Visitors shoulder in beside south Minneapolis locals, peering through windows at a chef filling pillowy brioche with vanilla bean pastry cream. The brioche channels owner-chef Michelle Gayer's childhood memory of doughnut holes—amped up with the skill that has earned her two James Beard nominations and a culinary cult following.
Foodies gather at Salty Tart's windows in the Midtown Global Market to watch Michelle and her team at work almost as much as they come for treasures like the coconut macaroons, a Minnesota State Fair legend with toasty brown shells hiding exponentially coconuty insides that glisten like quartz.
Salty Tart—true to its name—is no sweet and petite bakery. Michelle handles the classics flawlessly, but she's ever eager to swap icing swirls and frosting flourishes for bold new flavors, such as cupcakes flavored with beer or red wine. The lineup is seasonal, creamy, nutty, flaky, salty, boozy and, oh yeah, sugary. But only in good measure. "When pastries are too sweet, it's hard for people to enjoy," Michelle says.
The daring approach perfectly suits the frenetic vibe of the surrounding indoor market. Perhaps it's not where you come for a quiet cup of coffee, but if you're ready to join fellow adventurous foodies in stretching the boundaries of baked goods, Salty Tart is a sweet destination (saltytart.com; 612/874-9206). -- Gus Axelson
Salty Tart 
The Incredibly Delicious Flourless Chocolate Cake Company opened as a mail-order business in 1995. Problem was, the phone never rang. "We had 1,000 pounds of chocolate and nothing to do," says owner-chef Patrick Groth, who studied French cooking before starting the business. "So we opened a one-room bakery and sold baguettes and chocolate cake. We were open for three days when we had such a line at noon that we decided we had to serve lunch."
Now, Patrick and family live above the bakery-cafe, which occupies the main floor of an 1845 Italianate mansion in Springfield's Aristocracy Hill, near Abraham Lincoln's home. The menu includes buttery chocolate croissants, sweet-tangy lemon tarts, locally sourced salads, sandwiches (including a showstopping Mediterranean melt), soups and breads.
But that decadent flourless cake remains the star. Rich with three kinds of imported French chocolate, it features a shiny ganache and a texture seemingly too light to be made of chocolate. And true to tradition, the helium-light layered red velvet cake no more than teases with the taste of chocolate.
In a town with its share of chain restaurants, the Delicious mansion is an oasis. Behind arched windows wait four distinct dining rooms, and greenery hides two outdoor areas. Somehow, life feels a bit slower here—and definitely richer (incrediblydelicious.com; 217/528-8548). - Kate Silver
You can't cross Little Italy's brick streets without running into an Italian restaurant. A pleasant scent of garlic hangs constantly in the air, and when people need a spot to gather—whether they're members of the big Catholic church, Italian-American men planning to linger over coffee or students grabbing lunch—they usually head for Presti's bakery-cafe at the corner of Mayfield and Coltman roads. It seems nearly everyone at the comfortable tables is related to or went to high school with everyone else.
The third generation of Prestis, sisters Claudia and Sheila, own the business, and Claudia's son Michael Vaccarino is pastry chef. Presti's customers count on finding classics done right. For goods such as crisp-crust Italian bread, Michael counts on recipes his great-grandmother Rose Presti used when the shop opened down the street in 1903. "My grandfather taught me how to make the bread—the family has taught me," he says. "We don't really have things written down."
An Italian influence fills the chalkboard menu: cream-filled crunchy cannoli; 30 kinds of cookies, including pignolia, linzers and biscotti; cake doughnuts; and by-the-slice pizza. The best seller is classic triflelike tiramisu layering creamy marscapone and chocolate with so-light sponge cake moist with espresso syrup.
The bakery mixes tin ceilings with sleek walls—old-country spirit holding strong in a Wi-Fi world (prestisbakery.com; 216/421-3060). - Amber Matheson
The family-owned Bread Basket makes artistic creations of the edible variety. It's known for its sweetie pies, baby cakes (pictured) and breads.
