Smack in the heart of town, Maison Bertaux is London's oldest patisserie, established way back in 1871. It also claims to be the best, with both its sweet and savoury cakes and pastries made fresh on premises daily. While its space at the top of London's patisserie hierarchy is debatable, enough people flock by that the tables in the main shop are usually fully occupied, and they need to send people down into the basement room in their extension next door.
I suppose the wonderful thing about Maison Bertaux that makes it such a long-standing institution is how delightfully French it seems. Not the snooty, unattainable sort of Frenchness you might associate with Pierre Hermé or Ladurée, but that certain je ne sais quois people think of when they picture Montmarte in the early evening. It may be a cliche, yet it captures the imagination anyway.
The clutter that pervades the whole store, the independent art for sale that grace the walls, the ever-so-slightly rickety stairs, the careless pride with which the old man behind the counter gestures towards all the cakes and cries "Everything is good!" if you dare ask for recommendations. It's like something out of Amélie, the quirky and quaint cafe of fantasy brought to life. When the sun beams in it feels even more otherworldly. Thankfully, when you get the bill and find that you have to hand over your firstborn in exchange for tea and a slice of cake, the shock usually reels you back to reality. (I do exaggerate, but it is rather more dear compared to other places.)
I went there with the girls for a nice afternoon tea, and we were shunted into the basement next door after we found there weren't any seats left in the upstairs room of the main shopfront. Orders are always taken at the counter, and Em and I had spent five whole minutes wringing our hands and staring at the rows of cakes until our eyes nearly glazed over before we managed to come to a decision. We went down to pick a table while our cakes were being plated and our tea prepared, and El and C joined us soon after.
We took in the art as we waited, and our tea arrived by way of a waiter who was very precariously balancing everything while gingerly coming down the stairs. I'd opted for the coffee cream puff and a lapsang while Em had the berry cheesecake and a green tea. El and C decided to share the chocolate mousse and profiterole pie. All of us ended up sharing anyway, so we could sample bits of everything.
The cheesecake was fluffy but almost gelatinous and jiggly, a texture El and I were partial to but Em didn't really appreciate. The pie base had gone slightly hard which was a shame, because the chocolate mousse was really fresh and creamy. My puff pastry wasn't terrific either, only coming apart after several repeated stabs, although the coffee cream inside was quite glorious.
So, the cakes possibly weren't completely worth it, but it was still a pretty good afternoon out, especially if you like your places charming and different.
28 Greek Street, London W1D 5DQ, http://www.maisonbertaux.com