Of the thousands of restaurant social media accounts in San Francisco, my favorite might be the one operated by Bob’s Donuts, that 24-hour Polk Street institution that has been around for generations. At @whatsfreshest on Twitter and @bobsdonuts on Instagram, the Bob’s crew showcases what can only be called doughnut porn: photos and videos of apple fritters bobbing in palm oil, just-fried dough getting a glossy coating of chocolate, and squiggles of jelly being applied to a rack of buttermilk raised. It’s impossible to see one of these photos and not feel a little brighter about my day.
And then there’s the armchair entertainment of Bob’s Giant Doughnut Challenge, an endurance test the owners’ college-age children dreamed up about four years ago. Contestants — usually in their early twenties, and often a little drunk from the nearby clubs — attempt to win a free T-shirt by eating a Bob’s giant doughnut in less than three minutes. The doughnut is only the size of a salad plate, but it’s the equivalent of a dozen raised glazeds. Many contenders don’t make it, and their failures are chronicled in pithy hashtags like #donutchallengefail and #barelymadeadent.
The Giant Doughnut Challenge, and its attending videos of doughnuts right out of the fryer, appeal to the new generation of doughnut eaters — the Millennials who line up outside the shop on Friday and Saturday nights at 3 a.m. in search of a sugar hit after the clubs close. It’s another example of how the Internet era is encroaching on the analog one.
For there is a quieter, more steady business that plays out at Bob’s and doughnut shops across the Bay Area. Weeknights and wee hours bring Lyft and bus drivers, night-shift workers and vagrants looking for somewhere clean and bright to sit for a bit. Mornings bring older neighborhood regulars who know the owners by name, and nurse a coffee and doughnut sometimes for hours while they read the newspaper. Doughnut shops exist in almost every neighborhood, virtually unnoticed, but still a vital part of the urban landscape.
The doughnut shop is one of the last democratic holdouts in the restaurant world, just as doughnuts are one of the most essential American foods. Doughnuts are woven into our culture, from Homer Price to Homer Simpson, and anyone could pick the doughnut canon out of a lineup: the maple bar, the crueller, the old-fashioned, all nestled in an iconic pink box. Most of us first encountered doughnuts as children, in a church basement or as a Saturday outing with Dad, so they’re nostalgic as much as delicious.
I didn’t know what I’d find when I started looking into Bay Area doughnut culture; I was worried that it might be another story about a disappearing working-class city. With its low margins, the old-school doughnut shop is under threat as much as any of us are, here only by the grace of landlords. But for now, the institution doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and a new generation of doughnut makers is carrying it into the next century and beyond.
Few things in this world are as satisfying as a good doughnut: a raised glazed, exquisite in its simplicity, with a sweet, fluffy inside and a slight crunch from a sugary coating that sits on your lips and fingers long after the doughnut is gone. An apple fritter, with its crisp edges, hunks of apple and veins of cinnamon interspersed. A just-filled jelly doughnut, with the tart shock of raspberry jam enhancing the soft bun. An old-fashioned, with a hint of buttermilk tang beneath its craggy exterior.
Sure, they have no nutritional value, and the danger of “doughnut psychosis” from all that sugar and fat is real. Yet willpower of steel is required to refuse one when it’s put in front of you. “If you’re even on the fence about eating a doughnut, if you just look at it you’re like, yes, I’m eating that right now,” says Cheryl Burr of Pinkie’s Bakery, which recently expanded its popular Doughnut Saturdays to every day of the week. “I’m looking at the doughnuts that we have in our case right now. The glaze is dripping down the side, the sprinkles look really festive — they just look really good.”
Humans have probably been frying dough in oil since they started cultivating flour; there are references to fried dough in the Bible, and because oil was pricey, it was likely a status marker in ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese societies. Most culinary traditions have a form of sweet fried dough, from Greek loukoumades to Mexican sopapillas, Indian jalebis to Iranian bamiyeh.
