Named after the historic arts district in Paris' fourth arrondissement, Le Marais is a stunning slice of France situated in the vibrant Castro neighborhood of San Fransisco. Each morning, as is tradition throughout Europe, fresh bread and pastries are made from scratch and the glorious scent of french butter croissants fill the outside air. Ever since their doors opened last year, the bistro and bakery has drawn large crowds hungry for a bite of Paris and a loaf of freshly baked bread. Designed with beautiful Schoolhouse lighting throughout and thoughtful European-inspired touches, Le Marais is an ode to the classic French bakeries owner Patrick Ascaso grew up with.
Name: Le Marais Bakery and Bistro Castro
Date opened: Saturday, June 17th, 2017
Neighborhood: Castro, San Francisco
Tell us the story of how Le Marais started:
"I grew up outside of Paris in a very small town, and in the morning I would be the one to run down to the bakery to buy the bread for breakfast. I went on to study at NYU and a career in finance, but the dream of a small bakery with a large bread oven never left me. Back in 2011, I felt no one was making true traditional French croissants in our city, and I wanted to see if I could recreate them, so I did internships in France and one at Bien Cuit in New York, one of really the best boulangeries in the country. I combined some of the techniques I learned in making our croissants.
We use a variety of flours to make our levains, and a combination of local and French butters, sweet and cultured. We make everything small batch and by hand with organic local flours. We try as well to do some creative things with the flavors, but my favorites are the simple ones, made with one or two really good ingredients, our croissant amande, Valrhona pain au chocolat, or mascarpone danish with the fruit of the season, which right now is apricot, and it is just delicious."
What was the inspiration behind the concept and execution for your new Castro location?
"When we opened our first location in the Marina neighborhood in 2013, I didn't have the confidence to handle the design on my own, and I was focused on the recipes and building a great team, so I hired landscape designers here in the city to create the feel of a barn, with French limestone and reclaimed Redwood beams. The Castro location at Sanchez and 18th was a place I would drive by for years while making deliveries, and I fell in love with the architecture and design of the building."
"I had discovered Schoolhouse Electric when I selected your exterior light fixtures for our first location. My wife loves the Schoolhouse catalogs, and one image in particular of the Orbit Chandelier inspired the design for Castro. The Orbit reminded us of cafes in Copenhagen, even though our concept is more Parisian. We didn't want the space to look like a reproduced brasserie, but like a cafe that is French in a retro modern way. I wanted that line of globe pendants, and the brass cap on the Luna Pendant light reflected a retro modern style. Tabarka Studio made the tiles on the pastry case, part of their Le Marais tile series based on the metro stations of 1930s Paris.
The window painting by New Bohemia and logo design by Arin Fishkin were inspired by our trips to Paris, and many of the photographs of Le Marais were taken by my wife on our trips there, or by the photographer Rebecca Plotnick. Most of the furnishings, mirrors, and accent pieces are vintage items from Chateau Sonoma, one of our favorite places drive up to on the weekend. I loved the Cafe sign from the first time I saw it in their store, and when it went up in Castro, I thought that is my Paris corner. It brought everything together."
Where does the name come from and how does this space embody that?
"When we opened the bakery in the Marina, the name started with three connections. Le Marais is a district in Paris filled with old famous bakeries. 'Le Marais' also means the marsh, because it was the part of Paris that was built on a marshland, like the Marina here. And my wife, daughter, and I stop in Paris when we visit our family in France, and the neighborhood we love to stay in has always been Le Marais. We love the Place des Vosges and have stayed many times at Le Pavillon de la Reine and wander around that neighborhood. When I was thinking of opening a bakery, I felt I wanted it to capture that old Paris, the Paris of Le Marais that I remember from when I was young."
Was there a specific design vision from the beginning or did it come together organically?
