America’s Best Cities for Sweet Tooths 2015
The last time she was in New Orleans, Emily Luchetti went out of her way to enjoy a famous dessert. Not the Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, nor the Baked Alaska at Antoine’s. “I went to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz,” says the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef from San Francisco’s Park Tavern, who chose a coffee-and-satsuma-orange snow cone at the 1939 birthplace of the shaved ice machine. “I stood in line for 45 minutes. It was worth every second.”
Like Luchetti, many Travel+Leisure readers seem to feel that letting the good times roll in the Crescent City means ordering more dessert. As part of the magazine’s America’s Favorite Places survey, readers ranked 38 cities on a variety of sweet-tooth-friendly venues: bakeries, chef-driven restaurants, brunch spots, diners, and pastry-and-bonbon-filled gourmet markets.
Among the winners, we found a dizzying list of temptations—like the famed beignets and pralines in New Orleans, an all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet in Boston, or the marshmallow-filled caramels in Louisville, first created in the 19th century to woo an international actress.
Indeed, Luchetti can justify her indulgences in the name of culture. In New Orleans, she says, when you enjoy one of the city’s iconic desserts, “you are part of a history, and a long food culture.”
She adds one other important rationale: “I try to walk to as many places as possible,” she says, “to burn off the calories.”
No. 1 Houston
The Texas metropolis scored big points with voters for its genre-spanning cuisine, like the dry-rubbed barbecue, big burgers and urbane gourmet markets. The common denominator, though, may be decadence, exemplified in the varied local interpretations of pecan pie. You can try the deep-dish chocolate fudge version at Three Brothers Bakery, or the Bayou Goo (a pecan crust with a layer of sweet cream cheese, custard and chocolate chunks) at 24-hour diner House of Pies. To cleanse your palate with some brisket, go to longtime barbecue favorite Goode Co., which is also famous for its Brazos Bottom Pecan Pie.
No. 2 Providence
Don’t ruin your dessert by eating too much dinner in the Rhode Island capital, which ranked near the top of the survey in a number of gastronomic categories—from hipster food trucks and notable restaurants to sweets-filled bakeries. Long-timers love the chocolate macaroons and clam-shell-shaped scafilgione cookies at Scialo Bros. Bakery, which has been around since 1916, but it’s hard to turn down the relative newcomers, too, like the ginger-biscuit scones at Seven Stars Bakery or the lemon cake with coffee curd at North Bakery. Speaking of coffee, the city also ranked near the top for its java, but these sugar-happy Yanks aren’t known for drinking it black. The state drink is coffee milk—moo juice laced with sweetened coffee syrups, like the excellent elixirs at Dave’s Coffee. All that sugar and caffeine perhaps resulted in high-energy locals, who readers ranked as being highly intelligent and active.
No. 3 Atlanta
No wonder the Georgia city—where the home-grown soda seems to flow like water—won the bronze for sugar. After you’ve sampled the many international variations at World of Coca-Cola, you can get your daily Coke fix in a few other ways. At West Egg Café—an example of why the city also ranked well for both brunch and diners—one of the most popular desserts is the Coca-Cola cupcake, topped with Coke-flavored frosting and bottle-shaped gummies. At Octane Coffee, you can try the Ameri-cola—half espresso and half Coke on ice. Of course, you should balance your diet with some fruit: Try the pink-lady apple cobbler, or the Hummingbird Cake (with pineapple, pecans, and bananas) at Cakes & Ale in Decatur. The locals still do a good job of counting calories: they ranked highly in the survey for being attractive and reasonably athletic.
No. 4 New Orleans
Plenty of people come to NOLA just to overindulge in certain liquids, but you could easily map out a bender on desserts, too. You’ll find the original Bananas Foster (with dark rum and banana liqueur) at Brennan’s, a famed version of Baked Alaska at Antoine’s and, of course, the gold standard of beignets at Café du Monde. But that’s before you’ve even gotten to the Creole pecan candies known as pralines (in New Orleans, say it prah-leens, not pray-leens); Aunt Sally’s, which makes classic pralines, has been around since 1935. The most recent sweet star in town, though, is macaron and candy shop Sucré on Magazine Street (look for its sister property, Salon by Sucré, to open during spring 2015 on Bourbon Street). Readers ranked the locals as being friendly, but also a little fruity: they won the survey for being quirky.
