When acclaimed pastry chef Judy Contino opened Bittersweet Pastry Shop and Cafe on a bustling stretch of Belmont Avenue in Lakeview nearly 30 years ago, European-style bakeries—the kind stocked with croissants, kouign-amann and other buttery French confections—were a rarity in Chicago.
"At that time, it really was the first," says Esther Griego, who is now the co-managing partner of Bittersweet. "There wasn't anything like it, and that just brought instant success."
Customers flocked to the bakery for decadent creations like chocolate mousse cake and vanilla bean cheesecake in the early years, cementing Bittersweet as a destination for hard-to-find desserts with European flair. Nowadays, you don't have to search very long to stumble upon a respectable pain au chocolat in this city, but Bittersweet retains an influential place in Chicago's bakery scene.
Though the ever-popular chocolate mousse cake and vanilla bean cheesecake remain on the menu, Bittersweet has evolved over the past few decades, gaining new ownership and an expanded repertoire of baked goods along the way. Contino, a James Beard semifinalist, retired in 2015, leaving Bittersweet to Griego (Contino's niece) and pastry chef Mindy Gohr—an intimidating and fulfilling role to take on, Griego says.
"It seemed like an impossible task because we were trying to fill the shoes of someone who was just legendary," she explains, adding that regulars had come to expect Contino's standards of excellence. "But it's been such an incredible opportunity." And the longtime regulars have stuck around, too.
Aside from its pastries and cafe goods, Bittersweet is also known for its expansive cake menu, which includes a vast selection of wedding cakes, birthday cakes and over-the-top customized cakes. Over the decades, Bittersweet has baked cakes for the likes of Michael Jordan, Ariana Grande, Eddie Vedder and Oprah. And it's easy to see why celebrities have flocked to the bakery: Scrolling through the custom cakes selection of Bittersweet's website is a bit like looking at a cabinet of curios. Cakes are moulded into the shape of Lamborghinis, deep dish pizza and Louis Vuitton purses, as well as plenty of other imaginative forms. For a more classic look, customers can also opt for the bakery's signature cakes, with flavors ranging from almond strawberry brûlée to fudge and salted caramel.
"The heart and soul of Bittersweet are our celebration cakes, which have been a part of so many people's memories," Griego says. "We have people for whom we've made everything from their child's first birthday cake to their grandchild's first birthday cake. Being a part of those special moments is really important."
Now, Bittersweet has expanded to a second location at Time Out Market Chicago, where the is bakery serving its signature pastries, quiches, sandwiches, cakes and coffee drinks. It's the bakery's first expansion since it first opened in 1992. Griego says her team is looking forward to Bittersweet's 30-year anniversary—and to cementing the bakery's iconic legacy in years to come.
"You know, the 30 year mark is a big one, because not a lot of businesses last for that long," she says. "We're excited to take Bittersweet into the future."
Bittersweet is open from 8am–2pm Wednesday through Sunday at its Lakeview location at 1114 W Belmont Ave, plus Wednesday through Sunday at Time Out Market Chicago.