Posted by Editorial / Thursday, March 13th, 2014
By Stefanie Gans
“The city may be awash, as I’ve written before, in a happy tidal wave of artisanal bakeries, ice cream parlors, and New Age doughnut shops,” writes New York magazine’s non-anonymous restaurant critic Adam Platt, “but the grim reality is that for lovers of the old-fashioned, sit-down restaurant dessert, this is the Dark Age.”
Platt’s article incites a needed conversation on the last meal of the night, and it’s already happening on Twitter (here, here and here). Dessert is an important part of the dining out experience; it is an extra act of indulgence not always allowed at home.
We dedicated the March cover story of Northern Virginia Magazine to desserts. I tracked down treats ranging from a fried cupcake to a classic chocolate mousse. We highlighted local bakeries, including one selling a faux cronu*t, and interviewed the area’s preeminent pastry chef and 2014 James Beard semifinalist, Tiffany MacIsaac. She explains the plight of the pastry chef and why so few restaurants hire full time dessert-makers. She also tells us why that slice of pie costs $10.
Why You Should Gladly Pay $10 for Dessert
“Being a chef is having a balance and ego and humility. Because you can’t just have an ego, that never goes well with staff and they won’t respect you. But you have to have enough of an ego to stand by what you do. It’s not only getting your name out there: The main reason you want to get your name out there is because it’s how you get more funds in a restaurant to have more assistants, more time and more equipment to do cool things. You can’t really quantify what exactly a pastry department brings to the business because you never really make your money back on pastry. But the reason you pay $10 for dessert is not because the dessert cost $10, it’s because it took two people make it. Only 40 percent of people get the dessert. Unless you do a tasting menu, it’s not a 100 percent.
The main thing [restaurant owners] look for is: Do people know of this pastry chef? And, do people know about the desserts they make here? You can’t see exactly how much money that brings back to the restaurant. You know that over time it does bring people through the door with the dessert. It’s not necessarily about becoming famous, it’s more about making sure that you’re a crucial part of the team.”
—Tiffany MacIsaac, Pastry Chef for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, as told to Stefanie Gans
By Maddy Berner
No matter the time of day, or diet you’re on, everyone craves the sweet, decadent taste of dessert. Thankfully, the Northern Virginia area is teeming with various sprinkled delights. From fro-yo to giant cupcakes, use your lunch break to explore only the newest and most delicious in dessert fashion. Only the finest sweet shops take residence in NoVA, and we categorized the best by location to help you get to know them.
Something to remember: Larger chains often have multiple locations in the NoVA area. If you see a shop you want to try, look for it in a community closer to you.
*Know of a bakery or cafe that’s absolutely delicious but isn’t featured on here yet? Leave a comment below and we’ll keep updating as we discover new places!
Take a baking class and learn how to make these decadent treats, or simply shop the menu for an array of cakes, tarts and bars. Each one is made with the utmost care by Deirdre Parker, who has been in the business for years. Just Desserts also offers seasonal sweets, as well as catering services./ Alexandria; 703-801-6325; justdessertsva.com
Lavender Moon Cupcakery
Blood Orange Dreamsicle, Mexican Chocolate Pudding – it’s obvious this bake shop has a knack for uniquely-flavored cupcakes. Some online reviewers say it’s the best in the NoVA and D.C. area with their intensely moist, sweet cakes and decadent frosting./ 116 South Royal St., Alexandria; 703-683-0588; www.alexandriacupcake.com
This shop calls itself a cupcake boutique bakery, complete with European style décor. But the real treat is the cupcakes, which are heavenly in their simplicity and taste. Their daily flavors include dark chocolate and red velvet, but call ahead to see if they’re serving their PB&J or rosewater cupcake./1022 King St., Alexandria.; 703-299-9099; www.alexandriacupcake.com
Alexandria Pastry Shop
Not only does this Alexandria staple offer gluten-free, sugar-free and allergy sensitive specialties, but they use locally-grown produce and European chocolate in their batters. They even offer seasonal treats like gingerbread and pumpkin bread. With wedding cake and catering services available, this place seems like the one-stop shop for all your sugary desires./ Bradley Shopping Center, 3690-H, King St., Alexandria.; 703-578-4144; alexandriapastry.com
Buzz Bakery and Lounge
You’ll feel like you stepped into a sweet treat wonderland at Buzz Bakery. Go early for breakfast, or stop in the afternoon to browse their cupcakes, pies and cookies. Then, come back at night where comfortable couches and intimate table settings make a hot spot for romance./ 901 Slaters Lane, Alexandria.; 703-600-2899; www.buzzbakery.com
Hollin Hall Pastry Shop
Hollin Hall has won numerous awards for their take on weddings cakes and other pastries. Not only do they offer your typical treats, but they also sell a variety of decadent mousses in flavors you probably won’t find anywhere else. See what 30-year pastry veteran Mel Meadows is cooking up!/ 7920 Fort Hunt Road, Alexandria.;703-768-9643; www.hollinhallpastry.com.
