Why Is Quality Bread Service Disappearing?

A lament for more rolls in restaurants

Lately when I call restaurants for reservations, I’ve started asking, “Do you serve bread?” Five years ago it would have been a ridiculous question, but in an effort to cut costs, fewer places are putting the staff of life on tables to begin meals. When I first ate at the Lawrence in Midtown earlier this year, for example, my waiter honked, “We don’t offer bread service.” When I pointed out that some of the dish descriptions included homemade croutons, a cook sent a piece of grilled bread my way and the restaurant charged me a dollar for it.

Be it France’s baguette, Italy’s rustic loaves, Greece’s pita, or naan and other flatbreads in the Middle East and India, bread brings balance to a spread of other dishes. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to leave the table without finishing my bread. Now, in a post-Atkins world, chefs seem primarily fixated on proteins. Bread is also a practical part of dining: I prefer using it to pierce the yolk of a poached duck egg or push myself through yet another bite of pork belly.

Steakhouses may be the last strongholds where one is guaranteed complimentary bread. Even the new and relentlessly trendy STK on Peachtree, which bills itself as a women-centric chophouse, doesn’t buy into the carb-phobia stereotype and rolls out huge, fresh popovers. And thank goodness for recently opened F&B (the Buckhead reincarnation of Downtown’s French American Brasserie, or FAB), which has servers dressed like delivery boys circulating among tables with a large basket full of small, crusty pistolet rolls.

If you read the fine print along the bottom of the dinner menu at Decatur’s Cakes & Ale, you’ll note the charge of $1 per person for “unlimited bread service plus Natura purified still or sparkling water.” This policy makes sense for a restaurant that built its own bakery and, in addition to having a pastry chef, employs a gifted full-time bread baker. Pedro Matos shows up before dawn to craft tangy loaves of sourdough or levain and a series of exquisite baguettes.

And I’m impressed that the Optimist and the Spence, two newcomers, offer what is perhaps the most difficult kind of bread to serve fresh in a commercial context: old-fashioned yeast rolls. Both restaurants serve these rolls—pillowy and fragrant, with fresh butter and crunchy sea salt—gratis with dinner, though the Optimist charges $4 for an order of three at its adjoining oyster bar. Despite my reluctance to pay that much for bread service, I make an exception when it is something truly special.

Photograph by Christopher T. Martin. This article originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.