West Side Story: A Tale of Two Magnolias

Cupcakes, Magnolia Downtown
Magnolia Bakery, a landmark in NYC’s West Village, is the veritable shot that started the cupcake revolution. And now, they’ve opened a second location on NYC’s Upper West Side.Though in actuality these two locations are only about three miles away, in many ways they are worlds apart; the culture, clientele and location are distinctly different. But what does this all mean for those famous cupcakes? We did a side by side comparision to find out who really does take the cake. For ease of reading, we will refer to them as "Magnolia Downtown" for the original Bleecker Street location and "Magnolia Uptown" for the new Upper West Side location.

A little background...

Location: Both bakeries are in Manhattan; Magnolia Downtown is located at the corner of West 11th Street and Bleecker Street in the West Village; Magnolia Uptown is located on 69th Street at Columbus Avenue, on the Upper West Side.

Culture: While both are neighborhoods of privilege (in our humble eyes, neighborhoods where apartments regularly rent for upwards of $3,000 a month would classify as neighborhoods of privilege), they both have a distinctly different feel; whereas Greenwich Village has a more eclectic feel, with cozy brownstones, zigzagging streets and quaint boutiques and boasts celebrity residents like Julianne Moore and Sarah Jessica Parker, the Upper West Side boasts the grand old apartment buildings of yesteryear, and you just might find yourself brushing elbows with with residents like Bono and Mia Farrow.

Some details about our visits and impressions...

Crowd: We went to the locations one after the other to get the truest read. When we went to Magnolia downtown at 11.30 am, there were about 5 people in line; Uptown 30 minutes later, there were about 16 people in line. However, we feel it would be unfair to say this means that Uptown is more popular; it's newer, so part of this is probably novelty; also, we do understand that as lunchtime draws closer, sometimes you need a little sweetness, so perhaps that 30 minute window does make a difference.

Employees and Crowd, Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker
Service: (photo above: the crowd at Magnolia Downtown) To us, Magnolia Downtown has never been about the attentive service; the staff is largely made up of bored-looking hipsters (albeit, bored-looking hipsters who always give you great ideas for new haircuts). Nonetheless, there is sort of a charm to this type of service, and it seemed no different at the new location--same cool haircuts, same slightly-bored attitude. We'd call this one a draw.

Interior: They’ve done the new location with similarly checkered floors and retro décor; so although it is not a different look per se, we are going to give this point to Magnolia Uptown, which seems more spacious, airy and less cramped than its downtown cousin.

Maybe we're shallow but we think about these things...

Magic Cookie Bars at Magnolia DowntownMagic Cookie Bar, Magnolia Uptown
Presentation: (photos above, Magic Bars at the Downtown and Uptown locations, respectively) While both locations had similar elements of presentation: glass cases and cake plates, cupcakes on cute doilies, etc., Magnolia Uptown emerges slightly ahead in this category due to (in our opinion) their better choice of typestyle for the store signage; the simple typeface allows the baked goods themselves to shine, whereas Magnolia Downtown's more whimsical typestyle is ultimately distracting and hard to read.

Cupcakes, Magnolia DowntownCupcakes at the New Uptown Magnolia Bakery
Cuteness: (photos above, cupcakes at the Downtown and Uptown locations, respectively) While cuteness can be an open-ended category, it cannot be ignored. In evaluating the baked goods at both locations, the cuteness factor was high all around; however, if pressed we would have to say that the Downtown location's cupcakes seemed to have a jauntiness to their swirl that the Uptown location simply couldn't match.

Places to eat your cupcake: Magnolia Downtown has only one tiny table; however, there is a park directly across the street which, weather permitting, is a good place to eat your cupcake and full of great people-watching. While they are working on an added seating room Uptown, it was not yet ready at the time of our visit, leaving noplace to sit in the uptown location. Though Central Park is a short walk away, who’s going to make it that far with their cupcake? Ours was gone by the time we were halfway down the block. So while things may change when the seating area is available, in this case, Downtown wins.

But most importantly, the sweets themselves:

Cakes, Magnolia Uptown

Selection: The selection was nearly identical at both locations, with some variations in frosting choices and layer cakes available that day, but mostly the same; overall a tie.

Freshness / Quality: Everything we tasted at both locations tasted extremely fresh, which provides a happy tie (yay for fresh pastries!).

Banana PuddingBanana Pudding, Upper West Side Magnolia Bakery

The Baked Goods Themselves: (above: photos of banana pudding Downtown and Uptown, respectively) Each bakery has its own kitchen, so we wanted to see for ourselves how the tastes stacked up. In evaluating the cupcakes, we noticed that the frosting was a bit heavier-handed downtown (this is not necessarily a bad thing!); on the banana pudding, the Uptown version was a little more "whipped" than the slightly creamier version Downtown. The "Magic bars" (quite similar to the Bakedbar we featured a while back) looked slightly crisper on the bottom downtown. But really, all of this is subject to the day and baker who made them, and are natural variations; small differences aside, the taste was very similar between both locations. And yes, we liked what we tasted.

So, if you were halfway between locations and had to choose one or the other, which one would Cakespy suggest?

Well, certainly the new location has a few things going for it. For one, it's bigger; with more space, perhaps they won't even need a cupcake bouncer. But have they won us over with better typestyle choices and more seating? While on the one hand they seem to have answered a need, there was something that we realized while standing on the line Uptown to pay; we sort of...well, missed that Cupcake Bouncer and cramped space that we've cursed so many times Downtown. So while we're excited to see the Uptown addition and to monitor its growth, our hearts are still in that cramped, inefficient, sweet little spot on Bleecker Street.

Magnolia Bakery, two locations; Downtown, 401 Bleecker Street (at W. 11th St); Uptown, 200 Columbus Avenue (b/t W. 69th & W. 70th Sts); online at magnoliabakery.com.


Magnolia Bakery in New York