There’s no need for chocolate lovers to travel to Europe or even Hershey, Pennsylvania to get their fix directly from an authentic chocolate maker.
You can learn everything there is to know about the art of chocolate right here in Southern California, where chocolatiers draw inspiration from France, Mesoamerica, and even the bounty of natural (and manmade) ingredients that surround us.
Whether you are a newbie nibbler or a confection connoisseur, SoCal’s chocolate shops are constantly looking for ways to surprise, enlighten, and seduce you – one bean at a time.
Here are five of the best places in SoCal to indulge your sweet tooth and embrace the savory side of chocolate in bean, bar, bonbon, and beverage forms.
1. Chocovivo, Culver City
Mexico might not be the first country of origin you think of for chocolate confections, as the ancient recipes of our neighbor to the south have been overshadowed by the popularity of French and Swiss varieties. But taking a bite of the dark chocolates at Chocovivo – which sources all its cacao beans from a farm in Tabasco, Mexico – is like tasting the nectar of the Mayan gods. Ranging from 65% to 100% cacao pure bars (depending on how daring you are) to blended bars that include Mayan cinnamon and spices, nuts, fruit, sea salt, and spices (like black peppercorn), you can try them all at the tasting counter – your choice of flights of three, six, or all of the varieties available for sale in full-sized bars. Be sure to try one of the small-batch blends during the limited time they’re available.
Chocovivo retails its own packaged cacao-based products – which include bars as well as cocoa powders, cacao nibs, chocolate butters (made with hazelnuts or almonds), and even non-dairy “mylks” – but it also serves as a café offering up hot espresso drinks, drinking chocolate, and pastries like cupcakes, cookies, and brownies.
Join the growing community by attending one of its events – not just tastings and pairings but also jazz nights and “cacao ceremonies” for meditation and mindfulness. You’ll learn a new appreciation for chocolate as food – not just for your meals, but also for your soul.
2. Chocolats du Cali Bressan, Carpinteria
Chocolatier Jean-Michel Carré spent 40-some-odd years as a French chef at his own restaurant in France – and now he brings that haute cuisine sensibility to his chocolate-making at his own shoppe, Chocolats du Cali Bressan. Carré runs the venture with his California-born wife Jill, spending much of his time in the kitchen to focus on creating milk, dark, and white chocolate truffles and bonbons. Each flavor profile is well balanced with the addition of citrus, mint, rum, and more. And while his French roots remain strong – “Cali Bressan” is a tip-of-the-hat to the Bresse area of Burgundy – Carré also incorporates ingredients from all over the world, like curry and cardamom.
There’s a satellite retail location in Santa Barbara – but to get the full experience of authentic French chocolates “of the American Riviera,” it’s the Carpinteria store and factory that you want to visit. Stride on up to the counter, and you might receive a free taste of something special – like the bisous (tangerine kisses of red chocolate lips) for Valentine’s Day. Custom gift boxes and baskets are also available, as are custom branded chocolates for companies, clubs, weddings, and special wishes. To get a peek behind the kitchen curtain and practice your français with the chocolatier himself, call ahead for one of the onsite factory’s group tours, held the third Saturday of every month.
3. Letterpress Chocolate, Los Angeles
What happens when a Hollywood graphic designer who volunteers at the International Printing Museum gets interested in cacao? You end up with Letterpress Chocolate – a small-batch, craft chocolate factory in the SoRo district of L.A., just north of the 10 on South Robertson. Right now, you can taste 70% dark chocolates from various cacao-growing regions around the world – Ecuador, Ghana, Costa Rica, Belize, the Ucayali region of Peru, and so on. Soon enough, though, you’ll be able to taste Letterpress chocolate bars made from its own beans, as it has invested in own sustainable cacao farm, Guatemala's Izabal Agroforest.
Every bar is hand-crafted, aged, tempered, melted and molded behind the wall of letterpress type that separates the kitchen from the storefront – and you can take the factory tour to witness the “bean to bar” process in person. For starters, you’ll get to drink the juice of the cacao pod, which is usually drained as a waste byproduct – even though it’s pretty tasty, with a fruity flavor. Next on the tour comes a sprinkling of bitter, earthy cacao nibs, produced from the drying and roasting of the once-juicy cacao bean. Watch how the liquefied cocoa spends days spinning in a pot to smooth out its texture and get all the particles down to the same size – and even taste it in this early stage, when it’s not quite chocolate, but it’s chocolatey enough. Then try some of the finished products, almost all of which are dark chocolate and therefore dairy-free – and friendly to vegans, as they’re made with organic, unrefined cane sugar (since bovine bone char is used in making refined a.k.a. white sugar).
4. Twenty-Four Blackbirds Chocolates, Santa Barbara
The Twenty-Four Blackbirds tasting room and boutique is a relative newcomer to the SoCal chocolate scene, having made its public debut in early 2018 (though chocolate-making had already been going on before then). And it’s still somewhat of a work-in-progress, as the current visitor experience is self-guided – both when it comes to the tasting and the touring of the kitchen. But the lack of formality makes for a warm and welcoming experience in a lovely space, where you can serve yourself small portions of dark chocolate whose bean origins range from the Dominican Republic and Belize to Tanzania and Madagascar. As new offerings will be introduced and the selections for the free samples may change, tasting notes and origin details accompany each tasting station, along with QR codes that allow you to learn more about the cacao suppliers from each region. In addition to hand-wrapped bars, also for sale in a glass case are beautifully decorated truffles, each hand-painted with colored cocoa butter, as iridescent and eye-catching as precious gems.
At the helm of Twenty-Four Blackbirds is founder Mike Orlando, raised to grow plants, trained as a marine biologist and self-taught machine-tinkerer and candyman. Much of the equipment used in the factory was designed or even built by Orlando, including those for roasting the beans and cracking and winnowing the shells. You can observe them at work by taking a factory tour, which is currently offered to the public for free on a self-guided basis during regular business hours. Start in the back with the tropical greenhouse, where you’ll see how chocolate really does grow on trees – the Theobroma cacao – in the same warm, humid conditions that have proven favorable for tropical fruits like pineapples and mangos. Twenty-Four Blackbirds is launching its first wine-pairing this month in conjunction with Valentine’s Day, with more planned for the future. You may even get your chance to learn how to make chocolate yourself, based on Orlando’s unique approach.
5. Compartés, Los Angeles
Compartés has been making chocolate in L.A. since 1950 – but what it offers now under the leadership of upstart owner Jonathan Grahm isn’t your grandmother’s candy bar. What was once a favorite of Marilyn, Frank, and Elvis has flipped Hollywood glamour on its head – with Grahm mixing in pretzels, scones, doughnuts, brownies, potato chips, and even kale. Likewise, the packaging designed by Grahm, a painter in his own right, has become just as appealing as the unusual flavor concoctions – making the bars a great gift item and souvenir for those visiting L.A. (or, in the case of its Tokyo shops, perhaps wishing they were here).
The Century City flagship store has gotten high marks for its design by Kelly Wearstler (also a partner on several chocolate bar collaborations), chocolate fountain, and frozen hot chocolate bar, but that’s not where the magic happens. If you’re interested in getting a glimpse behind the scenes, stop into the Brentwood factory store on Barrington for a peek-a-boo look (through a window) into the molding and wrapping of the bars. Unfortunately, the shop does not offer any tastings (free or for a charge), so your purchase becomes as much a leap of faith as it is an impulse buy. But since the focus here is more on fashion and trendiness of the featured ingredients – all natural, no chemicals – why not get a bunch, break them open with friends, and do what the brand name suggests? Share!