Yes, this café and catering company offers a variety of cupcake combinations – coconut cake with lemon buttercream, anyone? But they also serve savory cupcakes like mini lasagnas and mac n’ cheese. But if you’re going for sweet, try their Kahlua mocha trifle, lemon cloud mousse, or others. The possibilities are endless./ 823 King St., Alexandria.; 703-549-1028; www.bittersweetcatering.com.
The Dairy Godmother
Professionally-trained and lover all things sweet and fluffy – Liz Davis has created a unique place for custard lovers. Check online for her Flavor of the Day (sometimes Mexican chocolate or summer pudding), then purchase a homemade dog treat for your furry pal. Both man and man’s best friend will not be able to resist her original family-style desserts./ 2310 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria.; 703-683-7767; www.thedairygodmother.com.
Rita’s Italian Ice
Combine Italian ice and custard and you have Rita’s. This chain is a favorite amongst many in the area, especially on a scorching hot day. Their menu contains every frozen treat you can think of, with toppings to mix into each one. Go classic with an Italian ice, or load up on the mix-ins with a creamy custard Blendini./ Alexandria Plaza 6242-C, Little River Turnpike, Alexandria.; 703-256-RITA; www.ritasice.com.
The real Cake Bosses are right here in town and they have a custom-made cake for any occasion. Choose from a variety of more than 100 flavors including carrot cake, cookies n’ cream, fuzzy navel, red velvet and tiramisu and let these artists work their magic for birthdays, weddings or even dessert (cupcakes). / 8859 Richmond Highway, Alexandria; 703-780-2253; occasionallycake.com
Red Velvet Cupcakery
This bake shop recently came to the Clarendon area in 2011. Using locally grown ingredients, their cupcakes are moist, fresh and decadent. They even donate their leftovers to shelters and organizations in the area. Suggestion? Try the red velvet. It’s ultra-sweet and, of course, a classic./ 3035 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington.;703-243-5660; www.redvelvetcupcakery.com.
Another popular chain bake shop is Crumbs, also located in Clarendon. They sell brownies, muffins and cakes, but they are known for their giant-sized cupcakes, which can easily feed two or more with their abundance of frosting and taste. Buy one to split in flavors such as Key Lime and Dulce de Leche./ 2839 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington.; 703-5244001; www.crumbs.com.
Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt
The Arlington location of this fro-yo giant just opened a few years ago, but has become successful in luring in customers with their unique and healthy toppings. Choose a base flavor then pile on syrups and toppings. These guys promise you’ll feel light and refreshed – just like their yogurt./ 2930 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington.;703-312-9433; www.pinkberry.com
When you walk into this quaint gelato and coffee shop, you’ll think the ice cream looks too good to eat. Take a bite into rich flavors like cake batter and banana or request your own idea for a creamy concoction on their chalkboard. Fun, different and deliciously authentic./ 2719 Wilson Blvd., Arlington.; 703-869-6522; www.boccato.com
Hiedelberg Pastry Shoppe
Hailing from Germany, Heidelberg’s authentic treats have public officials from all over the area coming for more. Since 1975, the Büchlers have been serving desserts that satisfy both sides of the Atlantic. Take a number and enjoy complimentary coffee while waiting for you order./ 2150 N. Culpeper St., Arlington.; 703-527-8394; www.heidelbergbakery.com
Pastries by Randolph
This local favorite takes pride in their dedication to dessert. Cakes of all shapes and flavors are available and can be custom-made. They also offer pastries like petit fours, chocolate dipped strawberries and small tea cookies. These guys keep it real and keep customers coming back./ 4500 Lee Highway, Arlington.; 703-243-0070; www.pastriesbyrandolph.com
For authentic Armenian desserts, Arax Café reigns supreme. Ice cream and sweet treats like baklava are popular, and often reflect the season. Summery flavors like mango and coconut will relieve you on a hot day, but the friendly customer service will stick with you forever./ 5852 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington.; 703-532-3320.
