The restaurant breadbasket has been evolving, moving away from a ho-hum selection of dinner rolls and baguette slices to more varied and unique items. Now a growing number of operators are elevating bread service even higher—and in some cases, charging for the goods.
At District Commons in Washington, D.C., there’s no free breadbasket, but 90 percent of customers fork out $2 for the baked-to-order Hot Pretzel Baguette with housemade Beer Mustard Butter. Word-of-mouth and positive buzz on Yelp! and other sites has built a following for the bread, says chef-owner Jeff Tunks. “Plus the wait staff loves it and hand-sells it. The nominal charge of $2 isn’t a deterrent and it prevents people from filling up on free bread and maybe not ordering a full meal,” he notes.
Tunks feels that bread service should jive with a concept’s style, and pretzel bread fits well with District Commons’ tavern theme. He sells it as bar food, too, split in half and layered with bratwurst and mustard. “Some guests even order a couple of loaves to go at the end of the meal, ” Tunks adds.
Kevin Hickey, who mans the stove at Allium in the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, is another chef who doesn’t believe bread should always be given away. He offers a special section on his dinner menu called “Snacks/Breads” which includes his signature Bacon & Onion Buns and Cheese Lavosh, each selling for $4. “I consider these almost like a pre-appetizer,” he says.
Presentation is also part of the package—instead of the usual basket or board, the lavosh is suspended on a bracket that hangs over the table. “There’s a trend with bread programs to do something a little special and charge enough to cover costs,” Hickey reports. At his prix fixe brunch, however, every table is welcomed with Cast Iron Pecan Pull Apart Buns, presented in a skillet and included in the price.
The high-end Atelier Crenn in San Francisco offers two tasting menus for $95 and $160 respectively—both of which include bread. With the latter, which changes seasonally, a different brioche is paired with each of three courses: Oat brioche with minted pea soup; plain brioche with foie gras; and walnut wheat brioche with the cheese plate. “The flavors of the bread are intended to complement the dishes they are served with,” notes a spokesperson for the restaurant.
The complimentary breadbasket at New York City’s Aquavit reflects the restaurant’s modern Nordic cuisine. The unique assortment of breads, rolls and crackers—all baked in-house—includes a mini rye loaf crunchy with grains and seeds (like flax and pumpkin); crisp Scandinavian flatbreads made with rye and whole-wheat flours and caraway seeds; and hay-smoked sourdough boules. The boules are smoked on hay while baking in the oven, imparting light smoke notes to the distinctive bread.
“Bread is a sign of hospitality and it imparts a feeling of spirituality and sharing to guests, but you have to be sure you cover costs,” states Ezra Eichelberger, professor at the Culinary Institute of America. Customers will upgrade and pay for bread if it’s offered as a premium, he adds, but he advises offering some freebie breads in addition to specialty items—even if you have to incorporate the cost into menu prices.