Bakers are strange alchemists—half-scientists, half-artists—who transform simple staples like flour, sugar and butter into complex delights. Whatever you do to it, a chicken breast will still end up looking and tasting like chicken. Not so in baking, where what comes out of the oven bears almost no resemblance to what you began with. Bakers and pastry chefs mix, they fold, they knead, they stir, they whisk and then they bake, trusting to hard-earned skill, chemistry and a bit of magic that something wonderful will emerge.
This story is a tribute to our region’s wizards of wheat, the sorcerers of sugar, the gurus of gluten. To compile it, we visited dozens of places in Sarasota and Manatee counties. We ate our weight in bread, we daydreamed about yeast, we came home with powdered sugar in our pockets. And we brought home the dough—your guide to the upper crust of Southwest Florida bakeries.
Here they are: the 17 best bakeries in Sarasota-Manatee (in no particular order).
Sublime surprises from South America.
This tiny mid-Sarasota shop opened in early 2015, specializing in rich, filling empañadas and mouthwatering South American treats like alfajores, small cornstarch-based cookie sandwiches served either plain or dipped. The peanut butter alfajor is a stunner—two delicate cookies wrapped around a spread of sweet nutty goodness, then encased in chocolate. The shop’s copitos are small cookies topped with caramel and then dunked in either regular chocolate or white chocolate.
Show up early for fresh-baked loaves.
The lines form early inside this South Trail destination, where the humid, warm air smells of yeast and wheat. Bavarian supplies a variety of loaves and rolls to a number of local restaurants, as well as selling directly to those line-waiters. Tear off a hunk of the outstanding focaccia and inhale pure rosemary as the scent wafts upward. The bread needs just a drizzle of grassy olive oil and a sprinkle of crunchy salt to sing. Come early and bring cash. No credit cards accepted.
Savory British creations sweetly priced.
Great pastry doesn’t have to be sweet. Just check out the Anglophile selection at little 4 & 20 Pasty Company, owned by Brit ex-pats. The glowing cases are lined with crusty golden cylinders and half-moons stuffed with meats like sausages (“bangers” in the local parlance) or turmeric-accented ground lamb. At around $5-$6, these beauties make for an excellent affordable lunch. Take them back to the office, or just wolf them down in the parking lot.
Pastry whiz Christine Nordstrom’s flagship shop.
A fixture at farmers’ markets up and down the Gulf Coast, Christine Nordstrom opened Sift, her flagship downtown shop, back in 2015. The storefront is tiny, possessing just enough open space for you to eye Nordstrom’s fluffy cheese and bacon scones, dense oat bars and soft cupcakes. She also whips up specialty cakes that brighten up weddings and kids’ birthday parties, with an eye-popping, Instagram-ready aesthetic. The entrepreneurial pastry whiz has opened a doughnut shop downtown, too.
From exquisite eclairs to savory sandwiches.
Chef Joël Garcia opened Rendez-Vous in late 2015, displacing a Quiznos and baking up a mind-bending mix of savory loaves, morning-time sweets and after-dinner desserts. Garcia’s croissants are bigger and more thickly skinned than others, with a mahogany exterior wrapped around the pastry’s juicy, buttery inner layers. His baguette is a winner, too, with a skin that crepitates when you bite down and roughs up the roof of your mouth. Rendez-Vous also slaps together sandwiches with that bread.
The real New York deal.
Whether you prefer poppy seed, sesame seed, garlic, onion or everything, you’ll find it here, at the small bagel shop and restaurant that serves what are far and away the closest approximation of New York City bagels you’ll find in the area. The exterior is dense, crunchy and chewy, while the insides are soft and puffy. Spread on some cream cheese or fill it with eggs, bacon and cheese and complain about the cramped conditions on the L train.
Wake up in Paris, Sarasota.
For decades, C’est La Vie! has been downtown’s go-to spot for croissants and baguettes, but that wasn’t enough. Last year, owners Christophe and Geraldine Coutelle made a major move by signing a franchise deal with Parisian transplants Jean and Myriam Dandonneau to open a second location near the University Town Center mall. The new space apes the old one, and the menu does, too, with a bountiful case spilling over with pastries and fresh breads and some of the city’s best meal-preview bread baskets. Both spots now serve dinner, too. Mon Dieu!
Best biscuits ever. And more.
Part Southern comfort, part heartland throwback, little Buttermilk has baked goods from layered, buttery biscuits slathered with salty gravy to dense, sweet oatmeal, pecan and sorghum pies. It’s a perfect place to meet up to go over a business plan or just chat the morning away. And if you order pie for breakfast? No judgment here.
