The history of French pastry-making is, like almost everything else in the Gallic world, passionately disputed. Some claim it starts with the 13th-century baker Régnaut-Barbon, who rolled sweet, cone-shaped patisseries similar to waffles called “oubliés” and demanded official status for those who made them– les oublayeurs. (Why the name for these early pastries literally means “forgottens” is itself curious, but it probably relates to the word oblation, suggesting an offering made by a vassal to his lord.)
Others say the art of patisserie for which France is so renowned owes a whole lot to Italy. The influence of Queen Marie de’ Medici is especially strong: she introduced ice-cream, and possibly macarons, to her adopted country after marrying King Henri IV in 1600.
Genoises, frangipane, and other typical delicacies also have Italian origins. The invention of puff pastry by Marie de’ Medici’s cook Popelini in 1540 cements the Italian-influence thesis.
But whatever the twists and turns may be in the history of patisserie (ones I will happily attempt to decrypt in a separate piece soon), one thing remains indisputable: Paris is an ideal hub for tasting a variety of superb, beautifully made French pastries.
I decided to spotlight what I consider to be some outstanding, often creative examples of a few typical patisseries and viennoiseries in the capital (the latter referring to bread-like confections, e.g. pain au chocolat.)
My choices are based on recent tastings or experiences of places I’ve returned to several times over the years. They obviously reflect my subjective preferences and (limited) experience, rather than representing some sort of purported “best of” list.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of wonderful patisseries in the capital, and I can’t pretend to have knowledge of them all. And because I don’t know the left bank nearly as well as the right, my list is also imbalanced in that regard (leaving me with some, erm, *painful* research to carry out in the future).
Scroll down to the end for links to more complete suggestions on the best addresses in Paris. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this laywoman’s account of a few unforgettable tastings.
Over time, I hope to add more pastries and patissiers to the list as I widen my horizons. In the meantime, feel free to share some of your own tastings and suggestions in the comments field at the end of the post!
The Pain au Chocolat at Arnaud Delmontel
I first stumbled on the Arnaud Delmontel bakery a couple of years ago, out on a walk to explore the much-fussed-about Rue des Martyrs area. Occupying a large, ornate boutique at the corner of Rue Navarin, the patisserie is known as one of the better places in the 9th arrondissement for breads and loaves, cakes, tarts and all variety of traditional pastries– but often with creative twists. The baker of the same name opened his boutique at this location in 1999, and has since opened two more in northeastern Paris.
I was out on a morning stroll, so ended up settling on something simple but hard to do truly well: the pain au chocolat. This viennoiserie, when exemplary, has plenty of light, flaky layers, but isn’t overly crispy, nor puffy. It’s made with pure, high-quality butter (no margarine, s’il vous plait!) and isn’t actually overloaded with chocolate.
Instead, small rectangular blocks of bittersweet chocolate are carefully folded in on either side of the little loaves. It should come through strongly and melt in your mouth, but not overwhelm the pastry. And anyone who adds chocolate crème patissière, ganache, or some other form of the stuff to the pastry is not producing a traditional pain au chocolat– even if the result sounds delicious.
Armand Delmontel’s version ticked all the boxes for a nearly ideal specimen. Airy and fluffy, yet slightly chewy, it revealed well-differentiated layers of buttery pastry when torn into, and there were balanced and satisfying chunks of partly melted chocolate.
It was so delicious that it had be digging furiously at the bottom of the paper bag to scoop up any crumbs I could. In short, it was flaky, melty, buttery perfection.
I need to return to the bakery to try its many other delicious-looking pastries, from chocolate eclairs and religieuses to lemon tarts, macarons and financiers.
The bread is also reputed to be outstanding (Delmontel won the prize for best baguette in Paris in 2007).
Getting There: 39 rue de Martyrs, 9th arrondissement (Metro Saint-Georges or Pigalle)
The Chocolate Eclairs at Yann Couvreur
It was during a food tour of Paris with Eating Europe that I discovered the talents of Yann Couvreur, one of the rising-star pastry chefs and patisserie owners in Paris who’s been snagging accolades for his unique, invariably delicious creations.
During the aforementioned tour, we visited Couvreur’s flagship shop near République, at the edge of the Belleville district. He only opened it in 2016, but since then it’s become an essential gourmet address in the area.
We tasted a delightfully tangy lemon tart and a “Caribbean” eclair, melding chocolate and coconut.
I’m a big fan of a good eclair, but to whet my cravings it has to be (a. cold (b. generously iced with chocolate or coffee icing (c. be filled with rich crème patissière, and not (god forbid) whipped cream or something else. In other words, I can be a picky eclair eater.
The chocolate eclairs at Yann Couvreur do work outside of the traditional lines. For one, the choux pastry is worked into perfect rectangular shapes, unusual for this dessert.
Couvreur puts out limited edition flavors regularly, from the aforementioned chocolate-coconut to chocolate and tonka bean (a rich marvel that was generously filled with an almost ganache-like chocolate cream, and topped with crunchy slivers of tonka beans.) For those who read French and want to give it a try, there’s a recipe here.
