What separates “good” bread from mediocre? Some loaves (a sourdough boule, for example) should have a crackly crust — the kind that will scatter geometric crumbs across your cutting board as you slice into it — surrounding a slightly airy, well-hydrated crumb. Others (such as rectangular loaves of rye) fall in a small but mighty category: They’re dense, barely leavened and full of whole grains, the crust more chewy than snappy. In all cases, there should be a definite character to the flavor, due to the various wheat, grains and seeds in the mix.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear that Washington has an exploded-sourdough-starter-size void when it comes to good bread. When Mark Furstenberg opened his first Marvelous Market bakery in 1990, it seemed revolutionary at the time — Phyllis Richman, The Washington Post’s then-restaurant critic, called it “world-class bread” — but it didn’t turn us into a city known for its savory leavened products. Bakeries opened and closed, gluten became a four-letter word and the scene didn’t rise to its potential. Nearly 30 years later, “I’m just hoping that we will become a bread city the way we’ve become a really wonderful restaurant city,” Furstenberg says.
These seven spots — which include Furstenberg’s latest operation — offer bread made with care and attention, and are worth a visit. Be sure to check the individual websites for availability: Some breads are offered only on particular days.
Bill Chillcott leads a team of bakers who turn out loaves of country sourdough, multigrain, polenta, sesame semolina and more, some of which are available daily and others on a rotating schedule, at this Mount Vernon Square shop. They “keep things interesting with a bread of the month,” says Becca Rea-Holloway, the sales and marketing manager. Sometimes those specials prove so popular that the loaves become a menu staple, as was the case with the quinoa-turmeric, flavored with black pepper and za’atar. You can also find A Baked Joint bread at other spots around the area: It supplies loaves to Each Peach Market, Glen’s Garden Market, Organic Butcher of McLean, the Tavern from Sweetgreen and Grand Cata wine shop, plus sister stores Baked & Wired and La Betty.
Be sure to try: The rusty red (and slightly spicy) harissa sourdough, studded generously with nigella seeds.
440 K St. NW. Open daily. Loaves $3.75 to $7.95.
A team of seven bakers churns out dark and crusty loaves of corn rye, multigrain, walnut raisin, rye teff, brioche, baguettes and more at Furstenberg’s five-year-old Van Ness bakery. Many of the breads are leavened with a sourdough starter (otherwise known as a levain, the French term for a flour-and-water mixture containing wild yeast and bacteria) that he began in 1989. “I don’t hate commercial yeast, but what gives bread the flavors that I want are the levain and time,” says Furstenberg, who won a James Beard Award as outstanding baker in 2017. The baguettes are baked three times a day — early morning, late morning and midafternoon — and are at their best when eaten soon after purchasing, but other loaves are allowed to rest a bit before being sold, so that their flavors have time to “settle.”
Be sure to try: Rye teff, with a bitter exterior and faintly sour, nearly sweet flavor permeating the moist crumb.
4434 Connecticut Ave. NW. Open daily. Baguettes $3.50, loaves $7 to $8.
A year before Elle opened, baker Dan Fogg created the sourdough starter now used in almost all of the Mount Pleasant restaurant’s breads (the potato rolls and brioche are made with dry yeast). Fogg uses all-purpose and bread flour from King Arthur Flour in Vermont but sources the specialty, stone-milled ones — such as buckwheat and rye — from Ian Hertzmark of Migrash Farm outside of Randallstown, Md. “His flours are all gorgeous, and he does a few levels of sifting that helps us fine-tune,” says Fogg. Weekdays, you’ll find baguettes, country bread and a rotating specialty; weekends feature two types of specialty loaves, which include triple-oat, honey spelt and sunflower flax rye.
Be sure to try: The malty, toasty buckwheat loaf, new to the menu and replacing the polenta fennel loaf on Wednesdays.
