Washington, D.C. Is America's Next Great Bakery Town
Plan a pastry crawl that includes guava and cheese babka, ube brioche rolls, and flaky pakhlava.
Has there ever been a year when baking—and eating baked goods—made more sense?
While many of us were homebound and anxious, we whipped up breads, babkas, and cookies. We scoured online grocers for flour, cleared supermarket shelves of yeast, and nurtured sourdough starters like they were our own children.
But there's never been a better time to buy baked goods, either. One place, in particular, really took it to the next level: Washington, D.C. Not only was the city the birthplace of Bakers Against Racism—the worldwide bake sale that raises money for organizations that support Black Lives Matter—it’s also been home to a boom in bakeries this year, both from homegrown shops and well-known transplants.
Why the sudden flourish of flour? The timing certainly makes sense, as the news has felt relentlessly bad and we've grasped for comfort in the form of warm banana bread. But according to Paola Velez, pastry chef of La Bodega and Compass Rose, baked goods offer more than just comfort.
“People feel connected—they find a connection with what we do,” she says. “It's a lot more than just a bakery for them. This is a taste of home when they can't actually travel.”
Whether it’s a yearning for home or for a carb-filled balm, read on for some of the brightest new bakery additions to the capital city.
Pastry chef Paola Velez started the year at Kith + Kin, making her signature plantain sticky buns and thick chocolate chip cookies. When the pandemic prompted a shut-down and the staff was furloughed, she started a new gig, but not before founding Bakers Against Racism with Willa Pelini and Rob Rubba, which has so far raised over $2 million for social justice causes. Now, Velez is at the helm of La Bodega, a bakery inside Rose Previte’s Compass Rose. She draws from her background and childhood growing up in the Dominican Republic and New York City, making a new breed of baked goods she calls New Americana.
“It's the American story retold by first-generation and second-generation Americans,” she says. “We're finding a place where all of this makes sense.” That place has babka—a nod to Velez’s Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, but it's made with guava and cheese or dulce de leche. There's also rum cakes, ube donuts, and egg tarts.
Beverage director Jess Weinstein is making cocktails that complement Velez’s baked goods and tell her own story. “Those stories melt together, because that is what America is,” says Velez.
The city’s first Azerbaijan bakery opened over the summer in Adams Morgan, introducing many Washingtonians to treats like pakhlava (similar to baklava), or shekerbura, the ground hazelnut-filled pastry so intricately detailed it looks crocheted. Owner Ilhama Safarova, who immigrated to D.C about two years ago from the South Caucasian country, says they’ve had a warm reception since opening five months ago. “A lot of people have told us that they had the best pakhlava ever from our bakery,” she says.
While pakhlava, shekerbura, and goghal (round puffed pastry filled with spices and nuts) may only be available at Sharbat, Safarova says her delicately layered honey cake is her best-seller. The bakery also sells a range of cakes, plus savory options like pastries filled with feta, chicken, and veggies, and gurza, meat-filled Azerbaijani dumplings.
Rose Nguyen opened her buzzy Asian-American bakery inside the Block food hall just a few days before the pandemic forced many of the city’s businesses to shutter. A little over a month later, though, she started baking again—first as a one-woman production doing pre-orders only, and then bringing back her team to keep up with the demand. The pediatric nurse-turned-self-taught baker honed her craft at places like Mr. Holmes Bakehouse and Ice Cream Jubilee. Now, she’s dazzling DC with gorgeous creations like her matcha swiss rolls, passion fruit donut made with sweet potato brioche and dusted with raspberry sugar, and ube brioche rolls with ube butter. (Tip: She sells 8-ounce tubs of the butter separately.)
“Although we are not a traditional Asian bakery, people tell me every single week how grateful they are that we exist in D.C. and that we make the Asian community so proud,” says Nguyen.
When it first opened in 2018 in Park View, the self-described “Jew-ish” deli had lines wrapped around the block for a taste of the city’s first great bagels, breakfast sandwiches, and inventive pastries. Executive chef and co-founder Daniela Moreira draws inspiration for her sweet creations from her childhood, “with my family cooking by the river in my hometown of Alta Gracia, Argentina,” she says. “My dad would make a fire and my mom would make facturas (Argentinian pastries) and pan casero (traditional bread made with lard and chicharrones). My mother always made everything a little unique and with a twist—never the traditional way.”
The growing local chain has opened up its latest shop in Georgetown over the summer and Moreira is still bringing her own twist by introducing new flavors to classic treats, like her black-and-white alfajores, babka muffins, and horchata Rice Krispie treats.
“Yellow is the color of happiness and optimism, and even more so in our case: perhaps a ray of hope,” says Gregory Baumgartner, pastry chef at Albi and Yellow. Chef and owner Michael Rafidi opened the cafe and bakery inside his Middle Eastern-inspired Navy Yard restaurant in May, just a few months after the pandemic took hold. Since then, Baumgartner has been whipping up a ray of hope in the form of za'atar crusted croissants stuffed with labne, sweet orange blossom-glazed croissants, and smoked cinnamon date molasses kouign amann.
Famous for its hefty, gooey-centered cookies, the 25-year-old Manhattan bakery opened its first outpost outside of New York in Georgetown this September. Along with the classic lineup of flavors like chocolate chip walnut and dark chocolate chip peanut butter, the bakery made its D.C. debut by teaming up with Velez, who created a Cafe Con Leche cookie. Inspired by her grandmother in the Dominican Republic, sales from the cinnamon chocolate cookie with espresso, Valrhona Dulcey, and cashews went to a local youth non-profit organization.
It was a big year for iconic New York City bakeries expanding to America’s capital, as Umber Ahmad’s West Village bakery transports its beloved roster of buttery treats south. Situated a stone’s throw from Nationals Park in the Navy Yard, the bakery is especially treasured for its Madagascar vanilla-infused brioche donuts and a cheesecake deemed the best in the Big Apple. Named for the Urdu word that describes the essence that makes something special, Mah Ze Dahr has earned loyal devotees with treats like apricot-glazed croissant monkey bread, cream cheese-iced Cinnamon rolls, and savory baked goods.