No. 5 New York City
The Big Apple gets credit for some over-the-top originals—like the gold-plated (and $1,000) Golden Opulence Sundae at Serendipity3, or the seminal cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho. If you don’t want to get up early for the croissant-donut hybrids, come at 3 p.m. for the bakery’s cookie shot, a cup-shaped chocolate chip cookie filled with sweetened milk. To empower yourself with dessert-making skills, head to the Williamsburg kitchen of Milk Bar, which offers behind-the scene classes based on its cookbook (you might learn to make their infamous, buttery Crack Pie). For a lot of New Yorkers, though, the city’s biggest sweet spot is still Magnolia Bakery, in the West Village, which is as famous for its banana pudding as it is its cupcakes. Each of Magnolia classics are great values at under $4—not bad for the priciest city in the nation, according to readers.
No. 6 Los Angeles
This trend-conscious city played a starring role in the cupcake boom (thanks to the original Sprinkles in Beverly Hills), but you might not know it from looking at the fit, attractive locals, according to voters. Between rounds of people-watching—which rated well here in the survey—try the eclairs at Beverly Hills’ Chaumont Bakery, the fruit tarts at Santa Monica’s Huckleberry Cafe, or the brown-butter-smoked-salt-and-dark-chocolate cookies at Culver City’s Platine. And happily, this is a town where you can always reinvent yourself: at Donut Friend, in Highland Park, you can customize your own donuts with fillings and toppings (though it may be hard to pass up the Lemon Weapon, filled with lemon cream and blueberry jam).
No. 7 Minneapolis/St Paul
These Minnesotan cities racked up big survey scores in the hipster realm—brainy locals, bookstores and craft beer—as well as food trucks and gourmet markets. In the Mill City Farmers Market and the Midtown Market, for instance, look for Salty Tart—acclaimed for its coconut macaroons and Surly Brewing Co.-fueled cupcakes, Or, sit on one of the front-row kitchen stools in downtown Minneapolis’ Angel Food Bakery (upstairs from restaurant Hell’s Kitchen) and get a version of the cities’ acclaimed theater scene: while you nosh on your flaky cruller, you can watch the small-batch bakers as they ice cakes or knead dough.
No. 8 Kansas City
This Missouri hub may have landed in the sweet-tooth top 10 thanks to the European pomp of its desserts: In Country Club Plaza—a big reason why the city also ranked highly for its luxury shopping—mother-and-daughter operation Natasha’s Mulberry & Mott does French pastries far beyond the simple éclairs; you can tuck into a Saint Honoré, a Religieuse or a hazelnut-meringue-layered Dacquoise. At Andre’s Confiserie Suisse, you can choose from an array of candies (like dark-chocolate-covered orange peels) and linzer or chocolate Dobosh tortes. For Americana-style refreshments, go to Snow and Co., which offers sweet “frozen cocktails” like the Rockefeller (Old Overholt rye whiskey infused with real cherries, sweet vermouth and bitters)—a fun reminder why the city also ranked in the top 10 for cocktail lounges.
No. 9 Cleveland
The Rust Belt city gets to have it both ways, ranking in the top 10 for both old-style bakeries and cool bars. Playing to the city’s heartland mojo, vintage-inspired soda fountain Sweet Moses, in the Gordon Square Arts District, specializes in house-made root beer and pharmacy-style phosphates and egg creams. For more ice cream, check out Mitchell’s, owned by two brothers, where the locally sourced ice creams include seasonal flavors like spring’s Guinness and Dark Chocolate or summer’s strawberry rhubarb crisp. Meanwhile, at Trentina—the kind of place that is getting Cleveland more attention from food snobs—you can finish your meal with the raved-about Olive Oil Gelato Sundae.