We gave them a “Best of NoVA” award for their cupcakes, but the sister/owners’ passion and dedication to flavor speaks for itself. We’re not sure where to start on their menu – with choices such as pistachio, orange and blackberry – but their decadent vanilla and chocolate cupcakes are surefire winners./ 11944 Grand Commons Ave., Fairfax.; 571-522-6315; cupcakesactually.com
Prize-winning cheesecakes and sculpted cakes make this dessert shop well-known and divine for those with a serious sweet tooth. Owner Kimberly works tirelessly to decorate cakes for any occasion, making sure even smaller treats like cookies and cake pops are original and baked to perfection./ 13140 Madonna Lane, Fairfax.;703-362-8942; www.simplydessertsonline.com
Breeze Bakery Cafe
Annandale and Centreville might be Koreatown with their endless options of BBQ’ed bulgogi and H Marts, but sometimes it can be hard to find a good Asian bakery. Breeze satisfies this need with its desserts, including sweet potato cakes, Bing Soo (gelato) and bubble tea. Plus, it’s open until midnight all week just in case your date at Honey Pig runs late. So grab a bite, then relax on the upstairs deck with friends – and forget you’re in Annandale at all! / 4125 Hummer Road, Annandale; 703-462-9093; breezebakery.com
The Swiss Bakery and Pastry Shop
Guten Tag! If you’re looking for a place to score decadent German sweets without dealing with pesky customs, look no further. The Swiss Bakery, with locations in Springfield and Burke, offers European chocolates, fresh-baked pastries and wine and beer from across the pond. Tschüß! / Ravensworth Shopping Center, 5224 Port Royal Road, Springfield; 703-321-3670; Burke Town Plaza, 9536 Old Keene Mill, Burke; 703-569-3670; swissbakery.com
Pound cake, scones and delicate tea desserts separate this bakery from your normal cake shop. Of course, the classic wedding cake option is also available, with flavors like lemon and almond on hand. Look for the quaint red shutters outside this welcoming dessert establishment./ 10430 Main St., Fairfax; 703-273-0800; www.victoriascakeryinc.com
For an Asian spin on American classics, visit Shilla for their successful blend of both. The staff has traveled to countries like Japan and South Korea, looking for that hot new dessert trend. Their website even contains a section for new products. Ever heard of melon bread? Read more online!/ 10940 Fairfax Blvd. Suite E-F, Fairfax.; 703-691-1171; intelisystemstest.com/shilla
Owner and founder David Behnam has been in the business for 30 years, whipping up custom wedding cakes, pies and cheesecakes. Converse with the friendly staff, sip coffee and browse whatever seasonal flavors this award-winning bakery is offering at the time./ 9557 Braddock Road, Fairfax.; 703-426-7202; www.theuniquebakery.com
Customers online rave about the dozens of gelato options available here. Everything is made fresh, including a warm waffle or French crepe to accompany to your frozen delight. Flavors include strawberry, tiramisu, hazelnut and coconut./ 9432 Main St., Fairfax.; 703-978-2112.
