Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe

Where: Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe, 127 North El Camino Real, Suite A, Encinitas, CA
Open: daily, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
What: Drip black coffee and a pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant)
Price: $2.90-3.35 plus tax
Tasting notes: Roasted, baker’s chocolate
What I listen to: Jill Barber, “Little Flower”

It’s only 9 a.m. midweek, but the pastry cupboards are already nearly empty. It must be a good sign. Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe is tucked away in an Encinitas mall next to Ralph’s grocery store and a Nektar juice bar. They serve coffee, that’s why I’m here.

It is occupied. A steady stream of customers order pastries and cups of coffee which are poured by an oversized commercial brewer behind the counter. Looks like bags from local wholesaler Cafe Moto are piled on top, but I can’t be sure and never get the chance to ask.

Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe in Encinitas. Photo by Ryan Woldt

The line is moving fast. A mishmash of French and English comes from an energetic woman behind the counter. Efficiency and confidence in his commands give him power.

When it’s my turn, I panic. I know I want coffee, but I don’t feel like I can leave here without something buttery. I’m going for the chocolate chip croissant. I still love them, but I’m filled with instant, albeit momentary, buyer’s remorse. I should have tried something new! I should have opted for the quaint macaroons or slice of quiche!

When I feel the weight of the croissant in the paper case handed to me at checkout, my FOMO dissipates. There are tables inside, but they’re mostly covered with buildable crates or cooking utensils. I head outside, where there is plenty of outdoor seating, both shaded and in the sun.

I find a spot with just the right amount of both next to an oversized flowerpot. I try to imagine that I am at a table near the square in Paris, or perhaps in Grenoble. There’s not enough magic in the parking lot this morning, but I can get close.

The display case is loaded with pastries at the Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe in Encinitas.  Photo by Ryan Woldt
The display case is loaded with pastries at the Isabelle Briens French Pastry Cafe in Encinitas. Photo by Ryan Woldt

Opposite me, an older gentleman is counting the change. Neighbors join neighbors at the table behind me. The laughter is immediate and the visible angst of adolescence allows me to deduce that at least one person at the table is not happy with the story being told.

I take a sip of my coffee. Its good. It’s black coffee. That’s fine, but coffee isn’t really why anyone’s here. Customers come for butter-filled pastries, cakes, pancakes and croissants. They come for the flaky, harsh exteriors and the soft, chewy interiors. They come for the banter with the owner and the chance to bump into one of their neighbors.

I dunk my croissant in my coffee. It’s something I do. He is perfect. The flaky crust softens and tears easily, and the heat from the coffee melts the chocolate just enough. I almost get up to order another one, but I force myself to stay seated. I chew slowly. I savor the pastry, and my coffee disappears.

I walk down the hall to use the living room. I walk past the kitchen which sparkles. Chrome counters gleam and trays of soon-to-be-baked cakes have been lined up in neat rows. I imagine these future cakes on a table in front of me. I have the only fork, and life is good. Life is good, okay?

Head to to see Isabelle Briens’ full menu, which includes more than croissants for breakfast and lunch, and to learn more about their crepe nights.

The bean diary is a new column from Ryan Woldt, host of the To roast! Western coast coffee podcast, which can be streamed on: Search for features on North County cafes, cafes, and roasters.

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