No. 10 Albuquerque
Simple pleasures abound in the New Mexico city, which impressed voters with its affordability and quiet atmosphere. One classic spot for sweets is the Golden Crown Panaderia, known for its dark-chocolate-and-java “World’s Best Coffee Milkshake,” and its blue-corn-flour biscochitos (bis-ko-cheetos), which the legislature declared the New Mexico State Cookie in 1989. Albuquerque also scored in the top 10 for its wine: at Casa Rondena Winery, you can augment your tastings with the chocolate-merlot wine fudge or a bottled chardonnay caramel sauce. If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, don’t miss The Candy Lady, in Old Town, whose “blue sky” candy stood in for the meth on the first two seasons of the show.
No. 11 Chicago
The Windy City ranked highly in the survey for its impressive skyscrapers, high-end shopping and chef-driven restaurants—but come dessert, this is a humble pie town. Start with Hoosier Mama Pie Company, which does Friday night “flights” of three small slices, featuring classic apple or chocolate chess. Then try Bang Bang Pie and Biscuits in Logan Square—whose offerings include blackberry sage and chocolate stout shoo-fly pies—and one of the locations of First Slice Pie Cafe, which does a Michigan Sour Cherry and an almost-too-pretty-to-eat Polka Dot (almond cream dotted with dark chocolate discs). On some nights, First Slice even makes pizza pies—a nice nod to the city’s No. 1 ranking for ‘za.
No. 12 Portland, OR
In America’s number one coffee town, it’s not a surprise that the go-to sweet would be the donut. VooDoo Doughnut is the most acclaimed, thanks to its colorful creations—like the signature doll-shaped donut with raspberry filling and a pretzel stake through the heart—but local donut lovers also love Pip’s Original Doughnuts, which does simple mini donuts, dusted with honey sea salt or drizzled with Nutella. Locavores, meanwhile, will appreciate Blue Star Donuts, where the locally sourced donuts (based on a brioche recipe from the south of France) are cooked in rice oil and come in flavors like blueberry bourbon basil (and are served with famed local java Stumptown). Portland also excels at thoughtful ice cream—like the Strawberry Honey Balsamic at Salt & Straw, or the flights of six mini-scoops at Ruby Jewel. Portland offers the best chance of walking it all off, ranking at No. 1 for being pedestrian-friendly.
No. 13 San Francisco
It might seem blasphemous to go to San Francisco and not immerse oneself in a hot fudge sundae at Ghiradelli Square—but in this foodie town, the must-nosh list quickly gets long. On the bakery front, sweet tooths will want to try the orange zest morning buns at James Beard winner Tartine, the egg-custard tarts at The Golden Gate Bakery in Chinatown or, on the more savory front, the Rebel Within muffins from Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission District (spoiler alert: the rebel is a soft-boiled egg). Speaking of breakfast fare, if you want an excuse to eat ice cream for your first meal of the day, go to Mission District’s Humphry Slocombe, where a scoop of Secret Breakfast features bourbon and toasted corn flakes. Certainly, cereal can be enjoyed any time of day—especially in a city that readers applauded for being home to geeks.
No. 14 Baltimore
Crab cakes aside, Baltimore's most famous treat may be the Berger Cookie, a chocolate-covered shortbread that you can find in local supermarkets and in a few decadent desserts—like the blended Berger Shake at Abbey Burger Bistro, in the Federal Hill area, or the Deep Fried Berger Cookie Sundae, topped with strawberries, chocolate sauce and two batter-fried cookies, at sports bar Dempsey’s, overlooking Camden Yards. The city also scored well for brunch, like the Funky Monkey Bread (a pull-apart with bananas, chocolate and pecans) at beloved Roland Park breakfast spot Miss Shirley’s Cafe.