Woody’s Ice Cream
It’s a simple, classic ice cream shop taking residence in the 21st century. Get freshly-made soft-serve ice cream in a cone, dipped in chocolate, or over a brownie. Splurge for a milkshake in flavors like peanut butter and black cherry. Only open for the summer!/ 10435 North St, Fairfax.; 703-277-9553; www.woodysicecream.com
Vina Café Bakery
This dessert shop was originally a Chinese bakery, but the family updated it to include a fusion of eastern and western flavors. They now serve Taiwanese-style buns, Vietnamese-style pastries and of course, all-American cakes./ 3900-C Pickett Road, Fairfax.; 703-239-2828; www.vinacafebakery.com
Dulce’s Bakery and Empanada Shop
Entering this dessert shop will transport you south to the rich culture of Latin America. Grab an authentic empanada – sweet or savory – then try with one of their cupcakes or cookies. These guys are longtime NoVA locals, and are dedicated on bringing their unique flavors to you./ 3900-C Pickett Road, Fairfax.; 703-978-8021; dulcesbakery.com
A quick milkshake fix can be satisfied at this small, intimate shop in Falls Church. They serve sandwiches as well, but the ice cream and milkshakes are too creamy and sweet to pass up. Try the coconut and taste actual slivers of roasted coconut mixed inside./ 110 N. West St., Falls Church.; 703-525-4960.
The Mirage Café
We have to ask: who hasn’t had a craving for the honeyed, crunchy taste of baklava? Thankfully, Falls Church has The Mirage, a restaurant and bakery that specializes in the Middle Eastern dessert. Order this freshly-made pastry in bulk, along with a variety of other treats packed with nuts from Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan. Try the balooria, basma or maamoul./ 5916 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church.; 703-845-1600; www.miragesweets.com/.
Frozen Dairy Bar and Boardwalk Pizza
This frozen custard shop has changed a lot since opening in 1950. But through it all, it continues to deliver some of the creamiest and most genuine ice cream in the NoVA area. There’s a lot of history in this place, so grab a cone and enjoy that old-timey atmosphere./ 6641 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church.; 703-534-4200; www.fdbpizza.com
Natalia’s Elegant Creations
Voted best bakery, coffee shop and lunch spot in Falls Church – you simply can’t miss out on the sweet and savory items offered at Natalia’s. This quaint little café specializes in fresh, high-quality products that can be vegan and/or gluten-free. Their gourmet cupcakes almost look too pretty to eat and their various tortes will have your mouth quivering for more./ 230 West Broad St., Falls Church; 703-241-8040; www.nataliaselegantcreations.com/.
Mom’s Apple Pie Company
Experience the warm, comfortable feeling whenever you dive into an apple pie again and again – and without preservatives. All your favorites are featured on the menu, including stand-outs like almond amaretto, peach and the ever-classic apple. Their blackberry pie was even voted one of the best in the south by Southern Living Magazine. Breads and cookies are also available./ 126 A Commerce St., Occoquan; 703-497-7437; 220 Loudoun St., SE, Leesburg.; 703-771-8590; http://www.momsapplepieco.com/.
A cupcakery “that delivers to you” sounds almost perfect to us, but it’s the variety of cupcake flavors that seal the deal. Come in every day for a different selection: Snicker’s, Coconut, Watermelon, Maple Bacon and Pistachio – just to name a few. And this place loves to support the community, so choose them next time you want to host a party or school event!/ 12801 Galveston Court, Manassas.;703-670-6639; http://www.confectionsonline.com/.
Danielle and her baking expertise have been featured on multiple news outlets, which proves just how divine and delicious her treats really are. Layer cakes, pies and cookies, among others, sprinkle the menu. She even offers gluten-free desserts, enjoyed in a warm and inviting atmosphere./ 2001 International Drive, McLean.; 703-442-4096; http://www.daniellesdesserts.com/.
Reston and Herndon
Edibles Incredible Desserts
To start, the cake designs featured at this shop are one-of-a-kind and impressive – we would know, we’ve featured them in our magazine twice! Past the cakes are cool confections like gourmet truffles, rich fudge and of course, cupcakes topped with loads of frosting./ 11917 Freedom Drive, Reston.;703-709-8200; www.ediblesincredible.com
The CupCake Ladi
“Superior quality, superior taste,” is what the CupCake Ladi says about her organic cupcakes. They’re made with certified organic ingredients, meaning their great taste will leave an equally great feeling in your stomach. One NoVA Mag reader says you haven’t lived until you try her Moo Moo Moo Cow cupcake, but there are so many options, you’ll be itching to try them all!/11412 West Washington Plaza, Reston.; 703-787-6775; http://www.thecupcakeladi.com/.
