We've all been there. You're out having dinner with a group of friends, the plates have just been cleared away, and the waiter brings the dessert menus. Someone inevitably dissents -- "I'm not having any" -- which sets off a panic, creating Survivor-like alliances for and against the final course. Those in favor cite positive reviews and the pastry chef's Gallic pedigree. The other side pleads that they haven't been to the gym in days. At this point, the only clear, win-win solution is to reconvene at a separate location. Those who need to make it home to relieve the baby-sitter or catch the end of Monday Night Football are free to go. The rest can indulge their sugar cravings without feeling doubly guilty.
Payard Pâtisserie and Bistro
1032 Lexington Avenue, between 73rd and 74th Streets (212-717-5252)
Let's not kid ourselves. While Payard serves excellent steak-frites and bouillabaisse in the back of this tony Upper East Side café, the real stars are the desserts. Payard's hand-sculpted pastries belong in a museum; tearing into my dessert, I half expected alarms to go off. Payard's pièce de résistance is the multi-textured Louvre, a hard, dark dome of chocolate with a trufflelike mousse and a hazelnut-dacquoise center. Another classic is the Mt. Saint Michel, a meringue-covered lemon sponge cake with fluffy passion-fruit mousse. Frosted yellow lanterns and marble floors evoke Belle Epoque Continental elegance.
201 West 83rd Street (212-496-6031)
For anyone who hasn't seen the movie You've Got Mail, Cafe Lalo is where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fell in love. And ever since its cameo, Lalo has been a little crowded and noisy. But it's worth waiting to sample one of the 120 desserts at this West Side institution. A chocoholic overwhelmed by choices like Snickers cheesecake and the chocolate-mountain and chocolate-indulgence cakes, I usually go with a slice of mud cake: two inches of dense fudge packed into a chocolate crust, slathered with a creamy chocolate mousse and sprinkled with chocolate chips. Don't try this without a tall, cold glass of milk.
255 West 84th Street (212-496-6126)
If you're looking for someplace a little quieter, Edgar's is right around the block. The café was named for Edgar Allan Poe, whose family owned a farm near here. Asked why she named a dessert place after a writer who usually skipped the dessert course and went straight for the brandy, owner Anna Di Lullo says, "Well, I'm a little crazy and he was crazy, so I thought it was appropriate." The dimmed lights and faux-Gothic décor give Edgar's a romantic aura. On my Saturday-night visit, it was packed, mostly with couples in groups of six. The following Tuesday was much mellower. That's when I plopped down in the corner below a painting of Poe and read the paper while enjoying a four-inch-by-four-inch slice of spongy tirami su. Edgar's version is firm to the touch and melts in your mouth, providing powerful and evenly distributed doses of espresso, zabaglione cream, and cocoa. Besides the tirami su, you can choose from delicious Bindi desserts, including mixed-berry tart and profiteroles.
225 East 60th Street (212-838-3531)
There is an extensive dessert menu that includes a creamy cheesecake and an immense sundae, but if you're a first-timer here, you have no choices: You can only order the fabled frozen hot chocolate. It's an overflowing ice slush made from a blend of fourteen varieties of imported chocolates and cocoas spiked with tiny shards of chocolate. To eat it requires both a spoon and a straw. I ordered the frozen hot chocolate, and my companion got the peanut-butter frozen hot chocolate. We both sipped and scooped ourselves into brain freeze. At one point, I thought perhaps he had overdosed on chocolate when he insisted that one of the many overhanging Tiffany lamps was yellow, not green. Turns out it wasn't the chocolate high. He's color-blind.
342 East 11th Street (212-674-7070)
You can't talk dessert places without mentioning Veniero's, the venerable Italian-American café that's been around since 1894. You can choose from more than 150 different desserts, including cannoli, fruit tarts, and cookies (the pinoli are the best). I'm in love with the cheesecake, by far the best in the city. Unlike most cheesecakes, which tend to be weighted with too much dense cream cheese, Veniero's Italian cheesecake is made with ricotta, which lightens the load. It sits on a thin, delicate cakey crust that has just the right amount of lemon rind to provide a tangy jolt. With success come long lines and many a guidebook-toting tourist. But low ceilings and cavernous spaces ensure a quiet and intimate setting for you and your cheesecake.
401 Bleecker Street (212-462-2572)
Remember those chocolate layer cakes Mom used to make on your birthday? It seems Magnolia got a hold of her recipe. This West Village institution, with grass-green walls and Formica tables, also bakes airy, frosting-laden cupcakes and traditional desserts like apple pie. Don't plan on spending too much time, though: There are few tables, and it gets crowded. The house specialty is banana pudding served in a tall, plain-vanilla paper cup. The pudding is so creamy, it's hard to believe that Nilla wafers are used in the recipe. If banana's not your bag, try the densely delicious chocolate layer cake. And you can start paying Mom back for all those cakes by picking up a slice for her on your way out.
Buttercup Bake Shop
973 Second Avenue, between 62nd and 63rd Streets (212-350-4144)
One of the founders of Magnolia Bakery, Jennifer Appel, opened this brightly lit Turtle Bay café and bakeshop just over a year ago. Locals are thanking her for filling the area's bakery void with retro-Americana desserts, including ten kinds of cupcakes with rich frosting and thirteen different old-fashioned layer cakes in flavors like chocolate, buttercup golden, and lemon. I went for the moist lemon cake with lemon frosting. It was so dense and buttery that I had to pause between mouthfuls to catch my breath. Buttercup also makes brownies, cookies, cheesecakes, and apple pies.
Sweet Melissa Patisserie
276 Court Street, Brooklyn (718-855-3410)
When Melissa Hagenbart opened this quaint neighborhood café, it was just mothers and strollers. Two and a half years later, her Cobble Hill pâtisserie has gotten trendier along with the rest of the neighborhood, attracting a younger, more stylish crowd. All the same, the Victorian-tearoom-style café usually maintains its quiet, romantic atmosphere (in the summer, the garden is open). Order the tasty bread pudding, which is a homemade brioche dipped in vanilla-infused crème brûlée, and slather it with the tangy raspberry sauce that comes on the side. The decadent butterscotch and chocolate puddings are creamy yet light and easily melt in your mouth. On your way out, get a large chocolate-chip toasted-almond cookie.