At the moment, the official website mentions a chocolate eclair with Bailey’s. Sounds perfect for the coming winter (as this goes to press.)
Getting There: 137 Avenue Parmentier, 11th arrondissement; Metro Parmentier (see other locations here)
The Lemon Tartelette at Farine et O
With two boutiques in Paris–one recently established on the foodie-centric Rue des Martyrs– Farine et O is slowly establishing itself as a heavyweight in the patisserie world.
Founded by award-winning pastry chef Olivier Magne, the bakery is, as I mentioned in my semi-recent review, one of the rare places in Paris to offer both fantastic pastries and breads. French cultural dogma states that you can be truly outstanding at one or the other. But not both.
Magne defies that assumption, at least in my book. I discovered his patisserie by chance on a stroll along the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, not far from the Bastille. The intense smell of bread mingling with butter and sugar drew me in. The beautiful window displays helped, too.
I tried a hunk of focaccia, a baguette topped with toasted sesame and poppy seeds, and a pain au chocolat glazed with crunchy stripes of candied orange, called “Le Pain d’Antoine” (perhaps after the street where the first boutique opened its doors). All were incredibly delicious.
But the specialty that had me return almost immediately to procure dessert for dinner at a friend’s place was the tarte au citron, a delightfully presented version of the traditional lemon tart that was as scrumptious as it looked.
Intensely tangy lemon crème patissière, beautifully finished rounds of meringue, and buttery, crumbly pastry that still held together beautifully all won huge points. It was topped by delicate mounds of more lemon cream.
Lemon tarts too often tend to underwhelm me; either they lack the intense citrus punch I expect with each bite, or the pastry is too tough (or, god forbid again, made with margarine! Note to the margarine lobby: do not approach us for sponsored ads. We’re just not receptive here at Paris Unlocked).
All jokes aside: If you, like I do, prefer a tarte au citron that almost literally punches you with lemony goodness, get thee to this patisserie to try it. Make sure to pick up some bread, too.
More Info: See my full review of Farine et O here
The Butter Croissant at La Maison d’Isabelle
This humble bakery in the Latin Quarter won the prestigious award for best all-butter croissants in Paris in 2018– and it’s not hard to (taste) why.
I was hesitant to include croissants on this list at all, since they’re not really in the sweets/desserts category and are thus somewhat out of place. But since they’re a versatile treat that can just as easily be smeared with jam or nutella and/or dipped in a cappuccino, it seemed worthwhile to mention them.
Made with some of France’s most coveted butter– the creamy, delightfully rich stuff from Pamplie, in the Charentes-Poitou region–the croissant au beurre from the Maison d’ Isabelle is sort of the Platonic ideal of the thing.
Flaky and rich with intensely buttery layers that melt in the mouth, it has a golden crust and a pliable, soft interior. It’s not too doughy, though– the layers are even and well-differentiated. The flavors? Pure yet oddly complex. This is the mark of products made with top-shelf ingredients.
In a word, try it on your next whirl through the Quartier Latin. The prices at this bakery are refreshingly reasonable, too, and the cakes, tarts, and viennoiseries look equally delicious.
More Info: See more about the bakery and my full review of the croissant au beurre in my full review of La Maison d’Isabelle.
The Religieuse au Chocolat at Maison Julien
One of my favorite French pastries is a chocolate nun.
Huh? Let me explain. Some bored patissier who had too many oddly sized choux (rounded egg-based pastry) lying around probably decided one day that it would be amusing (and potentially delicious) to mortar chou layers together with chocolate icing and patisserie cream, building what might be said to slightly resemble…a nun. Une réligieuse. Hence, the birth of the pastry that stole my heart (and palate).
Actually, this is an entirely made-up history. One day I’ll look up the real one. In the meantime, let me sing the praises of one chocolate réligieuse from La Maison Julien, a bakery in the slightly remote 17th district that won the prize for best baguette in Paris in 2019.
I had headed there to taste the baguette in question– and it was indeed worth all the fuss. While there, I eyed the neatly arranged window of pastries, and couldn’t resist.
Taking both the baguette and the réligieuse to a nearby park, I greedily devoured the latter, shocking the delicate sensibilities of the ducks and geese, no doubt.
This was, simply, one of the most delicious examples of this theatrical chou-based pastry I’d yet tasted. Each layer in the towering construction featured crunchy, nicely caramelized chou pastry, filled with generous amounts of perfectly cold chocolate cream. It was topped with rich chocolate icing and a “collar” of coffee cream.
In short, what a sister.
Getting There: 13 rue Pierre Demours, 75017 (17th arrondissement, Metro Courcelles or Argentine)
The Kouglof at Yann Couvreur
I’ve never been much of a fan of yeasted cakes, which I tend to find too dry and uninspired. But because I had been so thoroughly taken with anything I tasted by Yann Couvreur (see #2 above), I decided to go against my instincts and try something non-chocolate-related on one visit.
The kouglof (also spelled as kugelhopf or kougelhopf) is a traditional cake with origins in the Alsatian region, hence the Germanic ring. It’s a funnel-shaped, caramelized and yeasted cake that’s typically flavored and decorated with sugar, rum, and raisins.