Flavors vary with the season, but might include a Blurbarb Sweetie Pie, with blueberries and rhubarb; Snickerdoodle Baby Cake, with cinnamon buttercream frosting; and Golden Yeast Bread, baked with squash, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
Breakfast features a simple and inexpensive menu with items such as eggs, sausage and gravy biscuits, and French toast; for lunch, you can order hearty sandwiches (the chicken salad croissant is a favorite), made-from-scratch soup and salads with locally grown ingredients.
The bakery recently moved to a larger space and offers cozy seating in a renovated Arts and Crafts bungalow; try to nab a seat by the stone fireplace in winter (317/718-4800; breadbasketcafe.com).
Cake slices, tarts and pastries line up like edible works of art in the cases at Nichole's Fine Pastry. Chefs stroke gold-leaf accents onto chocolate-glazed miniature cakes layered with hazelnut crunch. Mango, raspberries and blood oranges top fruit tarts like flowers. Domed chocolate-mint cakes look like they're encased in green glass.
More than a dozen pastries are featured each day: an ever-evolving blend of layer cakes with chocolate-pistachio or strawberry mousse; lemon curd and chocolate-caramel-sea-salt tarts; and favorites such as twice-baked croissants layered with sweet almond cream.
A case of gelato and sorbets features flavors such as ginger, pistachio or white chocolate with a kick of lemon.
An expansion in 2010 added seating and allowed the shop to add to its lunch menu of soups, salads and sandwiches. Stop by on weekend nights for a glass of wine and, of course, a tempting dessert (nicholesfinepastry.com; 701/232-6430). - Lisa Meyers McClintick
Tucked into Omaha's celebrated Old Market district is a charming bakery combining delicious treats with sweet customer service.
Bliss is best known for unusual cupcakes, with flavors such as blueberry chocolate and car bomb (Guinness and chocolate cake, filled with Irish whiskey ganache and topped with Irish cream buttercream). The cupcakes are miniature works of art, topped with towering frosting ribbons and swirls. We tried the ginger-peach cupcake; spiced ginger cake created a perfect complement to the cool cream cheese frosting and peach-puree toppings.
"Caketinis" (miniature balls of cake mixed with frosting) in champagne glasses line the cold case near the counter. Other goodies include cinnamon and caramel pecan rolls and scones.
The bakers at Bliss are friendly and chatty, and the shop offers free Internet. A shaded, pet-friendly patio is open during summer (blissbakery.com; 402/934-7450). - Erica Hengelfelt
For a taste of down-home Kansas goodness, pull up a chair at cheery Marigold Bakery Cafe. Customers sit at farmhouse kitchen tables weathered by years of plate-passing. In the kitchen, women wearing aprons and hot mitts pull crusty loaves from toasty ovens.
Sugary treats displayed in bubble-topped, glass cake stands include cookies, cinnamon-pecan rolls, coffee cakes, muffins, scones, old-fashioned cream puffs and cherry Danish. We love the baby 6-inch pies to share -- or not! Flavors change daily (coconut cream, lemon meringue, chocolate cream, peach, apple and cherry).
For lunch, we found that a half-sandwich and baby greens salad combo and a fresh-squeezed glass of strawberry lemonade was light yet satisfying. We were intrigued by our table topping, a vintage Kansas state map tablecloth. In summer, you can sit out front of the brightly colored Victorian storefront at a marigold-yellow table.
Take Marigold's goodness home with a box mix of buttery, oatmeal-streusel Kansas Coffee Cake (marigoldbakery.com; 402/934-7450) - Kit Bernardi
Marigold Bakery Café 
Started by a college professor who wanted to indulge his daughter's love of cheesecake, this bright and energetic location is now owned by a husband-and-wife team that expanded the bakery to include a wide selection of cookies, pastries, cakes and muffins.
Breakfast features lots of fruits as well as creative egg dishes. We had an excellent egg white omelet with spinach and feta cheese and sides of fresh fruit and fried potatoes. We also sampled a blueberry muffin, a meal in itself with fresh blueberries and a sweet citrusy glaze. The lunch and dinner offerings include fresh salads, homemade dressings, quesadillas, wraps, soups and sandwiches.