No. 15 Nashville
While some music fans in Nashville just cry in their beer, sweet tooths get misty-eyed for the chocolate-caramel-peanut-and-marshmallow Goo Goo Cluster, which was created here in 1912. You can visit Goo Goo’s flagship store downtown, across from the Johnny Cash Museum, or check out the 21st century sweets at East Nashville’s Olive & Sinclair, a “bean-to-bar” candymaker that does artisan indulgences like Duck Fat Chocolate or Buttermilk White Chocolate. Road-warrior business travelers, meanwhile, should stop by downtown’s Christie Cookie Co., which is the source of Doubletree’s famed chocolate chip cookies.
No. 16 Philadelphia
The city’s Italian heritage resonates in its high-ranking pizza, deli sandwiches and its great Italian desserts—like the classic straciatella and nocciola gelatos at Capogiro, which has four locations around the city. Or, you can enjoy the beloved salted-caramel budino—with a dark chocolate crust and vanilla-bean custard—at Midtown Village’s Barbuzzo. For an edible version of the city’s deep history, check out the Shane Confectionery, a reborn candy maker that dates back to 1863, and its down-the-street companion Franklin Fountain, with house-made ice creams like Rum Raisin and Black Raspberry.
No. 17 Louisville
Along Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail—roughly one third of the world’s bourbon is made in this Kentucky city—it’s only appropriate that fermented treats extend well beyond happy hour. The best places for “bourbon balls” are Art Eatables, a local chocolatier known for its small-batch bourbon truffles, and Cellar Door Chocolates, where the buttercream selection includes bourbon cherry cordials, bourbon-and-Coke balls and, suitable for the Derby, mint julep bourbon balls. To broaden your Southern candy horizons, be sure to go to Muth’s Candies for a Modjeska, the caramel-covered marshmallow candy first created in Louisville in the 1880s for Helena Modjeska, a visiting Polish actress.
No. 18 Charleston
According to readers, the biggest rush in this South Carolina city comes from retail indulgences—the city ranked near the top for antiques, little boutiques and home decor. If you're making the rounds on King Street, you can re-boot your blood sugar with a few stops: at Cupcake Down South, you can choose from rotating flavors like Mandarin orange-chocolate or Blueberry Cobbler. Or, take a slight detour onto Society, where you’ll find Christophe Artisan Chocolatier-Patissier, a third-generation French chocolatier that offers hand-painted, rainbow-hued chocolates. For a sit-down dessert, don’t miss the Ultimate Coconut Cake at the Peninsula Grill: a 12-layer, bucket-list treat that is available either by the slice or a 12-pound whole cake. Just don’t talk with your mouth full: the well-heeled locals ranked as among the most polite in the land.
No. 19 Seattle
Hot liquids are always in demand in this Pacific Northwest town, which ranked in the top 5 for its coffee—but you need not limit yourself to lattes. Fran’s Chocolates, in the downtown Four Seasons, is well known for both its chocolate-covered caramels and its fabulously dark, 75-percent-cacao hot chocolate. Or, hit the cakery of Hot Molten Cakes in Ballard, where the weekday happy hour features mugs of spiked hot cocoa and an excellent excuse to dig into one the gooey chocolate lava cakes, baked in hipster-friendly Mason jars. Seattle also made the top 20 for notable restaurants and gourmet shops, thanks to star chefs like Tom Douglas; at his Dahlia Lounge in Belltown, one show-stopping dessert is the triple-coconut-cream pie with white chocolate (which you can also get at the Dahlia Bakery next door).
No. 20 Boston
Exploring a string of North End bakeries—like Maria’s Pastry, Modern Pastry Shop, Mike’s Pastry, and Bova’s—is like a Freedom Trail of cookies, cannoli, and nougat-candy torrones. While the peak time for travel in Boston may be summer, here’s a good reason to come during the rest of the year: every Saturday between September and June at Café Fleuri, in the Langham Hotel, you’ll find the all-you-can-eat chocolate dessert table, with 100 chocoholic-friendly options (like the renowned Langham Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding).