The measure of bien cuit: a well-cooked croissant at Tartine in San Francisco. (Cathy Barrow)

Bien cuit means well done, and, in the case of steak, not in a good way. But in the world of pastry it defines a specific color: toasty brown, almost to the point of burned. Bringing croissants, muffins, scones or meringues to this delightful place elicits the nutty flavor of browned butter, the caramel of cooked sugar and, across San Francisco, the very best in sweet and savory treats.

Tartine, the mecca of the Bay Area’s pastry shops, was the first to bake croissants bien cuit, and the pastries have become its signature. In fact, locals measure other confections by their “Tartine-ness.” There is not a pale pastry to be had in all of San Francisco, which is a good thing. And two of us set forth to taste them all on a whirlwind four-hour pastry tour.

A convivial group gathers outside Tartine on a Saturday morning; the experienced bring coffee. The line, already a 35-minute wait at 8:30, snakes along next to the windows offering views into the kitchen, where focused bakers beat butter into flour. Trays are piled high with morning buns (egg-rich spirals with hints of orange); stacks of croissants (plain and chocolate); craggy buttermilk scones; airy, cheesy gougeres the size of softballs; and a savory quiche and tart of the day (this day, kale-and-tomato). Once inside the snug shop, seasoned patrons in pairs split up: One snags a table and the other marches forward in the line. Patience is a necessity. The payoff is significant. The croissants, light and layered with a crackly crust, are buttery but never greasy. The smell is intoxicating. Ours were still slightly warm from the oven, and each layer was rich with butter and the tang of dough that had had the time to rest.

Once the base line was established, our tour began in earnest. The next stop, just a short walk away — albeit uphill — was Thorough Bread and Pastry, a friendly shop with plenty of elbow room. After the jostling at Tartine, we were happy to sprawl. The bakery is run by students from the San Francisco Baking Institute, and every offering looks picture-perfect. The sticky buns were eggy and light, moist and delicate, with a sharp, deeply flavored caramel coating and nuggets of toasted pecan. The coffee eclairs were balanced, the custard inside cool and satisfying, the ganache, generously spread across the rich, airy, deeply colored pâte à choux.

A brisk walk up Market Street to Gough Street spurred our appetites again, which was a good thing, because the pastries on offer at the 20th Century Cafe were stellar. On this morning, pastry chef Michelle Polzine wore a Betty Grable dress and sported an updo and cat-eye glasses. Streudel is a specialty at this cafe, in one traditional and one surprising form. The streudel of the day was stuffed with Pink Pearl apples, a gorgeous rosy-hued variety, tart, crisp and floral. But the streudel magic is more evident in the potato knish, where the same dough, light as air and delicately handled, surrounds a golden, buttery potato filling.

After a palate-cleansing salad of pear, arugula, hazelnuts and goat cheese with a sharp sherry vinaigrette, we dug into the 10-layer honey cake with honey buttercream. Blessedly, this cake was not sugary sweet — instead, the woodsy tones of the honey carried the day, smooth and silky between each layer of tender, moist cake. The wait staff, dressed like their chef in classic 1940s shirtwaist dresses, vintage hairdos, dramatic eyeliner and bright red lipstick, perfectly accessorize this whimsical cafe.

Craftsman and Wolves, a much-needed stroll down Valencia, was the most stylistically contemporary of the pastry shops we visited. Having (temporarily) had our fill of sweet, we turned to the shop’s very imaginative savory pastry options. The Rebel Within has a big fan following, so it was a must: Slice the substantial muffin in half to reveal a medium-cooked egg suspended in the center. As if that weren’t wonderful enough, the muffin is generously studded with Boccalone sausage. It’s a savory all-in-one breakfast, and it’s sensational. The “pop tart” offered more surprises. Billed as including mortadella, ham and Swiss cheese, this standard-ish treat had a swipe of bright mustard and layer of dill pickle slices that moved it to sublime levels. The canoes of fresh fruit and the verrines of chocolate, kettle corn, milk jam and coffee-laced peanuts looked spectacular and worth another visit to this creative eatery.

About two miles outside the Mission District, up several long hills, is Pacific Heights and the light and airy B Patisserie. Doors thrown open, iron tables and bistro chairs littering the sidewalk and the aroma of butter and sugar pervading the air: It smells like Paris. The pastries here were the best we experienced. The kouign amann, a crispy Breton cake, is legendary — and for good reason. Nestled inside what might be a thousand layers of lacy, delicate pastry is a whisper of almond syrup, not the least bit floral or overwhelming, just pure, sweet almond flavor. This pastry is worth a cross-country flight.

Are there other pastry palaces in the city worth visiting? Absolutely. Della Fattoria, where the peanut butter cookie begs for a glass of milk, and Jane, where the chocolate croissant is tinged with orange zest, to name just a few. But we knew when to call it quits — our sweet tooth was sated.

Pastry in the Bay Area is bold, imaginative and delicious. If choosing from such a bounty of glorious pastries is just too difficult, order the thick-cut toast made from Josey Baker Bread and served with butter and jam at the Mill. And expect it to arrive bien cuit.

Cathy Barrow’s first cookbook, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving,” will be published this month. She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com.

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