Walking into b. patisserie feels like pleasing fate. I've heard about this place so many times. My first visit was last year, with a friend who lives in the city. We sat inside for two hours over croissants and green tea, spring poppies at our table. We left at dusk, smiling at the satisfaction of an afternoon well spent.
My next encounter with b. patisserie happened at graduate school, where a classmate whom I most admire for her pairings of asymmetrical skirts and chunky boots told me that she had worked with b. herself. "Belinda," she called her, remembering their days together at Gary Danko. I wonder what she's like.
The next time I visit the shop I get to find out. My friend Scotty and I have arranged to interview Belinda for a class we're taking called Formation of New Ventures. It's one of those classes that business schools love to teach because it has three words that are synonyms for everything business school students love to learn. We arrive at 4 p.m. which means that Chef B. and her team have been on their feet, baking, for 12 hours already. Two hours are left until close. But finally I see her.
Belinda has the weighty presence of a culinary veteran and the lighthearted spirit of a San Franciscan. It is a jarring combination. On her countertops sit some of the most highly praised French pastries in the Bay area, and yet the air inside her shop is thick with chatter and warmth. Children sit restless on chairs, dangling their feet and chewing on chocolate chip cookies as big as their heads. Neighbors stop in to pick up a sourdough loaf and a packet of vanilla granola. There is no WiFi, so there are no laptops. Most everyone is firmly in the non-digital world.
Michel, Belinda's business partner, joins us. He is French, a pastry chef, a kitchen designer, and the founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute. He didn't know we were visiting Belinda but makes time for us anyway. We expect a 30-minute chat but what we get instead is two and a half hours of stories and laughter and pieces of wisdom doled out between flaky bites of Kouign-amann. The duo behind b. patisserie live and breath approachability. They have chosen the location of their first spot so that it is not in hipster territory (though some might say that's impossible in San Francisco), but in a neighborhood where firemen wait in line with techies and the man who runs the local bus makes sure to be ahead of schedule so he can stop in for his morning pastry.
Creating an atmosphere where everyone is welcome is not easy in San Francisco. And especially not in a French pastry shop. Here, Silicon Valley money floods the neighborhoods that have grown accustomed to more humble pay. Districts like the Mission sell $5 cups of tea next to $2 taquerias. And yet b. and her team have done it, at the edge of Pac Heights and on the streets of California.