A friend of my editor who recently arrived in New York City asked, “What’s the best croissant in town, or better yet, where can I get at least a decent one?” Clearly, his expectations were not especially high. Rather than making a couple of off-the-cuff suggestions, I resolved to do some digging.
Croissant means crescent in French, referring to the traditional shape of the pastry. In France nowadays, a straight-armed croissant can symbolize that the pastry is made with 100 percent butter. Straight croissants are easier to form, less prone to damage in the oven, and easier to spread with jam.
Though we think of croissants as Parisian, in Paris they are associated with Vienna, hence their inclusion in the viennoiserie category. This category also contains pan au chocolat, almond croissants, and various other flavored croissants including savory ones featuring things like ham and cheese, as well as brioche and palmiers.
The croissant is technically a yeast-leavened pastry using laminated dough. As it is formed the dough is doubled upon itself over and over to create a flaky, multilayered final product. The yeast affects the final flavor and adds to the airiness of the croissant.
I soon set about this pleasant task of croissant-tasting, and here are my impressions of 25 of them. I only included places where croissants were always available, and eliminated some spots where the hours and days of opening were too few, or croissants tended to sell out early in the day. These are croissants you can easily get without carefully pre-planning your week.
The Three Best Croissants
1. Alf Bakery
This slender example has a crisp, caramelized exterior, and relatively dense flesh. It is more buttery than usual and has an elegant shape and heft. This is a perfect breakfast croissant, but not much of a sandwich croissant, and keeps longer than usual due to its high fat content, via Amadou Ly, formerly of Tribeca’s fabled Arcade Bakery. $6, ALF Bakery, Chelsea Market, Lower Level, 75 Ninth Avenue, near West 15th Street
2. Patisserie Claude
Claude Le Brenne, from Brittany, started his patisserie in 1982, replaced decades later by his assistant, Pablo Valdez, when Claude retired to France. This croissant has long been considered one of the city’s most authentic, elegant in its simplicity. It’s a little smaller than average, a little denser, plain-tasting with a slightly sweet aftertaste — it really doesn’t need butter or jam. $3.25. 187 West Fourth Street, between Barrow and Jones streets, Greenwich Village
3. Aux Merveilleux de Fred
The croissants at Aux Merveilleux de Fred are baked periodically during the day, so you may get a warm one. They are compact, to be sure, and shaped like a well-worn armchair, but extremely buttery and done to a perfect shade of reddish brown. They rate among the best in the city. $3.90. 37 Eighth Avenue, between Jane and Horatio streets, West Village
The croissant at Librae is linear and torpedo-shaped, with no flailing arms. The pastry is of the deep-brown variety, and tastes slightly sweet. The exterior is crisp but the inside soft and of medium density. At the hump, the bottom of the interior is more cakey than at the top. A croissant with a diversity of attractions. $4.50. 35 Cooper Square, at 6th Street, East Village
La Cabra Bakery
La Cabra has a reputation for baking its croissants dark, but this one is somewhere between medium and dark, with an orangish cast. It is flakier than usual, so that when you bite into it a rain of flakes falls from the bottom, but you’ll find yourself sweeping up the flakes afterward and eating them one by one. $4.50. 152 Second Avenue, between Ninth and 10th streets, East Village
French pastry shop Chanson offers two sizes of croissant that might have been made from pre-fab pastry, they’re so soft and undefined. One is bigger than average and has the texture of bread; the smaller is certainly cute to look at, right? Both fall in the lower ranges of acceptable due to lack of definition. $4, $2.50. 1293 Third Avenue, near 74th Street, Upper East Side
Ole & Steen
This croissant at Ole & Steen is as big and pale as a wiffle ball, with no heft. You could throw it and no one would notice if it hit them. From a Danish bakery that otherwise makes excellent, well, Danish, filled with things like jelly and custard. This seems almost like an intentional slap in the face to the French. $3.95. 80 West 40th Street, at Bryant Park, Midtown South
Le Pain Quotidien
Le Pain Quotidien is a long-running Belgian bakery chain that opened its first location in the U.S. on Madison Avenue as a destination for New Yorkers, but ended up being not always so great. Its specialty has always been breads, of which the croissant is a species. Though misshapen, this elongated and burnished croissant is still formidable, more flaky than buttery. $4. 2161 Broadway, near 76th Street, Upper West Side
Breads is very much of the current bake-it-to-dark-brown school, and breads and pastries tend to come out that way, including its celebrated babka. These croissants are smaller than usual, and more flaky too, so they wouldn’t be a good choice for a sandwich. But for eating with a cup of strong dark coffee, it could be just the thing. $4.50. 1230 Sixth Avenue, at 49th Street, Rockefeller Center
Your local breakfast cart
Croissants are one of the staple offerings of the flimsy metal breakfast carts that park in Manhattan’s commercial neighborhoods from early morning till the pastries run out. The croissants are outsize, and not really croissants but oddly shaped loaves of bread. Still, at the low price they have merit, especially when wolfed down at your desk with a mediocre cup of coffee. Pro tip: Ask that they be buttered. $2. Everywhere
