Why everyone's still obsessed with the Bay Area cafe
The late comedian Jimmy James once said, “After a nuclear holocaust, all that will be left are cockroaches and Cher.” He was mostly spot-on, although I think he should add: “...and a line at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco.” Since it opened on what was then the relatively quiet corner of 18th and Guerrero in 2002, the line at Tartine has remained constant, as have its accolades and continual placement on “best of” lists. A cross between a boulangerie and patisserie with a decidedly San Francisco spin, the no-frills bakery has since spawned cookbooks and sister restaurants, and, along with its predecessors Bi-Rite and Delfina, helped that block of 18th Street to become prized culinary real estate. Tartine’s bread and baked goods are adored by food writers and tend to be spoken of in terms usually reserved for Pulitzer Prize-winning novels
“I remember trying to stretch out the pleasures of a gâteau Basque indefinitely, cutting it in half again, and again, until the pastry was so tiny that the task became embarrassing,” Tejal Rao wrote breathlessly in a November 2016 New York Times profile of co-owner Liz Prueitt. “The crumb was tender and delicate, dissolving in my mouth. And I’m pretty sure that what I felt toward the shiny preserved peach, snug at the center of the pastry, was something close to jealousy.”
For the past 15 years, Prueitt and her husband, Chad Robertson, have combined ambition and simplicity to grow their business beyond the confines of the Mission. Their marriage is a match made in baked-goods heaven: She does the pastry, he’s on bread—but there’s more to it than that. Robertson’s bread is among the best in the country, and Prueitt’s pastries and cakes, many of them gluten-free, have their own cult-like following. Take, for instance, her morning bun, which is scented with candied orange and coated in magic dust in the form of just-crunchy-enough cinnamon sugar, or her big, buttery croissants that are hard to the touch but filled with whisper-thin flaky layers. These aren’t mind-bending desserts, just the simple pleasures that stick in your brain like the silky filling of their banana cream pie.
“They’ve really tapped into people’s craveability,” longtime San Francisco food writer Sara Deseran, who now co-owns the area’s Tacolicious restaurants, said. “Everyone has their favorite thing at Tartine that they go back for again and again.”
It also helps that they were first in the game: Sure, San Francisco had other bakeries when they opened, but there was nothing quite like Tartine. And the bakery predated the current phenomena of all-day cafes and expensive avocado toasts, giving them time to hone their craft and get the perfect crumble on the scones, the proper heritage grain for each bread, the right amount of time to soak the layers of tres leches cake in coconut milk.
“Whatever they’ve figured out in terms of the bread or the pastries, repetition in this case just makes them better,” Kevin Alexander, a Bay Area-based, James Beard Award-winning writer for Thrillist, said. “It’s like the 10,000 hours thing, but they have 1,000,000 hours. They’re the Matrix 3 of bakeries.”
When you walk up to Tartine, the physical space itself looks like nothing special: A forest green facade wraps around big windows. Inside, there’s not much decor to speak of, save for some wooden tables, because, really, the decor isn’t the point. The cases loaded with cakes and tarts and sweet things, and the stacks of country loaves (if they haven’t sold out already) are what keep people lining up outside, and salivating inside.
If you’ve been to the couple’s latest venture, the sprawling Tartine Manufactory, it’s easy to be impressed by the space. It’s a showier version of the old Tartine, and although designed to be part workspace and part restaurant, it feels indicative of what’s happened in San Francisco in recent years: The city has gotten a lot flashier, with undercurrents of wealth and the tech industry pulsating in every direction. I left San Francisco almost six years ago, and I’ve been to the Manufactory a couple of times. The gorgeous, thoughtfully prepared salads and sandwiches are more than delicious, but it doesn’t have the soul or the specialness of the original.
Which is why on my next visit, you’ll find me in line at the bakery, patiently waiting for a crock of the sweet brioche bread pudding, drizzled with a kiss of caramel sauce, that blew my mind the first time I ate it as dessert for breakfast more than a decade ago.