Is Toast the New Cupcake?

Chefs dish on why toast is so popular and where to best enjoy it in Philly
July 10, 2014
by Danya Henninger

With this week’s announcement of Crumbs Bake Shop’s bankruptcy, the era of the cupcake is officially over. No, cupcakes aren’t dead — small, local purveyors are going strong, and Carrie Bradshaw-anointed Magnolia Bakery just launched in Japan — but the craze for the icing-topped miniatures has dipped to kindergarten levels. 

Instead, people are going crazy for toast.

The current fascination started in San Francisco, where small cafes selling slices of browned bread for upwards of $4 garnered national attention. Helped along by backlash to the gluten-free trend, the artisanal bread craze also took hold in NYC — the New York Times recently devoted an entire food section to the love of loaves, including an article titled “How to Make a Perfect Piece of Toast.” 

Um...pop it in the toaster? How and why has something so seemingly simple become so talked about? 

Toast’s simplicity may be exactly the thing driving its current popularity. “Many trends come from the place of comfort: cupcakes, donuts and now toast,” says chef Marcie Turney of 13th Street's Barbuzzo, Lolita and Jamonera. “Do I think its worth $4 for a piece of toast? I would pay for great local bread, housemade condiments...something that’s unique, flavorful and takes me back to childhood, yes.”

Patrick Szoke, chef de cuisine at Marc Vetri’s Alla Spina, agrees. “Eating fancy toast at restaurants reminds me of growing up — as a boy I had toast and jelly every morning for breakfast,” he remembers.

New Fitler Square coffee bar Rival Bros sells toast, $3 for two thick slices slathered with local butter from grass-fed cows, a sprinkling of sea salt and a side of local jam. “It's resounding with consumers because it hits the growing desire for all things small batch,” says co-owner Jonathan Adams. “We added it [to our menu] because it reminded me of my grandmother's affection for toast.” 

That toast has a long history in cuisines across the world is why it’s likely more than just another food fad or bubble waiting to burst.

“I never know why anything becomes hot or trendy, but pretty much every meal in Italy starts with some kind of bread,” notes Vetri Family partner Brad Spence.

Chef Gregory Vernick has had a section called “Toasts” on his menu for more than two years now, ever since he opened Vernick Food & Drink in Rittenhouse. His toasts are a bit more involved than the coffee shop versions that go by the same name, the charred bread topped with combinations like puréed peas and bacon strips, or horseradish and beef tartare. They're similar to what’s known as bruschetta in Italy, tartine in France or tosta in Spain.

“There are some differences in presentation between toasts and tartines and crostini and bruschetta,” says chef Paul Lyons of French bistro Good King Tavern, where one of the most popular brunch items is the salmon tartine, “but it all boils down to the fact that grilled or toasted bread plus well-thought out garnishes simply tastes good.”

At Spence’s Italian trattoria Amis, the menu lists various bruschetta — his favorite comes topped with a “meat hummus”-like mortadella mousse — but the chef doesn’t worry too much about terminology. “In my opinion it's all the same sh*t, just a different name,” he says.

Marcie Turney stresses one difference. “I do think the ‘toast craze’ in SF is different...these have more depth to them,” she points out, while also echoing the same appreciation as her colleagues and customers. “In the end, everything is good on a nice slice of crusty bread.”

Where to Eat Toast in Philly

Rival Bros Coffee Bar — Toast ($3)
Vernick Food & Drink — On Toast (seven kinds of toppings; $8-$15)
Charlie was a sinner — On Toast (four kinds of toppings, all vegan; $8)
Amis — Bruschetta (four kinds of toppings; $8-$9)
Barbuzzo — Roasted plum bruschetta ($9); Wood-oven roasted tomato crostone ($12)
Alla Spina — Beer cheese toast with fried egg and bacon ($12)
The Good King Tavern — Smoked salmon tartine (brunch; $6)