Milwaukee Frozen Custard
If you thought there were only two flavors of custard, think again. Milwaukee serves more of them than we can count, with the amount of mouth-watering toppings surpassing even that. Creamy custard is mixed with crumbs and glazes to create blends like s’mores, lemon meringue pie and pumpkin pie./ 300 Elden St., Herndon.;703-467-0900; www.milwaukeefrozencustard.com
This chain claims they use only the freshest ingredients, such as grass-fed cow milk and free-range eggs, which they often import themselves. Their shop serves flavors ranging from sweet to tart, all with an authentic Italian twist. Pitango customers deserve the best of the best, and the gelato definitely delivers it./ 11942 Democracy Drive, Reston.;703-606-9906; www.pitangogelato.com
Always fresh and always handmade – that’s something promised by Chesapeake Chocolates. This dessert shop specializes in chocolate truffles, bark and shapes, making sure to add a little texture with nuts, dried fruit and toffee. Stop into this family-owned location for your next Valentine’s Day gift. They make it personal./ 11426 Washington Plaza West, Reston.; 703-620-0082; www.cheschoc.com
Nielsen’s Frozen Custard
Nielsen’s ice cream feels like melted butter on the tongue– smooth, creamy and oh, so good. There are loads of fun toppings to choose from, but nothing is wrong with going au natural. Made fresh every few hours, this frozen treat is hard to beat./ 144 Church St. NW, Vienna.; 703-255-5553.
An ever-increasing demand for sweets caused this bakery to relocate not once, but twice! Amphora now employs over 20 experienced bakers, chefs and designers to bring the rich taste of Europe to every bread and pastry on the shelf./ 405 Maple Ave. West, Vienna.; 703-281-5631; www.amphorabakery.com
The name of this cupcakery speaks for itself. Simple, elegant and just plain delicious – if that’s what you’re looking for, then Cupcakes! makes it easy. Choose from cupcakes of the classic variety, or change it up with lemon blueberry and pumpkin./ 527 Maple Ave. West, Vienna.;703-938-3034; www.cupcakescupcakery.com
Sweet City Desserts
The concept of this shop was to allow customers to watch the pastry chefs as they work. They can order any of the Filipino-style desserts, then relax in the lounge area surrounded by free Wi-fi and soft music. Try a purple yam cupcake first, it’s just one of many unique flavors there./ 131-A Maple Ave. West, Vienna.; 703-938-8188; sweetcitydesserts.co
The Pie Gourmet
If you thought you knew every type of pie, think again. The Pie Gourmet offers dozens more, as well as specialty cakes, cheesecakes and other desserts. Check out the photos of each pie, then choose the right flavor for any occasion. It’s guaranteed to delight the taste buds./ 507 Maple Ave. West, Vienna.; 703-281-7437; www.piegourmet.com
Cenan’s Baked Goods
Stop into Cenan’s for a sandwich, but stay for their array of homemade pastries, including delights like brioche, meringues and Turkish delights that are authentic and sweet. Cenan himself promises hearty, fresh bread every morning, without the icky preservatives./ 122 Branch Road SE, Vienna.; 703-242-0070; www.cenansbakery.com
Since 1986 Yas has been supplying Vienna with delicious Persian cookies and cakes. If you count yourself among the many baklava lovahs, this market is a must-stop shop. One Yelp reviewer says, “If you’re interested in unique foods, Yas is like a playground.” / 137 Church St. NW, Vienna; 703-242-4050; yasbakery.com
A patisserie (often spelled with a miniature rooftop accent thing over the ‘a’) is a French or Belgian bakery that specializes in pastries and sweets. This family-owned hidden gem boasts a selection of tempting desserts that will have you packing on the pounds if you’re not too careful with their marzipan, creme brulee and macaroons. There’s even key lime pie, which is undeniably hard to find in NoVA. / 167 Glyndon St. SE, Vienna; 703-255-6880; silvaspatisserie.com