3221 Mt. Pleasant St. NW. Open daily. Baguettes $3.75, sourdough and specialty loaves $8, spelt $8.50.
You’ll find at least 15 types of bread from Lyon Bakery in Union Market, nestled neatly near the center of the Northeast Washington food hall. Owner Alan Hakimi started the wholesale bakery in 2000 in Southwest and, over the years, expanded the business (and relocated to Hyattsville) to supply many hotels, restaurants and markets in the region. “We’d hear from restaurants that their customers wanted to buy our bread, and the restaurant would tell them it was from us,” Hakimi says. Their only retail shop is in Union Market, where you can find rye marble, focaccia, ciabatta and baguettes, among many options. The pain au levain boasts a tang characteristic of naturally leavened bread, with a crust that veers chewy rather than crisp — a potential mark against it, depending on your appetite for crunch.
Be sure to try: Slightly spicy jalapeño cheddar, in loaf or roll form, which calls out to be toasted in butter.
1309 Fifth St. NE. Open Tuesday-Friday. Baguettes $1.25 to $2.20, loaves $4.40 to $6.
For a truly hearty loaf, head to Nordic restaurant Mikko, near Dupont Circle. “It’s pretty heavy-duty and sour,” chef Mikko Kosonen says of his house-made rye bread. “Sometimes we put whole grains in the rye bread to make it more like a Danish bread, but I like my style with just the rye flour.” Their biggest seller is the looks-like-health-food, tastes-like-indulgence seven-seed bread, made without any wheat at all — meaning it’s technically gluten-free. A slightly fluffy and sweet challah-like loaf called pulla is flavored with cardamom. Although they try to keep breads in stock, the best way to guarantee a loaf is to call or email ahead. Once you take it home, Kosonen recommends storing the rye and seven-seed bread in the refrigerator, where they will keep for about three weeks.
Be sure to try: The seven-seed bread and sweet cardamom buns, which have the texture of a roll but a sweetness that’s closer to a pastry.
1636 R St. NW. Open Tuesday-Sunday. Rye and seven-seed bread $9; pulla $12 (half loaves also available).
Baker Jonathan Bethony and his wife, Jessica Azeez, opened this Shaw bakery known for its ardent use of whole grains in the fall of 2017. He works closely with several local farms to source a variety of wheats and legumes that give each loaf (and pastry) its own character: Rye, for example, turns sweet once scalded; raw buckwheat is fermented, lending a light fruitiness. All the flours are milled on-site, and all the breads are baked in a huge wood-burning oven: “I don’t know if it makes the bread any better,” Bethony says of the 20-ton oven. “This is purely just for fun.” Depending on the day, you may find the pain au levain (a basic whole-wheat sourdough, the most popular offering), mischbrot (whole-wheat, rye and buckwheat), einkorn (named for the grain, an ancient variety of wheat) and bird bread, an ultra seedy loaf made with millet, oats and no gluten. Fresh loaves usually come out between 1 and 1:30 p.m. on bake days (check the schedule on Seylou’s website to see what is offered each day).
Be sure to try: Harvest bread, heady with corn nixtamalized from the oven’s ashes. This is full-circle bread — baking burns wood to ashes that are then used to process the corn that goes into more bread — and the kind of thing you can only get at Seylou.
926 N St. NW. Open daily. Baguettes $5, half loaves $5-$12; full loaves $10-$24.
“Bread is a big part of our eating habit back home,” explains David Fritsche, executive chef of Stable, a Swiss restaurant on H Street NE. “We wanted to keep that going here, so we make all our bread in-house.” After customers repeatedly asked if they could purchase loaves to take home, Fritsche decided to start selling them on the weekends. “We start at 9 a.m. and we’re usually out by 11 or 1 p.m.,” says Fritsche, who comes in at 5:30 a.m. to start baking. These breads feature a tighter crumb than, say, an airy sourdough. Options include a white farmers bread with a diamond shape cut on top (“very standard bread back home”); dark, crusty rolls; and a soft, sweet butter-enriched braided bread (similar to challah). Ignore your mobile navigation when it warns you that Stable won’t be open if you arrive before 10:30 a.m., when brunch service starts; a sidewalk sign announcing fresh-baked bread should reassure you. If not, the smell of those loaves — some still hot from the oven — will put you at ease.
Be sure to try: The crusty, toasty multigrain version of the rye and barley house bread, with flax, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, oats and sesame seeds.
1324 H St. NE. Bread available weekends starting at 9 a.m. Rolls $2.50 to $4; loaves up to $8.