Couvreur’s own recipe has a deep-caramel quality to it, with perfectly sweet, slightly crunchy raisins and a wonderful mouth-feel that danced between crisp, buttery and soft. The exterior is decorated with sugar and nicely complemented by almond slivers– a lovely touch.
It’s also subtly infused with orange peel and a touch of orange blossom, adding delicious bitter and floral notes that I thought added a lot to the flavor.
This is still not the sort of thing I’d typically spring for for dessert. But I can imagine that accompanied by a cup of coffee or tea, it would make an ideal (and not overly sweet) breakfast pastry. You know, for those days when you’re hopelessly bored with croissants and pain au raisin. One can dream, right?
Getting There: 137 Avenue Parmentier, 11th arrondissement; Metro Parmentier (find other Paris locations here)
The Opera Cake at Dalloyau
Over the years, I’ve tasted countless versions of the Opera cake, a Parisian classic. It’s a rectangular chocolate slice typically made with fine layers of chocolate ganache, coffee liqueur-soaked “joconde” biscuits, and coffee cream, then topped with a dark chocolate icing. These are simply some of my favorite flavor combinations, so it’s a dessert I find hard to pass up.
Dalloyau, a patisserie with royal roots stretching as far back as the 1600s, claims that its pastry chef Cyrique Gavillon invented the opera cake in the mid-twentieth century. (Remember what I was saying about Gallic patisserie disputes? Parisian rival pastissier Gaston Le Notre also claims to have created the cake).
I only tasted the Dalloyau version recently, heading expressly to the shop near the Elysées presidential palace on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to procure one. I then grabbed coffee to go (pretty gauche by Parisian standards) and brought my spoils to a nearby square.
It didn’t disappoint. The chocolate and coffee flavors were both wonderfully intense, and the sugar levels weren’t overly cloying (something I typically appreciate about French desserts).
My only critique was that the biscuit layers weren’t quite as crunchy as I like them in an Opera– but I admit that I had carried around the boxed slice in the morning sun for a while, and this may have to do with it getting a bit too warm, and thus losing some of the biscuit-y crunch.
Others have described it as being perfectly balanced in this respect, so I guess I’ll have to have a second taste at some point, soon. Again, life is hard…
Getting There: 101 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, 8th arrondissement (see all locations in Paris here)
The Macarons at Jean-Paul Hévin
Jean-Paul Hévin is perhaps best known for his superb single-origin chocolates (again, watch out for a separate feature dedicated to all things chocolate soon). But it’s his macarons that I know best, and have consistently loved.
His airy, crunchy, decadently filled macarons are rivaled (for me, anyway) only by those by Pierre Hermé, who gets so many accolades that he probably doesn’t need any extra mention.
Hévin’s shop in a courtyard off the fashion-conscious Rue Saint Honoré offers a mouthwatering selection of macarons alongside the chocolates, with flavors ranging from the simple– vanilla, dark chocolate, creme brulée– to unusual and gourmet.
Two of my favorites are café, featuring a white coffee shell filled with coffee ganache and topped with cinnamon, and Pablino, an
almond and dark chocolate-flavored macaron filled with Peruvian dark chocolate ganache.
Fruity macaron lovers will want to try inventive flavors such as Fig’in, a dark chocolate and fig shell filled with chocolate and crunchy fig ganache, or Mangu’in, featuring a mik chocolate and mandarin orange biscuit filled with mango and orange ganache.
Getting There: 231 Rue Saint-Honoré, 75001 (Metro: Tuileries or Pyramides; see all other locations in Paris here)
Other Superb Patisseries in Paris
Not to belabor the point I made above, but this list is not meant to be a definitive one. There are many more places (and bakers) that deserve to be on it, but since my approach is to focus on a few “signature bakes” and addresses rather than attempt an exhaustive guide, I’ve obviously not mentioned many talents.
Luckily, the web is a big place. See suggestions from the team of talented food writers and chefs over at Paris by Mouth for a list of recommended bakeries and patisseries in the capital, grouped by arrondissement or city district.
I also regularly turn to the musings of pastry chef and author David Lebovitz for ideas on where to head for new tastings. This page at his site is especially helpful (but is making my stomach rumble even more than it had been).
To admire and taste a wide variety of excellent pastries, you can head to places like Lafayette Gourmet (the food hall at the Galeries Lafayette department store) and La Grande Epicerie, the dizzyingly large gourmet market at Le Bon Marché.
The latter is located on the left bank at the edge of the Latin Quarter, while Lafayette Gourmet is on the right bank, close to the Opera Garnier and the Grands Boulevards district.
Finally, one place I can’t recommend more for indecisive pastry-tasters is Fou de Patisserie, a shop that showcases cakes, tarts, millefeuilles, and other creations from several of the best patissiers and bakers in Paris.
It’s an excellent pit stop to pick up a box of various creative and beautiful pastries from the likes of Pierre Hermé, Nicolas Bacheyre, Cyril Lignac, and Jacques Génin. You can read my full review of the Rue de Martyrs location and one of its signature pastries (from Bacheyre) here.