Conventional wisdom has it that The Great British Bake-Off, a reality-style contest for home bakers, was a ‘surprise’ hit on British TV. Rubbish. Our love of cakes and bread was never in doubt, and if anything it was kicked up a gear by the US-inspired cupcake revival that hit town in the noughties. These days the range of bakeries here in the West End is nothing short of staggering. If you like the kind you find in French provincial towns, we have those. If you prefer the kind you find on posh Parisian streets, we have those too. We have the kind that sells novelty cupcakes to hipsters in Austin and the kind rich Swedish housewives use to cater their ‘Kafferep’ afternoons. In short: if it’s cake, we’ve got it.
It seems remarkable now that there was a time when cupcakes weren’t in fashion – they’ve flatly refused to go away since their noughties resurgence, which frankly suits us just fine. The Primrose Bakery team got in on ground floor, opening in chi-chi North London neighbourhood Primrose Hill in 2004 before expanding into Tavistock Street in Covent Garden. They bake fresh every day, with a basic menu that features carrot, red velvet and salted caramel cakes. But the real magic comes from their rotating daily specials, which range from shameless crowd-pleasers like cookies and cream, peanut butter and Toblerone to subtler offerings like Earl Grey, rose and cinnamon. The Covent Garden branch offers decorating classes on selected Sundays.
Frankly we could just link you to the BB Bakery gallery page [http://www.bbbakery.co.uk/gallery/] and leave it at that. This French-inspired tearoom’s secret weapon is a fantastic modern take on the classic afternoon tea, loaded with cupcakes, macarons, sandwiches and scones. An extra £7 buys you a glass of bubbly to wash it all down with. There’s also a range of gorgeous croques, from the tried-and-tested ‘monsieur’ to the ‘saumon’, with cream cheese, cucumber and smoked salmon. If you’re planning something special, BB offers private rooms and an ‘Afternoon Tea Bus Tour’, which is exactly what it sounds like – guests get their dainties served on a vintage Routemaster bus as it passes some of London’s best-loved sights and neighbourhoods, including the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Notting Hill.
After more than a decade of runaway success New York, Keith McNally’s brasserie concept arrived in Covent Garden in 2013, bringing its bakery offshoot with it. It’s a world away from the quirky flavours and coloured icings of our favourite cupcake bakeries. Expect generous, no-nonsense French pastries and big, gnarled loaves with heavy dustings of flour. The house-made bread is used for robust sandwiches and baguettes, stuffed with big flavours like rare roast beef, cured ham and cornichons, and as you’d expect, the French pastries are out-of-the-park good – if you’re in Covent Garden and need a quick breakfast on the hoof, head here for a croissant or pain aux raisins and a strong coffee.
New Row is one of our favourite gateways to Covent Garden – a quiet, surprisingly villagey street full of cafes, galleries and gift shops. And right in the middle of it you’ll find the original Sweet Couture. It’s a cupcake specialist, with a mix of regular and special recipes that include a terrifyingly moreish Oreo cake. Founder Risham Shuja’s team are particularly strong on seasonal ideas: at time of writing they’re selling Guinness cakes for St Patrick’s Day and lemon and raspberry cakes to celebrate spring (not technically spring fruits, but it’s hard to argue with a mouthful of brilliant cake). So good are this small company’s cakes that they’ve won a contract with top-end department store Selfridge’s – you can find them at three of its in-store restaurants.
As much as we love the cupcake specialists on this list, we’d be the first to admit that London has more than its fair share of them. Swedish bakeries are a different matter. Business partners Daniel Karlsson and Sven-Gunnar Appelgren opened Bageriet in May 2013, determined to convert Londoners that their native country’s dizzying range of cakes, biscuits and pastries. It appears to have worked, and no wonder: the menu boasts gems like ‘Ungeherrar’ – vanilla biscuits filled with apricot jam and studded with pearl sugar – and ’Schwarzwaldtårta’, a cake loaded with meringue, hazelnuts and dark chocolate. Expect lots of pretzel dough, marzipan and cinnamon, and for the sake of your arteries try to resist the Klenäter, which consists of – wait for it – deep-fried cake mix.