French favorites on Venice Island.
On downtown mornings, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat at this downtown Venice boulangerie, patisserie and restaurant. Credit the mountain of pastries and sweets behind the counter up front, as well as a menu loaded with quiches, sandwiches and salads. The torsades are moist and delicious, the Danishes glisten, and the cream toppings will have you licking your fingers. Every seat might be taken, but don’t lose heart: Grab a bagful of sugary treats and devour them on the pavement out front.
The cupcake capital of Southwest Florida.
America’s cupcake mania may have peaked more than a decade ago, around season three of Sex and the City, but Cupcakes a Go-Go proves that high-quality sweets outlive the rise and fall of any trend. This cramped Siesta Drive spot’s cupcakes are as delicious as they were on the day it opened 10 years ago, with a daily rotation of frostings like salted caramel and chocolate marshmallow. New? No way. Great? Oh, yes.
Curated creations from a master.
Passionate baker James Plocharsky has crafted at least one masterpiece at his bustling Gulf Gate shop: the candied bacon BLT, an all-timer that owes a big part of its genius to the house-made sourdough bread that cradles the bacon, lettuce and tomato. Plocharsky’s way with wheat extends to muffins, cookies, pies, cakes and a rotating selection of whole-loaf breads. His black olive-studded loaf is a marvel, as are his baguettes.
Mexico makes pastry-eating great again.
Grab a tray and a pair of tongs by the register at this combination restaurant and bodega, then park yourself in front of its great wall of pastries. The glass contains all manner of Mexican breads and sweets, from pineapple-stuffed cookie sandwiches made with lard to morning rolls cut with lines of Bavarian cream. Mexican pastries are often less sweet than Americans prefer, and that holds true here, too, but if you’re hunting for south-of-the-border sweets, this is where you go.
An impressive array of classic treats.
For 19 years, Paisano’s has delivered stunning sugar sensations to south Sarasota shoppers, with a pastry case the length of a hockey rink that’s filled with cookies, éclairs, tarts, brownies, pies, cakes, cupcakes, petit fours, tiramisù and so much more. The emphasis here is on cream, with cream fillings, cream toppings—cream everything. Cookies are sold by the pound. Slices of cake are as tall as your nephew. It’s overwhelming, in the best way possible.
The best-kept secret on the North Trail.
Located in a difficult-to-access strip mall right near the Sarasota airport, Mama G’s hangs a tidy pick of fresh breads on its wall every morning, with star attractions like its Kalamata olive loaf. Closer to the register, you’ll find a dizzying pick of pastries, many of them less sugary than their competitors. The crumb cake is dense and chewy, the cheese Danish is smooth and lactic, and the coffee in the back comes out of the pot at just the right temp. No wonder this place pulls in youngsters from the colleges down the road, and their teachers, too. 8431 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 203-9798, mamagscoffee.com
From croissants to challah, je t’adore.
The baguettes receive most of the attention at this Gulf Gate shop, and for good reason, but Ooh La La’s other loaves deserve love. The challah, in particular, is a triumph, a bubble-textured mass of dough with a golden, nutty crust. Challah is meant to be pulled apart, not sliced, and it’s a good thing. You’ll be tearing this thing to pieces as soon as you get back to your front seat. The challah may not fit the French theme, but it makes great French toast the morning after. There’s also an alluring selection of croissants plain and flavored and classic French pastries. 2705 Mall Drive, Sarasota, (941) 922-0169
Goodies that are good for you.
Downtown Bradenton is about to get a little sweeter, once chef Dana Johnson moves his sugar shack north from its current home in the Village of the Arts later this summer. Sugar Cubed is both a storefront that sells muffins, cookies and cakes and a major production facility, where Johnson and his staff crank out all of the tortillas used in Poppo’s Taqueria’s four locations. It might sound counterintuitive, but Sugar Cubed actually has a healthful bent, with an emphasis on whole grains and an aversion to over-frosting. Lucky you, Bradenton.
Spike your Siesta stay with intoxicating Deutschland delights.
Where the island wakes up. Stuck in an old south key strip center, Taste of Germany divides its sweets selection into two types: boozy and non-boozy. The shop’s liquor cakes include 21-and-up flavorings like vodka, tequila and whiskey. The recipes come from Tanja Hofmann, who launched the shop with her husband and son after moving from Frankfurt in 2011. Each cake includes up to a half-bottle of booze, Hofmann brags. On the sober side of the menu, Hofmann bakes streudels, cakes, pretzels and rolls, with a breakfast and lunch menu that’s heavy on egg dishes and simple sandwiches.