You have to start with the incredible smell, a mix of warm butter, gently toasted grain, maybe some vanilla and sugar to soften it just a bit. It’s a combination that can put anyone immediately at ease; it makes you feel like somebody cares. You do not expect this scent to hit you in the lobby of an office building, but — surprisingly — this is the aroma of 220 Church Street, a standard-issue professional complex in Tribeca that houses, among other things, a realty office and a public-health clinic. The building is also where one of New York’s best bakeries hides in plain sight.
“Everybody talks about it,” says Roger Gural, of that wonderful, bready perfume, “but I don’t smell it.” In the five years since Gural opened Arcade Bakery in this long, narrow corridor, he’s simply gotten used to it. Gural usually gets to the bakery around 4 a.m. — earlier on Fridays — to start production and bake for four hours. The location, more like a window, really, is not the kind of space you choose because it will lead to explosive expansion or franchise opportunities. Customers did not just happen upon Arcade. If they missed the small, metal sign affixed to the building’s exterior — or even if they did see it — they might have no idea they could simply walk in and spend, say, $7 or so on crackly baguettes; flaky pastries; heaving loaves of dense sourdough; spare, European-style ham-and-comté sandwiches; and pizzas made-to-order with — very smartly — baguette dough. (There is also the god-level creation known as the laminated baguette, which is like some heretofore unknown combination of a croissant and a French bâtard, and it probably deserved more fame than it ever got.) The small little kiosk is the kind of space someone takes when they want to open a bakery with the emphasis on the baking.
Gural says the awkward location allowed him to lease more physical space, and avoid having to bake off-site. “My passion and excitement as a baker always came from the European model,” Gural explains, “with a really fresh product that’s baked on the premises.” The freshness is immediately apparent to anyone who eats, well … anything. The baguettes practically shatter. Pastries flake away like fluttering butterflies made of actual butter.
The location also allowed Gural to expand his menu slowly, and wait for the public to find him — almost exclusively through word of mouth — instead of feeling the pressure to open big and attract customers immediately. For Gural, the challenge of the location has always been, “Can we make a good enough product that people will walk an extra 500 feet off the street to get it?”
Like the best shops, Arcade always felt like an extension of its owner; it exudes warmth, humility, honesty, and passion. “The hours and the labor of any food business are so intense,” Gural says. “It’s not sustainable to do something you aren’t excited about.”
After Friday, Gural will close Arcade for good. He’s said that a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis made it too difficult to keep up with the demands of the job, so he’s been looking to sell the business, although nothing has moved beyond meetings and conversations. Whatever happens, Gural won’t be there, and Arcade, if it does come back, will inevitably miss his charm and modesty.
From the look of things, New York will miss it, too. Since Gural announced the closing earlier this month, lines have regularly stretched out to the building’s entrance, and everything sells out by early afternoon. The place was never empty, but Cronut-like lines and sourdough shortages were not something you had to worry about, either. Gural says business is up 50 percent, during a time that’s normally the slowest of the year. In talking to him about this spike, he says it’s not the blessing someone might think, and that he mostly wishes he could bake more, and make the line move faster. “I feel bad,” he says, “that we can’t handle all the customers the way we’d like.”
The fantasy of New York is that it’s filled with hidden treasures, little idiosyncratic places where truly talented individuals can follow their passions, knowing that, if they just work hard and make something decent, there are enough people here to share their enthusiasm and support them. The reality, of course, is that spots as focused and sincere as Arcade are rare, and when they do surface, they tend to disappear quickly. They’re more like moments in time than actual businesses, so when you find one, you root for it, and do everything you can to help. It’s clear that they’re working hard to give you the best, and to make the city better, and it’s the least we can do to return the favor. But then, when a place like Arcade does go away, the city ends up feeling just a little less special than it did before.