Other desserts trended in its wake: Boozy adult milkshakes. Pie. Fro-yo. Cake pops. Whoopie pies. Rainbow cakes. But if there was ever a dessert that reached the cultural prominence of cupcakes, it may be macarons, the dainty cookies, made of almond flour and egg whites, that come in a rainbow of pastel colors. In some ways, they were an unlikely candidate to become America’s “it” dessert — too easily confused with coconut macaroons, always mispronounced (it’s mac-a-ROHN, swallow the “r”), and relatively unknown in the United States even as recently as 20 years ago. According to the Atlantic, they peaked in 2014. If you go by Google search interest, the peak was earlier: 2012.
But you’d hardly know it at Ladurée, the French patisserie whose name has become synonymous with the delicate confections. The brand has more than 100 stores in 28 countries, and it’s preparing to open two more, its first in Washington: a boutique and restaurant at 3060 M St. NW in Georgetown and a shop in Union Station, both arriving early April.
“It’s timeless,” said Elisabeth Holder Raberin, the owner and chief executive of Ladurée U.S., sitting in the brand’s SoHo tea salon before a quartet of the signature treats. “Hopefully, I think it will stay forever.”
She may be right. The thing is, no newer, trendier dessert has really stepped in to take the crown from macarons. Eclairs made a go at it, but never really took off. Rolled ice cream looks beautiful on social media, but it’s still too fussy to go mainstream. But macarons? They’re still showing up on dresses, in weddings and especially on Instagram, where they have been hashtagged more than 3 million times. Even if their newness as an “it” dessert has worn off, their social cachet sure hasn’t.
That’s because macarons’ popularity isn’t really about what they taste like. It’s about what they represent: that effortless Parisian chic. “It’s really about the French lifestyle,” Holder Raberin said.
So many American women are Francophiles — look at how many books we have instructing us how to eat, dress and parent our children like the French. So getting tea or omelets or pastries at a Ladurée, the brand hopes, will make you feel as if you’ve just stepped off the Champs-Élysées. The boutiques are characterized by their Rococo-meets-modern interiors furnished from the family’s antiques business, and their assortment of French pastries and dishes. Your menu will be in French, and your server might be French, too. French-trained chefs will prepare classic dishes, such as vol-au-vent, and such pastries as tarte Tatin. The atmosphere will feel soothing, and moneyed.
“There is this art de vivre that we keep,” said Ladurée U.S. press officer Celine Kaplan. “No offense, I love America, but a restaurant can be very loud. … You’re not here to listen to music.”
Still, the company had to make some adjustments for American palates.
“The gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free — of course, we don’t really have this in France,” said Holder Raberin, although she noted that macarons are naturally gluten-free. And the style of service will fall somewhere in between French (lentement) and American (rapidement).
Different flavors work better for different nationalities, too. Holder Raberin recalled introducing a cinnamon raisin flavor at the New York location as an homage to the city’s bagels. But “The New Yorkers told us, ‘We don’t want to have a New York flavor, we want French macarons,'” she said. “It was very successful in Paris. But in the U.S., we stay more in the traditional flavors.”
“The danger of playing the ‘it’ dessert is that you only stay a hit for a certain amount of time,” Kaplan said. “So I think newness drives the business, but to be a fad is dangerous.”
That’s also why Ladurée wants to be known for more than macarons. The Georgetown restaurant will serve a French bistro-inspired menu of omelets, sandwiches and salads, all dainty enough to attract the ladies-who-lunch crowd. (Considering the restaurant closes at 7 p.m., lunch will be its busiest meal.) The menu will range from classic French (tartare de boeuf) to not very (tofu burgers, a Maine lobster roll), and a daily plat du jour could be anything from rack of lamb to poached cod with asparagus. In a first for the brand, the Union Station shop will have a takeaway option for travelers, including mix-and-match miniature sandwiches and salads in jars.
The brand might have a storied history — it’s been around for more than 150 years — but its ascent is relatively recent, and not just when it comes to American culture. For more than a century, Ladurée had one location on the Rue Royale in Paris that offered only four flavors of macarons. Holder Raberin’s family bought the company in 1993 and decided to transform it.
“It was the very good idea of my brother to treat macarons like fashion,” Holder Raberin said.
And that’s the other reason that liking macarons isn’t really about baked goods. They’re a social signifier, like a Hermes bag or a Louboutin pump. Ladurée invites the connection by commissioning designers and celebrities to collaborate on the jewelry-like boxes, which people hang on to for years after their macarons are finished. The flavors work like fashion, too: Some are always-available classics, like pistachio and chocolate, and others are limited-edition designer flavors, like Sichuan pepper or cognac. Washington’s limited-edition flavor will be — naturally — cherry blossom, and there will be blossom-inspired boxes. A decorative box of 6 will cost $21, and macarons are $2.80 apiece.
But, lest you think the treats are lovingly handcrafted in the basement of each Ladurée atelier, you should probably know that the macarons are made in Switzerland, frozen and shipped to the United States by sea. To be fair, many macaron brands freeze their product, which Holder Raberin says gives it “a good balance” between the crunchy exterior and the creamy, chewy center.
Their rainbow of pastel, feminine colors is instant gold on social media. And that’s why, even though they should have been over years ago, macarons are here to stay — like a pointy-toed pump or a silk scarf.
“It’s the supermodel of food,” Kaplan said. “People love to take photos of it. It’s like jewels.”