A tantalisingly delicate cake. A crispy, flaky croissant. A soft, cloud-like bun.
There’s nothing quite like a good pastry. In fact, they’re so important to our culture, it’s baked into our language.
So in the search for the best in London, we popped into only the upper crust of the city’s bun houses to see which among them really take the cake. And to properly sort the wheat from the chaff, we had to take a look at the whole affair – from the range of goods available, to the bakery space, to the provenance of their flour, and more. So these are the winners…
…they’re the best things since sliced bread.
The Dusty Knuckle
The Dusty Knuckle started life in a 40ft shipping container. Now, they’ve expanded to a site considerably larger than that. You’ll find it very much tucked away, on a little side street that you need to know about to get to. There is no passing trade here, this bakery is a destination.
That’s because for a bakery like this, you need a lot of space. A lot more than 40ft. And walking in, it appears to be cavernously large, extending back like a warehouse. Everything has the sheen of functionality, from the concrete floor, to the simple chairs, to the cork-board bakery counter.
Behind it, you’ll find all manner of goods, from pain au chocolat, to ‘morning buns’ (fat rolls of croissant dough tossed in cinnamon sugar), to date & fig buns dipped in coffee. They make a particularly good croissant dough here, and it makes the basis for a lot of their pastry. And we, the punters, are all the better off for it. And of course, we need to mention the bread too. Their potato sourdough is absolutely worth getting a loaf of.
Best Pastry? The Orange & Poppyseed Swirl is something else. It’s made with croissant dough and a sweet poppy seed mix, then formed into a double-swirl of interlocking dough. Each bite gives you crispiness, yielding dough, zestily bright orange, and sweet poppyseed. There are no lazy players, every part acts like the soloist. And it’s gigantic.
Dietaries? There are plenty of vegan options, and gluten free. Very good in that regard.
Seating? Plentiful, both indoor and out.
Extras? They do an excellent line in lunches, particularly the sandwiches that they make with their own bread. A Paxton’s Cheddar sarnie, a porchetta sandwich, a vegan roll stuffed with deep-fried dumplings – there’s something for everyone. Oh, and there are pizzas, too.
Delivery? Yes, via the Dusty Knuckle Milk Float. It’s not quite as simple as a regular delivery, but it makes up for it in charm. Pre-order here.
Details: Abbot St, London E8 3DP | £
Jolene is part bakery, part restaurant, all packed into a beautiful North London space.
But the really remarkable thing about what they do is the provenance of their flour, which is almost mind boggling. It’s all milled from unaltered grains, grown in pasture cropping soil which uses no pesticides, no herbicides, no tilling, and no ploughing. In fact, they use horse drawn machinery only. Then they take those grains, and mill them onsite (which is also incredibly rare) before turning the flour into first-class breads and pastries.
Join the line for pastries (there’s always a line, but it moves quickly) and you’ll be treated to tiramisu cake, pear upside-down cake, cinnamon buns, blackberry oat bars, and double-chocolate rye cookies, all made with their monastically pure flour. And they are sensational.
Best Pastry? The cinnamon bun. When it comes to pastry, the simplest thing is often the most difficult to get right. There’s no room for error in a cinnamon bun, so when they come out as perfect fluffy scrolls like this, decorated with a delicately sweet glaze, you know there’s a master at work.
Dietaries? It’s a small selection, and they’re very much married to gluten here, so not really.
Seating? Yes, and it’s incredibly romantic… but that’s for the restaurant. If you’re after a place to sit for the
Extras? They will provide you with one of the best meals in North London.
Delivery? No, takeaway only.
Details: 21 Newington Grn, Mayville Estate, N16 9PU | ££
St John Bakery
St John has been one of the most influential restaurants in London – and indeed across the world – in the last few years, thanks to their pioneering work in the nose-to-tail dining scene, winning Michelin Stars while serving literal offal. But one of the under-appreciated aspects of what they do is their bakery. To the people at St John, “bread is as fundamental as a knife and fork”, so they pour a lot of time and energy into making perfect dough.