I am influenced by a lot of what I see on Instagram these days, happening and opening in Europe in the pastry world. They are doing innovative things with pâtisserie and croissants, and I'm inspired by their interior spaces. There have been Parisian pâtisseries that have opened in the past five years -- Un Dimanche à Paris, the Jacque Genin location in the Marais are favorites -- and new cafes in Copenhagen, that are combining vintage aspects of design with modern accents. These shops and cafes formed the vision at the beginning, but in the end it came together organically, and became a style that was very unique I believe.
How did you work to create the look and feel of the space?
"I am not as good at seeing plans, planning out a style. I respond more to things that I love when I see them, and put them together in a way that I hope will work. The Castro space is has great light and windows, it is a very pleasant space to be in. When everything was put in, I added some things to fill out the space, a large Rebecca Plotnick photograph of Paris, a large mirror from Chateau Sonoma."
What are some of your favorite elements about the overall design and why did you choose the Schoolhouse lights you did in particular?
"I guess the success of the Castro design is that everything fits very well together. We didn't overwhelm the space with too many details, we just added elements that complimented the rooms themselves. The main dining room reflects the light from outside through a number of windows so beautifully, and we didn't want that sense of light to be overshadowed by too many other things. The fixtures we selected, with the opal globes and modern details with classic silhouettes, are emphasized because of that. If the space was overwhelmed with details, you would not appreciate the design of the lights as well."
What would you say is the one must-have pastry visitors should try?
"We change our pastry menu every three months with the season and only use fresh fruit that we buy from the market. For pastry, I would recommend our choux and our cheesecake. On the viennoiserie side, the croissants, which really are our specialty, my favorite right now is the fruit danish because it reflects the season. It is a light mascapone cream, on a good dough, with a fresh market fruit baked into it. That is the one I can eat every day."
What do you like best about San Francisco and your neighborhood in particular?
"We are very lucky because San Francisco has one of the strongest and most varied food offerings in the country. It is often said, we have access to some of the best produce, and we are very fortunate work with some amazing producers, like Tomatero Organic Farm, Star Route Farms, Early Girl, and Straus Family Creamery. I also really appreciate the fact that I can work at the bakery in the morning, and my family and I can drive up to Point Reyes for the day for a picnic of Cowgirl Creamery sandwiches on the beach, or to Freestone's Wild Flour Bakery, or down the Santa Cruz."
"The Castro neighborhood has always been close to our hearts. I have wanted to open a location here for years. We live just over the hill, and so it is the area of the city that we decided to make our home many years ago. It is a very diversified community, and there are strong roots here, people who have lived here and developed lives in this neighborhood for years or decades. They have been incredibly supportive of us as we worked over the past year on repairs and permits, and even in our first week as we've been selling out while we work to increase our production. There is a very strong LBGTQ community, families, retirees, all very kind and intelligent and well traveled people. We are very happy to be here, and very happy to finally be open."
You mentioned you have additional locations in the works, can you tell us a bit more about those plans?
"We are in the process of building a 5,000 square foot state of the art Commissary in the Tenderloin neighborhood. It is in an art deco building, and I really love the space. It is very well suited to production. We'll be going from putting out an enormous amount of product from about 300 square feet, to a very large, clean open space, and we are all really looking forward to being there. There will also be a small cafe with our full line of pastries, croissants, and bread and espresso drinks. And then in late 2017, we will be opening a bistro and bakery in Mill Valley at 250 East Blithedale in a very beautiful old, open building with wood ceiling trestles. We are excited to be moving into Marin. It is one of our favorite areas to be during the weekend, and I think they really need a great bakery."
"I choose locations based on the architecture and light in the space, and the good thing about our Castro design elements, and the light fixtures, is that they translate very well to other locations. The Castro design is a look that we will bring to all of our future locations, and I am honestly very grateful to Schoolhouse Electric that you made it affordable for a small local business like Le Marais Bakery to achieve this level of design."
Visit Le Marais
Photography by Patricia Chang for Le Marais Bakery