But the hole-in-the-middle doughnut as we know it is an American invention. Most of the origin stories are likely apocryphal — it’s delightful to imagine that the holes came about when a sea captain placed rounds of fried dough on his ship’s wheel to hold them while he steered toward America, although they probably were invented to fix the problem of a still-raw inside after frying. Whatever the case, the doughnut came out of New England cooking, and was firmly a part of American society by the 19th century, referenced by Irving and Thoreau.
The 20th century was when the doughnut as we know it really took off. Because they’re quick to make and travel well, doughnuts were distributed in the trenches during bothworld wars by Salvation Army volunteers known as Doughnut Dollies. The doughnut was a natural for the beginning of mass production in the 1920s, and survived the Depression thanks to its low price. It became a marker of the working class, like in the famous scene in 1934’s “It Happened One Night” when Clark Gable has to teach patrician Claudette Colbert how to properly dunk.
In the latter half of the century, the doughnut shop became a haven for immigrants, many from unstable Southeast Asia. Unlike a bread bakery, you don’t need too much training or specialized equipment to open a doughnut shop, says Dr. Paul R. Mullins, anthropology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, and author of “Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut.”
“If you have decent flour, an OK kettle and decent oil, you can pull off a pretty good doughnut,” he says. Automated machinery cuts down on labor costs even more, and that savings is passed on to consumers. “So many people can cook them, and so many people can sell them effectively, that they can sell them at a low cost.”
No one knows much about Bob of Bob’s Donuts, except that he founded the shop in 1959 and gave it the name and logos that are still used today. The shop has been run by the Ahn family since 1977, first by Elinor Ahn, a Korean immigrant who bought the shop from Bob. She passed away in 2001, and since then Bob’s has been passed to her son and daughter-in-law, who run it today with their college-age children and Sonya Line, who has worked there for more than 30 years.
“People ask who Bob is, and we tell them we’re all Bob,” says Rachel Ahn, a 19-year-old Stanford student who has been working in the shop nearly her entire life. She and the other Millennials who work there, including her older sister, have brought in new ideas to the shop, but know that it’s the great doughnuts — like the ethereal raised glazed and the crispy apple fritter — that bring people back at all hours.
With its tan counter stools, few tables, fryer and racks of doughnuts arranged appealingly, Bob’s is just one of many classic doughnut shops around the Bay Area. People have allegiance to their favorites. There’s Johnny’s Donuts in Lafayette, with a line of booths, an old-fashioned jelly-filling machine, and one of the best apple fritters I have had the good fortune to come across. There’s King Pin Donuts in Berkeley, popular with the Cal crowd, and Colonial Donuts in downtown Oakland, where people play chess at all hours. The Avenues in San Francisco filter through All Star Donuts on Clement and Uncle Benny’s on Irving; Peninsula dwellers swear by the eggy crullers at Rolling Pin Donuts in San Bruno.
The appeal of these old-school doughnut shops is their low cost. You can get a doughnut and a cup of coffee for less than a drink at a fancy coffee shop, and the atmosphere is one of permissiveness and forgiveness. They also have their own idiosyncrasies — one may offer cream-filled doughnut holes, another a blueberry doughnut or different color of sprinkles.
“All the permutations really make going into a doughnut shop a pleasure,” says April V. Walters, a San Francisco artist who has spent more time in doughnut shops than most, sketching portraits of her favorite. It started as a whim about three years ago after she posted a watercolor of a raised glazed from her favorite doughnut shop, Happy Donuts in Noe Valley, on Instagram. People loved it, and she eventually expanded into an Etsy shop and a calendar titled “Donuts of the Bay Area,” highlighting a different doughnut each month.
“The thing that has struck me is it’s easy to think of a doughnut shop as a cookie-cutter thing, even in the mom-and-pop realm, but once I’ve gone in, they’re each so different,” she says. “Each has a different flair.”
When Mullins was writing “Glazed America” in the mid-aughts, the nation was in the throes of Krispy Kreme madness. You remember: the breathless anticipation of the opening of a new location, the hours-long lines, the weddings in the shops. The Krispy Kreme insanity died down once a new breed of gourmet doughnut shops arrived on the scene, although a similar fervor might be revived when East Coast powerhouse Dunkin’ Donuts opens its first California stores this year, including one in Walnut Creek.