French Toast Bakery
French Toast is a relative newcomer to the Woodside-Jackson Heights pastry scene, much easier to get to than the fabled Cannelle. The croissants are a shade smaller than usual, light and exceedingly squishy. Which means, I suppose, a prodigious quantity of butter but lacking a certain crustiness. No matter, the taste is completely up to par. $4. 70-06 Roosevelt Avenue, at the BQE, Woodside
There’s nothing really remarkable about Frenchette’s entry in the croissant races — average size, semi-gloss, slightly darker than average but definitely neither dark-baked nor half-baked. While it’s not in the classic crescent shape, it is like most other croissants these days and not particularly buttery — perfect in its own circumscribed way, only slightly boring. $5. 220 Church Street, at Thomas Street, Tribeca
This fantastically misshapen croissant of Grandaisy Bakery looks like two bears boxing. Yet in all the other aspects of croissant formulation it excels. It is big, puffy, buttery, and squishy, with a slight but not offensive sweetness. $2.75. 250 West Broadway, at Walker Street, Tribeca
With a prominent nose and arms outstretched, this croissant from very French East Village bakery Le Fournil is supremely buttery and done to a turn. It may be the best in the East Village. It is of average size and slightly denser than perhaps desirable. $4, 115 Second Avenue near 7th Street, East Village
C&B is a bakery and breakfast sandwich shop just off Tompkins Square, a neighborhood favorite. The croissants are massive and extravagantly formed, but a little on the dry side — which is not a detriment when used for one of the cafe’s excellent breakfast sandwiches. $4.25. 178 East Seventh Street, near Avenue B, East Village
If you like your croissant soft, almost squishy, this one is for you. The inside of Barachou’s croissant is dense and rich, and provides tensile strength with no crunch or crackle. This West Village bakery specializes in tiny cream puffs in a myriad of flavors, and their French flan and cinnamon buns are justly celebrated. $4.50. 449 Amsterdam Avenue, at 82nd Street, Upper West Side
This croissant copped from the Oculus branch of Épicerie Boulud in the vicinity of the World Trade Center looks like it might have seen better days, with a flaking-off nose. No matter, it is also somewhat flattened by its very nature, and the taste is spot-on. $4.25. 185 Greenwich Street, near Fulton Street, Financial District
Bake Culture is a Chinatown-based chain that offers Chinese, Chinese American, and French pastries. The croissant is bulbous, bready, and inexpensive — very much like croissants I’ve had in Italy — and the patrons like it that way. Very nice if you want something plain with a glass of bubble tea. $2.59. 160-06 Northern Boulevard, near 160th Street, Murray Hill
Years ago, I was a big fan of Cannelle, a French bakery in an obscure corner of Jackson Heights rather hard to get to from the train. So, I went to the branch in Long Island City, and the croissant didn’t match my memory of it. It was inexpensive, with a crackly outside and an inside that was airy but lacking in rich flavor. An eminently edible croissant, but not a distinguished one. $3.25. 5-11 47th Avenue, at 5th Street, Hunters Point
As an exemplar of the caramelized school of croissant, Lafayette’s is unsurpassed, remaining moist inside, very dark and dry outside, with a slightly scorched butter aftertaste. I didn’t like it at first bite, but found myself reaching into the bag as I walked down the street, taking bite after bite till it was gone. $4.50. 380 Lafayette Street, at West 3rd Street, Greenwich Village
Of course the epitome of the caramelized school is Cobble Hill’s Bien Cuit, where the slogan on the sign out front reads “pastry well done.” Though it looks like a wooden paperweight, there could hardly be a more carefully turned-out croissant — the pastry leaves well defined, the thing as symmetrical as a football — and when you nip off the end, the inside is just as perfect. Yet they may be drier than you’d like. ($4.75). 120 Smith Street, between Dean and Pacific street, Cobble Hill
The offshoot of a fancier restaurant just off Madison Avenue is a pleasant and very French place to sit and drink coffee. Cafe Bilboquet’s is perfectly fine if unexciting, and one is more likely to turn one’s attention to the crusty almond croissant or the wild blueberry scone. $4.25. 26 East 60th Street, between Madison and Park avenues, Midtown East
Buvette’s croissants are minis, and are sold two to a plate. They are consciously based on a retro French model, and taste very much like croissants I remember eating in France: plainish in taste, evenly textured no matter what part of the croissant you bite into, and made to be spread with butter and jam. $9. 42 Grove Street, near Bleecker Street, West Village
Petit Chou, an East Village favorite where sweet and photogenic pastries are dispensed, comes from Paris-trained Bassim Nasr. The croissants, which boast French butter, are shaped like home plate at Yankee Stadium, but are nonetheless well-textured and have just the right amount of moistness. $4. 229 First Avenue, between 13th and 14th street, East Village
With hundreds of locations across the USA including 30 in NYC, Korea-based Paris Baguette is a behemoth of a production bakery and one can’t help but weep for the artisanal croissant bakers when these examples are so cheap and good. Nevertheless, differences of a negative sort, such as a certain dryness and sponginess, can be discerned. But boy are they big! $3.09. 107-08 71st Avenue, near Austin Street, Forest Hills