Four Best Bakeries - 2002
1331 Ninth Ave. (near Irving), 566-3117, www.arizmendibakery.org
This worker-owned cooperative earned raves for its artisan breads when it opened its doors late last year, but Arizmendi's other creations are equally enticing: big, gooey pecan rolls; plain, ginger, and hazelnut shortbread; a wide variety of morning muffins; and currant, oat, and corn-cherry scones. Every day there's a different gourmet sourdough pizza to sample (recent extravaganzas have included the green lentil, tomato, and goat cheese, the bok choy, peanut, and cilantro, and the watercress, carrot, and hazelnut), and just in case all those good smells inspire spontaneous picnicking, Golden Gate Park's just a block or two away.
446 Columbus (between Green and Vallejo), 986-2914
This tiny, elegant bakery looks like an old-country pasticceria with its marble, tile, and rich Italian pastries bursting with whipped cream and booze. The specialty of the house is sacripantina, a light, lovely layer cake rich with zabaglione, cream, Marsala, and rum, but the cannoli, biscotti, panettone, and tiramisu are worth experiencing as well. Especially at one of the sidewalk tables on a sunny day, cappuccino at hand. Order the elaborate St. Honore cake for your next wedding.
720 Grant (at Sacramento), 392-4497
Not only is the Eastern the oldest Chinese bakery in the country (it opened in 1924), it makes more moon cakes than any other bakery in the country. We admit to eating several of them. The traditional black bean filling is rich and smooth, with an earthy quality that transcends sweetness; the lard-enriched crust is marvelously flaky. There are other varieties of moon cake too -- lotus seed, melon, the ubiquitous and unappetizing hard-boiled egg yolk -- and crisp little almond cookies, pastries filled with custard, and deep-fried sesame seed balls. The look of the place is classic Chinatown: tile and brick with a pagoda over the entrance.
La Boulange de Polk
2310 Polk (at Green), 345-1107
Pascal Rigo, the Bordeaux native behind Galette, Chez Nous, and Le Petit Robert, has another Gallic triumph in this Russian Hill rendezvous of marble counters, sidewalk tables, and buttery pastries. Among our favorites are the chocolate-hazelnut brioche, the strawberry-rhubarb tart, and the feathery almond croissant, particularly in conjunction with a big bowl of cafe au lait. The best things about La Boulange, though, are its fabulous breads: the dense walnut-studded levain, the cranberry- pumpkin seed breakfast loaf, and what may be the finest sourdough in the city. Excellent salads and sandwiches, too.