CityBakery-CoffeeCookieCity Bakery

3 W. 18th St.

(between 5th and 6th Avenues)

Union Square

(212) 366-1414

When I tromp my soggy, squishing feet through puddles along Fifth Avenue, looking for some respite, anything will suffice, as long as it’s dry. But rainy afternoons are reflective, making us susceptible to that feeling of being welcomed in from the cold that certain times and smells and sounds instill when they come together in sensual alchemy. It’s universal; always longed-for and seldom found in this busy and anonymous town. So, in those times, I often follow my nose, tracking the smell of freshly baked oatmeal cookies to a doorstep and a moment’s respite.

City Bakery deserves its renown. A hidden yet cavernous space makes it no less comfortable than your corner cafĂ© with the comfy loveseats. That’s because this place churns out that special alchemy from a chocolate-powered engine.

CityBakery-StaffMaybe its heart is the center island where frazzled but never impolite staff tally orders and bark the coffee commands. It sometimes looks like Willy Wonka’s factory with its seemingly self-replenishing parade of trays of new cookies and croissants and a spinning wonder wheel of hot chocolate next to delicately piled homemade marshmallows. Sometimes I sit nearby and just watch the kinetic stress found only in bakeries bounce from one corner to another as the orders are relayed, the goods are arranged, and the people are served.

Maybe it’s located upstairs, along the balcony railing where people sit and take in the steam and watch people flow in and out, listening to the constant dull cafeteria roar.

Or it’s somewhere in the bowels that we never see, where the bakers work constantly to keep up.

CityBakery-Wares2 Regardless, the reason why I return here time and time again is that moment on line choosing from the displayed wares, deciding which will accompany my coffee as the rain spatters the windows.

People always rhapsodize about dessert. Food can be emotional for sure, but that wonderment when the dessert cart rolls by is a cheap emotion. Of course it’s beautiful and miraculous; that’s why it’s there, to tease and taunt and promise euphoria all to coax you out of an extra $10. But it rarely speaks to something personal, which is the mark of a true culinary experience. Food, like any other art, must prick its consumer in the heart, and something complex like a wild boar casserole has to work hard for that reaction. Dessert, like pop music, can do it to anyone at any time.

So I can avoid dessert with nary a regret. But on a day like this, a humble, well-made cookie is an altogether different matter.

Citybakery-JennaCookie To prove my point (yes, there really is a point) you can take in the selection for yourself and see what makes you leap. Is it the exquisite and careful tarts with mint leaves and berries and nyah nyah blah? Or is it the bowl filled with perfect spoonfuls of peanut butter cookie; the vanilla sugar cookies, lightly dusted and almost melting under your gaze; the melted chocolate cookies that, intriguingly, cost $1 more than their more average countermates? Maybe, ridiculously enough, it’s the pretzel croissants, leaving the sweets far behind in the wake of its buttery, salty, flaky softness.

It’s the baked goods, of course — the real ones, the ones that take careful measuring and patience and a watchful eye that adds up to something as close to love as you can get in the kitchen.

CityBakery-Wares3 You settle down with the lunchtime crowd. On the table is a perfectly salted, not so crispy chocolate chip cookie and a never-bitter coffee, warming your hands. In your lap is that book you keep meaning to get to. The parts that make up the whole of this day rarely come together thus. And for now, for just these few sacred minutes, you’re dry, and you’re home.