New York, New York
Walk down Church Street unknowingly, and you’d simply never discover Arcade Bakery. The name is stamped onto the outside of the office building, but it’s otherwise hidden 300 feet into the building’s lobby, a sleek set-up of counter-service pastries and coffee, with bakers fiddling with dough in the open kitchen. It’s bread that’s founder Roger Gural’s muse -- crisp sourdough loaves and towering vanilla pear and buckwheat baguettes -- but Arcade showcases a slew of French-influenced pastries (sweet and savory croissants, caramel apple brioches, whiskey-pecan babka) for the many lucky people who work upstairs and rely on warm baked goods rather than chips from the vending machine. Come during lunch hour and pair a flaky croissant with a mightily stacked sandwich or the just-baked pizza, then shout at everyone on Church Street that they’re breezing past one of America’s best bakeries.
San Francisco, California
If you've never had the buttery Breton pastry kouign amann, first, shame on you, and second, head here for the finest version of it outside of France. The extremely talented pastry chef Belinda Leong started the bakery several years ago, and has since turned into a wild success thanks in large part to her sugary French cake. That item alone would warrant inclusion here, but paired up with a selection of tartines, a rainbow of macarons, and the legendary 10-Hour Apple Tart -- an impossibly balanced apple confit with almond streusel that cooks for half a day -- B. Patisserie becomes next-level delicious.
Denver's food/drink market The Source is filled with standouts, but Babettes is a destination. Proof: it sells out of almost all of its five to eight breads (porridge bread, a daily country loaf, rye) and 12-16 pastries (apple croissants, molten-center chocolate cake) every day. That's why showing up at 8am -- when the sweets and breads come piping hot out of the over -- is your best bet. And although some might say the bread looks "burnt," the real food nerds know better -- it's caramelized, moist, and delicious.
From a husband and wife team (the Millers, get it?) who helped launch another bakery that was a strong contender for this list (Bang Bang Pie Shop), Baker Miller's setting itself apart by milling its own carefully sourced grains. You know what works even better? Incomparable sweet treats (s'mores pie, sourdough cinnamon rolls) and breads (order the "Toast Bar," and you'll be forever changed) that make you feel slightly better about loading up on carbs because you at least know they were sourced and treated with care. Bonus: They're not technically a baked good, but the grits and oatmeal bowls, always with some sort of seasonal toppings, are not to be missed.
The Macau-style culinary wizards at Fat Rice have long been defying expectations by smashing Eastern and Western influences together with gleeful abandon, and the restaurant’s expansion into a bakery next door takes that notion and runs. Hard. Well, not too hard. It’s actually really hard to run after crushing the joint’s famous hot dog bun, an unholy union of a Chicago-style hot dog -- sport peppers and all -- and a sweet Chinese bun. There are also ube milk bars, sweet malasadas loaded with coconut cream, and miso brownies. But the real coup here is the Macau Rice Crisp, an ungodly delicious take on Rice Krispies treats laced with pork floss, seaweed, and fish-sauce caramel that dances between sweet, savory, and “holy shit” beautifully.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
After winning the World Pastry Championships and an entire season of Top Chef while commanding lines out the door as the assistant pastry chef at Bellagio, Chris Hanmer really only had one place to go: South Dakota. Yep, rather than being the 947th reality TV chef to open his own spot in a New York or Miami, Chris Hanmer opted to be a big cock in a small field and opened this gem right on the main drag in Sioux Falls. Inside are desserts that are up there with what you'll find in cities that don't require two connecting flights, like the petit gateau carrot cake with cream cheese, vanilla bean, and caramel glaze.
New York, New York
Yes, he invented the Cronut™, but we wouldn’t single out French pastry wizard Dominique Ansel merely for rolling a croissant into a circle. Despite the proverbial lines that snake out the door at 7am every morning and the blood feud that results over the 350 daily baked croissant-doughnut hybrids, Ansel still updates his cabinet with new science-defying baked goods. There are his frozen s’mores, for one -- vanilla custard ice cream and chocolate wafers encased in a behemoth of a marshmallow -- that are torched to order, and cookie shots that are shaped like shot glasses, lined with dark chocolate, and filled with Tahitian vanilla milk. He’s also got quite the inventory of traditional French desserts like chocolate eclairs and tarte tatins, if you’d rather not wait in line before dawn.
Opened 16 years ago as a solo bakery in the South End that peddled the world’s greatest pecan sticky buns (suck it, Bobby Flay), Joanne Chang’s Flour has grown into Boston’s nationally acclaimed (and favorite) pastry and sandwich empire. And although that empire -- now with nine outposts -- may have been built on a pile of buns (and chocolate brioche and old-fashioned sour cream coffee cake and...), it specializes in more than just breakfast. You’d be remiss not to munch on a roasted lamb sandwich stuffed with cucumber raita, shaved fennel, and herbed tahini, followed by something sweet, of course: Try a slice of Boston’s finest Boston cream pie and several (or a dozen, we’re not here to judge) homemade Oreos.