The warehouse site in Bermondsey supplies all of the St John sites (and a lot of top London restaurants) with bread, doughnuts, and pastries. But if you’re going to snag one, get it straight from the mothership. The shopfront is set up almost like a small market stall in front of the behemoth baking operation behind it, where the magic happens. The selection is short and sweet, and after this many years doing it, they’ve made sure that everything they’re selling (doughnuts, almond croissants, cinnamon buns, Eccles cakes, pain au chocolat) is point perfect.
Best Pastry? The doughnuts are very hard to pass over for this one, but the Eccles Cake is something that the traditionalists at St John take particular pride in perfecting. It’s a crisp, flaky, buttery shell of pastry wrapped around a yielding centre of currants, dark sugar, and rich spices. It’s immensely moreish.
Dietaries? There’s actually no lard in their Eccles cake, making it a rare vegetarian version. Aside from that, they tend to keep the gluten and the butter very much in everything they can.
Seating? There are a couple of benches outside. But there’s plenty of seating in the other St John branches, too.
Extras? There’s a fairly decent selection of wine available here, too.
Delivery? No, sadly.
Details: 72 Druid Street, SE1 2HQ | £
Popham’s Hackney bakery space is stripped back and hyper-functional: the huge open kitchen dominates the space at the back where you’ll be able to see the chefs busily mixing & rolling dough all day. That kitchen overlooks the wooden sharing tables in the main space, and it’s all wrapped by concrete walls, bare except for a few minimalist artworks.
The pastry selection on display is therefore restricted to a small platter of goods (around eight in total, plus a couple of specials at the weekend) that you can pick and choose from, before having your order rustled up from the huge bakery shelves in the back of the space. The pastries are absolutely delicious, and the bakers have taken the extra step of turning their carny black magic towards fresh pasta, too. Oh, and the bread is absolutely wonderful, too.
Best Pastry? The Bacon & Maple Swirl is a slightly odd Franco-American hybrid, but it works. It works very, very well indeed. The bacon is expertly swirled into the dough, and brushed with maple in just such a way that you get all of the tastes in every single bite. Ask for it to be warmed up when you get it (or just do it yourself when you get home) it’ll only take a minute, but it’ll unlock so many more flavours.
Dietaries? With such a tidy collection, they don’t really have much in the way of vegan, or gluten/dairy free stuff.
Seating? Yes, lots, both indoor and outside underneath their giant awning.
Extras? Oh yes. The pasta is so good, there’s an argument to say that they’re a pasta restaurant that also makes pastries. The menus are short, but highly original, and totally delicious.
Details: 197 Richmond Road, E8 3NJ | £££
Housed in a starkly white spruced-up railway arch beneath London Fields Station, the Bakehouse is an all-organic, all-independent, all-natural, all-environmentally conscious, all-everything operation started by then-amateur baker Ben Mackinnon in 2011. Back then he had to literally hand-build his own wood-fired oven from brick & clay, and the urge to do things from scratch clearly hasn’t left.
The bread is all made from organic, UK-grown wheat, which the team will grind into flour themselves using their own stone mill at sunrise daily. It’s all then leavened with entirely wild yeast (try their signature Hackney Wild bread, it’s amazing) before being baked in an oven powered by renewable energy, and wrapped in biodegradable packaging. And sure, making a decent loaf of bread may not exactly be brain surgery, but it just so happens that head baker Eyal Schwartz literally has a PhD in neuroscience anyway. He expertly makes the bread and the pastries whipping up everything from chocolate babkas, to flourless brownies, to maple and date cake, and everything in-between.
Best Pastry? This is a tough one because, frankly, everything’s a contender. But for us, it’s got to be the galette, made with spelt flour and cardamom. The sheer depth of flavour is immense, and the clear, clean taste of the pear just sings when it hits the palette. Beautiful.
Dietaries? Yes, they have vegan options, gluten free options, and dairy free options. Extremely good selection.
Seating? There’s a small amount inside.
Extras? Soooo much. They do jams, chutneys, cheeses, wine, vegetables, cookbooks, you name it.
Delivery? Yes, you can order almost everything they make right here. Check the delivery radius here.
Details: 396 Mentmore Terrace, E8 3PH | ££
Want something more exotic? Check out the best Japanese Cafe & Bakeries in town…
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