Mullins has watched the rise of the gourmet doughnut shop with interest. These are places working with better ingredients and trying to appeal to the food-obsessed masses that have risen in this new century. They may offer stunt toppings like cereal and bacon — the Cronut, a hybrid doughnut-croissant, basically started the novelty food trend — but are always offering a more premium doughnut shop experience, at prices sometimes dollars more than the old-fashioned shops.
“Some of these gourmet doughnut shops we go to once in a while as sort of a food experience trip. It’s a bourgeois experience,” he says. “It’s not clear to me how these shops are going to do.”
But we have a lot of foodies in San Francisco, and they love doughnuts, too. If these shops are offering a higher-end experience, they’re also coming from a place of genuine respect for the form, and in some ways are pushing it forward.
Sarah Spearin of the Mission’s Dymano Donuts + Coffee draws on her past as a professional pastry chef to turn out some of the city’s best doughnuts in flavors like lemon-thyme and chocolate star-anise, made with locally milled flour and organic milk. Cheryl Burr of Pinkie’s bases her version on a light, fluffy challah dough; Hannah Hoffman of the East Bay’s Doughnut Dolly fills hers with bourbon and dark chocolate.
Perhaps the most old-fashioned of the new crowd is Donut Savant in downtown Oakland. Owner Laurel Davis has fond memories of eating doughnuts after soccer practice as a kid, and over coffee with her father as an adult. When she saw a Craigslist ad for an Oakland doughnut shop in 2012, she knew it was time to switch from her corporate career and opened Donut Savant.
The shop uses some premium ingredients, like Saigon cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla, but Davis says it is important to her to keep prices low — nothing is more than $2. She also tries to appeal to everyone, and offers basic flavors along with Hella Nutella and Cron’t. “I try and elevate the classics as best I can, but still respect what a doughnut is,” she says.
Since Walters, the artist who paints watercolors of doughnuts, began spending more time in Bay Area shops, she has witnessed the profound impact that a doughnut can have. “People are almost fanatical about it, but it’s not something they’d ever lead with. It’s an undercover love,” she says. “The nostalgia crossed with genuine flavor enjoyment, crossed with pleasure that’s a little guilty but also a special treat — people just love doughnuts.”
At its core, a doughnut is nothing but a ring of deep-fried yeasted dough. But it is also so much more.
Anna Roth is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @annaroth
Doughnut shops of all sorts
Bob’s Donut & Pastry Shop: 1621 Polk St. (at Clay Street), San Francisco, (415) 776-3141. www.bobsdonutssf.com
Happy Donuts: 3801 24th St. (at Church Street), San Francisco, (415) 285-5890.
Allstar Donuts: 901 Clement St. (at 10th Avenue), San Francisco, (415) 221-9838.
Uncle Benny’s Donuts: 2049 Irving St. (at 22nd Avenue), San Francisco, (415) 731-1323.
Pinkie’s Bakery: 1196 Folsom St. (at Eighth Street), San Francisco, (415) 556-4900. www.pinkiesbakerysf.com
Dynamo Donut + Coffee: 2760 24th St. (at Hampshire Street), San Francisco, (415) 920-1978. www.dynamodonut.com
Donut Savant: 1934 Broadway (at 19th Street), Oakland, (510) 972-8268. www.donutsavant.com
Colonial Donuts: 1636 Franklin St. (at 17th Street), Oakland, (510) 834-3736.
King Pin Donuts: 2521 Durant Ave. (at Telegraph), Berkeley, (510) 843-6688.
Doughnut Dolly: 1313 Ninth St. (at Gilman), Berkeley, (510) 225-9640. www.doughnutdolly.com.
Johnny’s Donuts: 3629 Mount Diablo Blvd., #A (at Happy Valley Road), Lafayette, (925) 283-9352.
Rolling Pin Donuts: 429 San Bruno Ave. W (at Easton), San Bruno, (650) 589-9687.
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