End your meal with a slice of the bakery's signature cheesecakes (or take a whole one home). You'll find nearly two dozen flavors; our recommendations include the Mississippi Mud, the Peanut Butter or the Key Lime. Cheesecakes can also be shipped nationwide (mydaddyscheesecake.com; 573/335-6660). - Diana Lambdin Meyer
Try to time a visit to Maiden Rock on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday (from April through December), because those are the only days this terrific little bakery, housed in an 1870s home right on Highway 35, is open.
The rest of the week, chef Sandra Thielman is busy prepping for the weekend's bounty. And what a bounty it is: several kinds of breads, a half-dozen types of cookies, three or more types of pie (by the slice or whole pies to go), muffins, quiche and more. On our visit, pie choices included lemon cheesecake, three berry and chocolate Jack Daniels cheesecake. The latter is rich and thick, with a robust whiskey flavor. Carrot-ginger muffins come with generous chunks of carrot and the subtle spice of ginger.
The quiches are thick and stout, making for hearty meals. A spinach quiche held ham, cheese, mushrooms, sweet yellow peppers and fresh spinach. Thielman's unique Reuben quiche -- corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and onions in a rye crust -- is bold, rich and surprisingly well-balanced. In other words, it's an unexpected delight, just like this bakery itself (715/448-3807) - Gustave Axelson
This homey cafe has become a favorite in downtown Custer for its legendary caramel rolls and homemade breads and buns complementing soups, sandwiches and hearty breakfasts.
When people talk about Baker's, it's usually with a few groans and eye rolls. "It was huge!" they'll say about caramel rolls that feed more than one or the green-chile-smothered breakfast burrito that fills a plate.
The cafe is known for zippy tortilla soup, but often it's the simple addition of homemade breads and buns that made a typical lunch here something special.
If you don't have time for a bison burger or sandwich, carve out an early-afternoon coffee break for Baker's chunky, gooey turtle bars or summer berry stacks layered with fruit, a cream filling and a light crust (605/673-2253). - Lisa Meyers McClintick
Breakfast reigns supreme at this bakery west of downtown Des Moines, but it's a hot spot for lunch, too.
On any given morning (except Sunday) you'll find a variety of baked goods both sweet and savory along with a full menu of warm, delicious breakfast foods. Try a fresh asparagus omelet with Brie and crème fraiche or an asparagus, tomato and chèvre quiche.
For lunch, salads include apple, avocado and almonds with feta and dried cranberries, while a grilled Brie and provolone sandwich oozes melty goodness.
Buttery, flaky croissants and fruit-topped Danish are among the featured pastries, and you can pick up a loaf of fresh bread -- challah, cranberry walnut, olive ciabatta, multigrain -- to enjoy at home. During the summer months, you can find La Mie baked goods at the Downtown Farmers Market (lamiebakery.com; 515/255-1625).
La Mie 
For more than 40 years, Josef's has created wedding cakes, buttery baked goods and bonhomie in a warm European setting.
Located in a Detroit suburb several blocks off Lake St. Clair, Josef's offers both a patio with cafe tables and cozy interior. Baked goods include tortes, flan, crème brûlée, Michigan berry pies, crusty rolls, croissants, chocolate-covered pretzels and tea cookies. Sandwiches, salads, quiches and potpies are among the lunch specialties.
We sampled a focaccia pizza topped with a puree of tomatoes, fresh oregano and rosemary; a Greek feta salad with plump olives, fresh basil, celery and bowtie pasta; and raspberry coffeecake, with plump berries dotting a flaky, buttery pastry.
Brothers Jimmy and Anthony Cavallo bought the cafe from its original owner in 2006. They've expanded the menu, added Wi-Fi and put in more seating -- but kept the specialties that have made Josef's a longtime Detroit bakery destination, including its sublime, one-of-a-kind wedding cakes (josefspastryshop.com; 313/881-5710). - Emily Tennyson