It's a Bay Area thing
EC: The Best Morning Bun in San Francisco
Credit: Photo via Flickr User Charles Haynes

Chad Robertson, co-owner of Tartine Bakery, is surprised when I tell him that morning buns are a Bay Area thing. “I figured the morning bun was kind of everywhere, but you’re right, I don’t really see them,” he says. His surprise is understandable, because the morning bun might be the Bay Area’s favorite pastry. You can find them in coffee shops and bakeries in every neighborhood, and they’re even available in many grocery stores. If you live and work here, you can start to think they’re as common as croissants or avocado toast. But when I moved to San Francisco from New York five years ago, I’d never seen one.

To clarify, the morning buns we’re talking about here aren’t the generic cinnamon or nut-filled rolls baked up in casserole dishes. What we call morning buns out here are made from croissant dough that is spread with cinnamon and brown sugar, rolled up, baked in muffin tins, and then dunked in cinnamon sugar. The result is a croissant, a cinnamon roll, and a muffin all in one.

In recent years, morning buns have shown up in select bakeries in most large cities in the US. There are excellent versions in places like Los Angeles, Portland, and New York, and they’re quite popular in Madison, Wisconsin (more on that later). Starbucks even added morning buns to their pastry cases after buying the San Francisco-based La Boulange a couple years ago, though their morning buns don’t seem to have the muffin shape anymore and look more like regular cinnamon rolls.

The best morning buns around are made by Robertson and his team at Tartine. This isn’t surprising; Tartine is the most popular and famous bakery in town. The bakers there make their morning buns using the same techniques that render their other baked goods so exceptional: They make the dough from fresh-milled flour and ferment it for as long as possible, using liquid levain and a little of their liquid sourdough starter, which has a sweet, yogurty flavor. The fermentation improves the flavor of the dough and also makes it more digestible.

“It sounds funny to say this about a morning bun, because there is a ton of butter in it, but we’re really trying to make this dough be the most flavorful, nutrient dense it can be,” Robertson told me.

The Tartine morning buns also have a couple of other twists that make them better than the competition. The pans they are made in are prepped with butter and sugar, so that the buns caramelize on the bottom as they bake. The filling has lots of freshly grated orange zest, which balances out the fat and sugar and gives the whole thing a very California-specific flavor. And there’s simply more of the filling than you see in other morning buns, three full layers of the stuff wrapped into each bun.

For me, the real question about morning buns is not which is the best, it’s why they’re so popular here. For answers, you have to look across the bay to the bakery chain La Farine.

La Farine, which opened in 1977 in Berkeley claims to have invented the morning bun. According to company lore, when the bakery’s founder, Lili Lecocq, started out, she developed a particularly good croissant dough. At the time, she had also hired a baker from the Midwest who was making regular cinnamon buns, and one of them had the idea to make the buns with Lecocq’s phenomenal croissant dough. Thus, the morning bun was born.

In recent years, this version of the recipe has spread to other cities. “Over 40 years there are a lot of bakers who have worked at La Farine and taken the recipe with them,” Stan Dodson, the bakery’s longtime manager told me. “I’ve been in little bakeries and seen morning buns, and out from the back door comes someone I worked with fifteen years ago.”

But there’s another place that also claims to have invented the morning bun, a bakery in Madison called Ovens of Brittany. According to those claims, the bakers at Ovens of Brittany came up with the morning bun in 1972 (five years before La Farine). Eventually the bakery closed, but the bun’s popularity survives, and local spots still serve them.

Of course, it’s possible that both of these origin stories are true. The unnamed baker at La Farine could have heard of the Ovens of Brittany’s popular pastry. For all we know, she could even have worked there. In any case, it’s the La Farine version that originally inspired Robertson and the team at Tartine when they opened in 2002.

These days, morning buns are one of the most popular items Tartine sells—Robertson estimates that he sells more morning buns than regular croissants, chocolate croissants, and almond-filled croissants combined. “It’s the shape that people love,” he says. “You can do anything with it and it has the potential to be popular.” To that end, Tartine is currently developing seasonal variations, like a walnut and maple version, and savory options that will be “afternoon buns.”

But the best news is that Tartine is also planning to expand it reach to other cities, like Los Angeles and New York, and they’re taking their morning buns with them. Of course, those morning buns won’t always look just like the ones I fell in love with here in the Bay Area. Instead, they’re likely to pick up regional flavors as they travel. For an upcoming pop-up in Tokyo, for instance, Robertson is playing with a version using Japanese wheat, black sugar, and local citrus. I don’t know if the new flavors will sell as well as the classic one, but I hope that whatever happens, all the variations will make it back to the Bay Area.