As a successful financial consultant, Sharlena Fong spent her days wearing buttoned-up business attire and roaming New York City's World Financial Center. Then came September 11, 2001. Her professional life shaken and her priorities reorganized, she said goodbye to the world of finance, trading her power suits for a chef’s toque. After finishing culinary school and working under experienced chefs at Eleven Madison Park and Bouchon Bakery in New York City, Fong teamed up with James Gonzalez and Dennis Hunter in 2007 to open Semi Sweet Bakery in Los Angeles. Today, they all continue to work together with the same goal in mind: morphing frowns into grins with the help of fresh-baked pastries, cookies, and cakes. Hunter explains it best on the shop’s website: "No matter how bad someone's day is, no matter how much heartache someone may be going through, I get to give them a slice of cake or a piece of pastry made with love, and they smile!"
Love is not the only ingredient in their baked goods, however. Inspired by his training under Chef Monica May at Nickel Diner, Chef Gonzalez believes in using local, sustainable ingredients, making everything in-house and from scratch all while balancing each morsel’s delicate flavor profile. In the kitchen each day, chefs bake their signature ding a lings in sweet flavors such as hazelnut crunch and red velvet alongside savory empanadas stuffed with mushroom and short rib. Samoa macaroons packed with coconut, chocolate, and caramel sidle up to mugs of drip coffee and loose-leaf tea from SerendipiTe. The shop also trades in larger treats: nine-inch cakes in flavors such as strawberry three ways with jam and lemon curd fly out the door for surprise birthday parties or surprise I-ate-your-birthday-cake-in-the-car parties.
Every morning, the pastry chef of Nickel Diner officiates a sacred marriage between sweet and savory. The result is the restaurant's famed maple bacon donut: a glazed pastry topped with crumbled bacon bits. This mix of textures is a common one at the quirky venue, typifying their salt peanut cake—covered with peanut butter and potato chips—and dinner entrée of catfish with corn cakes, which derive a sweet tang from a candied pecan sauce. The creations of head chef Monica May and her team are enough to distinguish Nickel from a traditional diner (though, of course, they still flip a good burger). Nevertheless, designer Kristen Trattner dreamed up decor that matches the menu's eccentricity. On Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Guy Fieri marvels at the upside-down floor lamps on the ceiling and the mannequin busts in the window, whose hairstyles consist of sculpted meringue. Guests can greet them at breakfast, lunch, or dinnertime every day of the week except for Monday, presumably the day when they rid their beehives of actual bees.
The comic opera The Marriage of Figaro is rather fitting namesake for this French bistro: plush purple stools at a marble-topped bar and dual staircases winding up toward inlaid frescoes invoke elegance, but the full bar and pastry cases stacked with colorful macarons retain a sense of playfulness. Indeed, Les Noces du Figaro plays many roles, despite being billed simply as a bistro.
By day, the patisserie counter stocks fresh croissants, while the dining room fills with sweet and savory scents of banana crepes and Parisian-style omelets with potatoes, gruyère, and herbs. Brunch is served seven days a week here, so the breakfast menu also includes more hearty dishes such as coquilles Saint-Jacques Poêlées: sauteed scallops with spinach, papaya, and candied pistachios. There's coffee service, of course, with café au lait and cappuccinos, as well as teas infused with blends of mint-citrus or orchid-vanilla.
In the evenings, streetlights flicker on throughout the dining room, illuminating bilingual dinner menus with an exquisite selection of entrees. Meals might begin with cuisses de grenouilles—frog legs sautéed with lemon-butter—or ahi tuna tartare with avocado and cilantro. Oysters are available by the dozen or half-dozen, and served with a trio of champagne, cocktail, and horseradish sauces. Main dishes include grilled rack of lamb with mint au jus and pan-roasted duck with prosciutto-wrapped figs alongside plentiful vegetarian options, such as veggie ravioli and couscous with grass-fed tofu.
The original Beard Papa’s began filling the airs of Osaka, Japan, with the warm, wafting smells of its original-recipe cream puffs. A double-layer puff featuring piecrust on the outside and a mixture of vanilla custard cream and whipped cream on the inside, the successful little treats have led the bakery to expand to more than 300 locations throughout Southeast Asia, Russia, the United States, and the moon. The venerable bakery has also graduated to other pint-size desserts and Asian-influenced treats, including mochi ice cream and mango ice showers, a fusion of shaved ice, layered sweet sauce, and mango chunks.
The last words you might think you'd hear from a baker are "easy sugar." At Sweet Dreamery Desserts, however, owner Andrea insists on putting the cake at center stage, not the frosting. Inspired by her mother, who baked authentic goodies for the family's Belizean restaurant, Andrea set out on her own baking journey at the tender age of 8, putting her two Easy-Bake ovens to work. Today, the ovens are bigger and the recipes are more refined, but there's a bit of that early passion in everything she does. Andrea and her staff bake cakes, cupcakes, and cake pops to order, creating them all from scratch in small batches to preserve the home-baked taste and the friendships struck between like-minded chocolate chips. They use no preservatives or artificial additives in the batter, just wholesome, natural ingredients such as real vanilla extract and salt-free butter.
Devan and Reena Shah, and Tek Mehreteab are passionate about tea. By sourcing leaves from eight regions in India, China, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Japan, they are able to proffer more than 300 standard and specialty varieties online and inside Chado Tea Room. The name Chado, taken from the Chinese cha, meaning "tea," and the Japanese do, meaning "path," speaks to the owners’ strict standards for their product. Many of their green, black, white, and oolong teas are USDA-certified organic; the Shahs also stock unique varieties such as Chinese pu-er teas and hand-tied blooming tea balls. In addition, they brew special house blends for morning, afternoon, and evening, helping customers find the right blend to start the day or serve to bats that have invaded their home.
Staffers pair teas with an array of cream-topped scones, cookies, cakes, and roasted savory sandwiches during teatime at Chado's three tearooms. Though each location is decorated differently, the same three-tiered sandwich platters and steaming pots of tea travel between panda paintings hanging in the Los Angeles location, underneath strings of holiday lights at the Pasadena location, and between ceiling-high wooden shelves stocked with mugs, filters, teapots, and bags of loose-leaf tea at the Hollywood location.