Vive La Tarte Bakery Builds a Culinary Community in SoMa

Vive La Tarte's sculptural bakery counter.Belgians Arnaud Goethals and Julie Vandermeersch, the husband-and-wife founders of SoMa bakery Vive La Tarte, discovered a shared history in a cookbook: La Cuisine à Quatres Mains, a collection of recipes of Belgian regional cuisine and a Goethals family favorite written by his grandmother’s dearest friend. “I’m from an old family from a region of bon vivants,” says Goethals. “We like good food and wine and feel it improves lives a lot!” As it turns out, the book was co-written by Vandermeersch’s great aunt.

Vive La Tarte co-founders Arnaud Goethals and Julie Vandermeersch.The couple’s light-filled bakery and café, Vive La Tarte, is the culmination of that shared heritage, and of a dream sparked six years ago in San Francisco when, while visiting friends, they went in search of local pastries to bring to their host. Unable to find what they wanted, conversation turned to opening their own bakery. Unlike most vacation inspirations, this one stuck, and when they returned home, Vandermeersch quit her job and began apprenticing with a baker in their home city of Bruges. A year later, they sold everything and returned to San Francisco with nothing more than their suitcases.

After building their business with catering clients, the pair opened Vive La Tarte's retail space last year in a vast, circa-1920 former printing house. With its wood-beamed roof and original concrete floor—the imprint of the former machinery still visible—it had just the sensibility the pair was looking for. “We loved this space when we saw it,” says Goethals. “It had soul—soul is not something you can invent.”

Vanilla cream puffs at Vive La Tarte.Goethals and Vandermeersch’s baking philosophy is about the aesthetic of the essential, and that sensibility extends to the design of the space. Intent on an architecture of openness, transparency and community, the couple preserved its expansivness: a freestanding, copper-clad counter is the only boundary between back and front of house. “We wanted to provide people with a connection to the origin of food and how it is prepared,” says Goethals, “To let people share the experience of making and baking, and to show how everything is made from scratch.” That counter now displays their divine Belgian chocolate cake, hazelnut croissants and quiches; the scent of buttery, baked goods permeating the room. Adding to the inviting vibe are homey vignettes: A vintage Danish sideboard holds a Fisher hi-fi stereo while a Poul Cadovius wall unit houses a collection of teas and coffee.

To encourage community, Goethals designed two seating areas with connection in mind: stadium seating with three wide platforms—which also allows for even better views into the kitchen—and a circular structure surrounded by tables that sees everyone sharing the same seat.  

In the same spirit of creating a neighborhood gathering place, Goethals and Vandermeersch also offer baking classes; catering—including special Thanksgiving and Christmas menus featuring salads, savories like focaccia pizzas and, of course, pastries—and open up Vive La Tarte for private events. With coffee and cream puff in hand, may we all be Belgian bon vivants.

A version of this article appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Savoring Life.