Ken Forkish became a Portland legend by bringing his wondrous, wood-fired pizzas to the city in a time when charred crust and garden-fresh ingredients were all but unheard of. Those pies are available here on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, Ken’s Bakery lets loose on all things yeasty, with loaves ranging from a bouncy ciabatta to a stellar French rye in addition to impossibly satisfying brioche buns. But the real star here is the croissants, which come with pure butter or stuffed with herbed goat cheese and leeks, with a focus on purely Oregonian creations on the sweet side, including one with raspberry and rose and another with seasonal fruits (pray for marionberry) hit with hazelnut cream. It’s almost enough to make you all but forget about the pizza. Almost.
For nearly 70 years, Liliha has served a very, very specific need in Honolulu: a 24-hour diner/bakery where you can get a delicious Portuguese scramble or some loco moco any time. But this isn’t a list about the best loco moco (that's here). Luckily, the bakery side of that weird equation is equally outstanding, made legend by Liliha’s famous Cocoa Puffs, which are more or less pudding-filled profiteroles, an innovation that has led to versions stuffed with green tea and chocolate cream. Malasadas, too, are legend, while the cupcake selection runs the gamut from banana Chantilly to guava. Grab a Banana Boat and a crumpet and kick back. It’s 4am. You’re in Hawaii. Life is good.
Mud stopped being tasty once you turned 6, but Muddy's is bound to hook you in one visit. The famed Prozac cupcakes will make you question whether they snuck medication into the chocolate batter, while the Nancy's Boy Pie is perfect for anyone who likes to mainline coconut. It's also got an impressive vegan menu for dairy-shunning folks, and an appreciation of Douglas Adams, which is an important quality in any bakery.
In 1965, Monsieur Poupart left his pastry chef gig in Paris to settle in Louisiana with his wife. He quickly delighted locals with his fresh breads, quiches, and sweet treats. More than 50 years later, his shop still brags about being the "only authentic French bakery in Acadiana." He's made one important concession to his new home state, though -- in addition to making traditional French king cakes every February, Poupart's also churns out a "Mardi Gras king cake" packaged with beads and the all-important fake baby.
Los Angeles, California
It takes some hardcore bakers to man Proof's temperamental, truck-sized oven, but owner/chef Na Young Ma doesn't employ any wusses. Since they took over the old Rollin' Pin Bake Shop space in Atwater Village in 2010, Ma and her team have become local favorites. The croissants are a huge draw, but if you only accept exotic baked goods with at least three dominant flavors, keep an eye out for the vanilla passionfruit cake. It’s best washed down with a slice of forage blanc cheesecake with an impeccable chocolate almond crust.
It can be hard to stand out when you're Stall 161 of a sprawling public market (or just in a building, if you live in St. Paul), but the line at Salty Tart proves this hasn't been an issue. Although Andrew Zimmern's repeated endorsements might have something to do with that, the place wouldn't have earned those without its famous coconut macarons or endlessly customizable cakes. Want a 10-inch carrot cake with seasonal fruit compote filling, and "whatever-you-think-of" buttercream? Order away, you fascinating weirdo!
A pie is only as good as its crust. It’s an old adage that this West Village newcomer takes to heart, and the buttery, flaky crusts here are more than simply a vessel: They’re kind of the star. You could fill them with a bunch of old pennies and still have something delicious. Luckily, they don’t do that very weird thing. They fill them with salted maple in one standout option on a roster that includes a transcendent honey lemon meringue, sweet beets, and whatever else comes to the chefs’ minds. Grab some cookies, too -- the fennel-seed snickerdoodle is a beast -- and some meaty hand-pies, the ingredients for which are obsessively sourced from local farms.
A recent finalist for the James Beard Outstanding Baker Award, Standard’s being pretty humble with its name. So let us brag for mastermind Alison Pray: Standard Baking Co.’s breads are among the greatest loaves in the northeast. The roster changes up based on the locally sourced ingredients available, and generally includes baguettes, boules, focaccia, and pane Francese that would make even the most ardent paleo dieter salivate, with offerings like raisin pecan and a stellar five-grain loaf representing the stuff of yeasty dreams. Rolls, too, put the greatest hits in miniature, and will forever render all other sandwich breads disappointing. Don’t sleep on the almond galettes, either, and be sure to roll in at 1:30pm on any given day to get cookies fresh out of the oven, as God intended.
Charleston, South Carolina
Sure, you could just close your eyes, point a finger at the menu, and be confident in whatever baked good you just selected off the Sugar Bakeshop menu, but A) pointing at strangers is rude, and B) the place has too many good local delicacies to pass up. Consider a classic Southern chocolate bourbon pecan pie, a Hummingbird cake (spice cake with pineapple, bananas, and pecans), or a Lady Baltimore cake, which deceptively has zero ties to Maryland. It actually originated in Charleston's Lady Baltimore Tea Room, and comes with a generous supply of walnuts soaked in sherry.
San Francisco, California
Want to know how good the bread is at Tartine? The shop offers pre-orders with three days' notice and cash upfront, because once they release the daily batch at 4:30pm, by 4:35pm it, like Kanye, is gone. Only a precious, ruthless few successfully beat that bread rush, but lucky for you, opting for a banana cream tart instead is hardly settling. Also fortunate, some of that bread is reserved for the jambon royale & Gruyere, one of the best sandwiches in sandwich-rich San Francisco.