In Upper Lawrenceville, the Butterwood takes the cake
Sugar and spice and Austrian opulence — that’s what the Butterwood is made of.
Launched in October 2015 by baker Ally Slayden, the Upper Lawrenceville dessert and coffee house delivers an unlikely elegance to Butler Street’s 52nd block. Furnished with velvet, lace, and wrought iron, its Victorian-meets-art-nouveau interior was majorly inspired by a visit to Vienna.
“I’ve just always loved velvet and dark colors,” says Slayden. “But also, I got to go to Austria; and in Vienna, they have all of these dessert and coffee shops. Some really famous ones. And they’re all opulent, they’re velvet, and they have all of these beautiful desserts and coffee drinks. And they bring everything on a little silver tray.”
This is Slayden’s recollection of Austria’s desserteries, though it’s an equally fitting description of her own. Sure enough, the Butterwood’s ambiance reads bold and moody; its offerings delicate and whimsical. On the docket at the time of our visit: vegan sweet potato cake with vanilla buttercream, buttermilk Bundt cake with espresso almond cream, and mini olive oil banana breads. We pair the slices with local coffee and espresso, and we don’t regret it.
The creations of this first-time proprietor have not gone unnoticed by any sweet tooth in the city. Barely two weeks after opening, the bakery became Instafamous — and has since been the subject of mass snaps, posts, and ‘grams. Though she’s embraced modern media, Slayden maintains that her secret to success is in her source. By baking exclusively with organic ingredients from both Saxonburg and Lancaster, Pa., she always guarantees a quality product — even if she’s had to do some experimenting along the way.
“I just bake everything on a whim,” she adds with a laugh. “I don’t measure when I bake, so I often make horrible mistakes and baking disasters that have to be discarded.”
While we can’t speak for these abstract techniques, we’re sure that cake this phenomenal could only be crafted by one of two humans: a modest baker wielding limitless creativity and natural talent…or a wizard. (Editor’s note: Empirical evidence gathered from several taste tests suggests that Slayden might be both.)
When the Bend, Ore. native moved to the Caribbean with her husband, who was in medical school at the time, baking quickly turned from a hobby to a full-fledged career. “I couldn’t work my day job,” she says, “so I decided to start baking bread and things for the other students. I had this little ordering website, and they would order stuff, and I’d bake and deliver it. Then somebody ordered a cake. I was like, ‘I guess I can do that.’ And then the cakes became the most popular thing. I was making, like, 10 cakes a day! Just busting out cake. And we lived there for three years, so I made a ton of cake.”
Upon returning home, the self-taught baker found that she preferred crunching nut butters to numbers. But at the time, home was in Baltimore, where opening a bakery felt daunting. Eventually, her husband’s residency led the pair straight to the ‘Burgh. Slayden was skeptical: “At first, I didn’t know about Pittsburgh. Football, the steel stuff…I don’t know. But when we got here, I was like, ‘this is the perfect spot.'”
Though the South Side initially caught her eye, Slayden ultimately set up camp in retail-heavy Lawrenceville. “I liked the visual appeal,” she explains. “I liked the foot traffic, even though it’s less so at this end [of Butler Street].”
Until recently, Upper Lawrenceville has paled in comparison to Central and Lower Lawrenceville as a dining and shopping destination. Today, as the up-and-coming 10th Ward continues to attract eager entrepreneurs in pursuit of cheaper rent and a tight community, the area’s future is bright.
“A couple came in recently and asked me about the neighborhoods [in Pittsburgh],” says Slayden. “They wanted to open a cheese shop. I told them this is a great neighborhood for that. [Upper Lawrenceville] is so good for small business. All of the neighbors have been so nice. We all get together and promote each other. I couldn’t have asked for a better shop.”
Truthfully, neither could we.