This is about instant gratification. About when you need a little something right now. Like when you dash into a bakery to pick up a cake for a kid's birthday, or some danish for the office, and your eyes widen in desire when you see that array of creamy pastries, pastel-colored cookies and chocolate-covered wonders: You want a piece this instant!
You look around. Something about the way the sun warms that table by the window, or the sweet steamy air that curls through the room, makes you decide to splurge. You sit down and take a break.
If you're like me, you don't allow yourself to do this very often. When you do, you want to make sure the calories are worth it. After an exhaustive survey of this city's bake shops, I'm happy to be able to steer you to the best places to stop for a sweet snack. You may feel slightly guilty when you lick the crumbs off your fingers and walk out the door--but you won't be disappointed.
You'll be glad you stopped for the consistently good pastries at Viktor Benes Continental Pastries in West Hollywood. It is nothing special to look at, but you can order anything from a slice of cream-filled cake to a butter cookie, have it right there on the spot with coffee and love it. (Benes' pastries are also available at Gelson's and Irvine Ranch Farmers Market stores.)
Elysee in Westwood does surprisingly classical French pastries extremely well. Try the strawberry and raspberry fruit tarts with light, firm and crisp pate sucre ; a honeyed, flaky palmier ; a traditional as well as a fresh-fruit filled napoleon. Like many similar places, this has a Pasquini coffee maker but also, like many others I tried, it had espresso that was pure acid. Despite the coffee, the Westwood clientele troops steadily through, often lingering to read or write at the window-edge tables.
Napoleon's in Santa Monica had the best--and only good--espresso I found. It's a little corner shop with premier-quality napoleons and other French pastries. They also serve breakfast and light meals, whose quality is appreciated by the steady procession of arty and upscale Santa Monicans in attendance one recent Sunday morning. (There is also a Napoleon's downtown on 7th Street.)
For a continually happening place, you might try Le Bourgogne, improbably located in a corner shopping center at Fountain and Vine. Blue-trimmed, yellow awnings brighten the interior and small vases of pink cloth carnations grace every laminated table. To look at the place, you'd never guess it draws an overflow crowd on weekends, but they do bake nice croissants.
Il Fornaio has several bakeries, but the bakery-cafe on Beverly Drive continues to live up to its reputation with just about any pastry you'd care to order--cinnamon twists and fresh doughnuts are especially popular--not to mention omelets and other light meals and, of course, the bread.
La Conversation in Los Feliz is small and slightly tacky, but so informally friendly that you feel like a regular on your first visit. It's a jumble, with a few tiny tables fitted into the storefront's window. Best baked goods here have a homey or country style. Cookies and cakey items are the best; skip anything that wants to be crispy or flaky. My fruit tart had a thick, hard crust and my ham and cheese "croissant" sandwich was doughy rather than flaky.
For an authentic Old Country feel, try Wolfgang's: a tiny, two-table overdecorated Viennese coffee shop that somehow landed in the middle of Hollywood. Chandelier prisms hang from the fluorescent light fixture, and the acoustic ceiling is painted with trompe l'oeil tiles. People in the neighborhood have been ordering birthday and wedding cakes here for years. Try anything: the not-too-sweet apple strudel; the buttery, jam-dotted cookies; the hazelnut or chocolate Bundt cake in regular and individual-serving size.
Backstube on Robertson used to be a traditional German bakery, but a recent "Americanization" added soup, pasta salads and an especially great tuna sandwich for lunch. Their pastry style is still German; eclairs are richer and eggier than the French kind. Apple cake and cookies are fine, but beware of the pastries displayed in slices because their outside edges dry out fast. Ask to have yours sliced to order.
The Danish Pastry has a modern European feel, all white and wood, in true Scandinavian fashion. Their pastries are also authentically Scandinavian, and highly recommended. Just down the street, the Zen Bakery wears a health-food air, in keeping with their whole-grain, low-salt, etc., breads and cookies. The muffins are even endorsed by a fitness trainer. You'll find the muffins at some of your favorite restaurants, and they freeze well for future snacks.
Mrs. Beasley's in the Valley looks more like ye olde curio shoppe than a bakery, but bake they do, and very well: moist, homemade (or richer-than-homemade) muffins are their specialty, but don't forget to add a few cookies to your list.