and meat-filled jello molds. Times change.

Below, find nine bread baskets worth every penny.

Vixen’s Wedding, Austin

The breads and spreads section at this Goan-inspired spot includes executive pastry chef Sarah Listrom’s methi paratha, and a turmeric sourdough made with orange blossom, fennel, and coriander. The beautiful, brightly-hued bread requires a laborious, eight-hour mixing process before its slow-fermented overnight and baked fresh the next morning. The generous $5 hunk is buttered and grilled, and can be served alongside a homemade acorn squash butter or smoked fish raita spread for $2 more.

Stella, New Hope, PA

Chef Jose Garces’ new riverfront restaurant is an homage to nearby Bucks County farms and producers, and it’s also got a selection of compound butters—smoked eggplant and pepper, cacio e pepe, green garlic—that come alongside griddled sourdough bread. You can order one, or a selection of three for $16.

Hearthside, Collingswood, NJ

The bread at this beloved New Jersey BYOB rotates frequently, but always includes at least three of the five different varieties they make daily, and always comes with a house-cured parmesan butter for $5 a basket.

Henrietta Red, Nashville

Chef Julia Sullivan’s seafood-centric menu is filled with thoughtful takes on oysters, mussels, and more, but one of the most memorable bites is her wood-fired bread. Order a plate for $5 and slather it liberally with the accompanying anchovy butter.

Andrew Thomas Lee

Che Fico, San Francisco

Find made-from-scratch pasta, pizza, and salumi at this buzzy Nopa neighborhood Italian restaurant. Also find breads like the $8 focaccia with whipped mascarpone and Sicilian olive oil from pastry chef partner Angela Pinkerton, formerly the executive pastry chef of Eleven Madison Park.

Le Grand, Los Angeles

The “Bread & Butter” at Le Grand in downtown L.A. sounds simple, but it’s actually a house-made pita and a poppy seed epi baguette (wheat stalk bread) that come alongside nori-citrus whipped butter for $9.

Auburn, Los Angeles

The country bread at chef Eric Bost’s recently-opened Auburn, made with a sourdough starter and buckwheat-infused water, is noteworthy on its own, but the accompanying avocado butter makes the $8 price tag a hot deal. “The high level of technique involved in making the bread and butter is reflected in its price,” says the chef. He also notes that most of their bar guests, where it’s offered on an á la carte menu, order the bread to start their meal.

Courtesy of Auburn

Cadence, Philadelphia

Though 2019’s Best New Restaurant doesn’t make their own bread anymore, they still sell a basket of nearby bakery’s Lost Bread Co.’s milk bread toast, alongside Hudson Valley cold pressed sunflower oil, for $2 to anyone who asks for it. (You should ask for it.)

Masseria, Washington, DC

The fixed-price tasting menu at chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s swank Italian spot kicks off with a spectacular bread service, including house made savory bomboloni, cacio e pepe focaccia, squid ink bread sticks, and chickpea fritters—all served with pickled vegetables and tomato fonduta. “It’s a great way to start the meal and it really highlights some of our favorite ingredients and traditional Italian bread making techniques,” says the chef. For $6, an abbreviated version—with the same house made focaccia and tomato fonduta—is available á la carte on the bar menu, too.

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