The Curious Case of the West Coast Maple Bar

The United States produced over 3.4 million gallons of maple syrup in 2021, nearly all of it in New England, New York, and the upper Midwest. So why, then, is the maple bar a particularly West Coast phenomenon? Ask a donut lover in Boston or Chicago where to find a great maple bar and you’re likely to be met with a puzzled expression or be directed to the nearest drinking establishment with a wooden tabletop. But in California, you can find fantastic maple bars all over the state. There are great versions in Seattle and around the Pacific Northwest, too. And in Washington State, there’s even a Facebook group for maple bar aficionados.

For the uninitiated, a maple bar is a rectangular yeasted donut, often called a Long John in other parts of the country, that’s covered with a maple-flavored glaze. The classic maple bar is unfilled, but it can be filled with custard or cream, and it’s sometimes also topped with bacon, a version that Portland’s Voodoo Doughnut helped popularize in the early 2000s.

I haven’t uncovered any explanation for why the maple bar became prevalent on the West Coast. But several donut shops opened in downtown Los Angeles during the 1920s, a few years after two Salvation Army officers started delivering donuts to American troops on the front lines during World War I. Donut shops have existed in the Seattle area since at least 1959, when the Original House of Donuts opened in Lakewood. The California-based chain Winchell’s, now the largest on the West Coast, expanded to the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s and opened a branch in Wallingford in 1968 that lasted until 2009. Could its well-loved maple bars have helped popularize them in Seattle?

Perhaps the most notorious incident in Seattle donut history occurred in 2010 when Bellevue police issued Seahawks rookie wide receiver Golden Tate a warning for trespassing in a Top Pot doughnut shop at 3 a.m. one Saturday. Tate lived in the same building as the Top Pot and entered it through a back door that had been left open. He explained the offense by telling the Seattle Times that the maple bars there were “irresistible,” a notion that head coach Pete Carroll seconded. “I’m not disappointed in a guy being in a doughnut shop when they’ve got maple bars like Top Pot has,” Carroll said. “I do understand the allure of the maple bars.”

As usual, Carroll’s right. (Except for calling a pass play on second-and-goal from the 1. Still bitter about that one.) I spent a few weeks sampling maple bars all over town, and recommend these five alluring versions:

  • My favorite maple bar came from Chuck’s Donuts in Renton. The donuts at this old-school shop are pillowy soft, and the maple glaze has just the right level of sweetness. Tate and other night owls should note that the shop opens at 3 a.m., and often sells out early in the day.
  • My runner-up is the maple bar at Family Donut Shop in Northgate. This is another old-fashioned store, and the fluffy donuts here are less expensive than at other places (around $2) but a bit smaller. I also recommend coming here early in the day, as the shop closes whenever they’re sold out.
  • You won’t go wrong with a maple bar from any of the 15 or so currently open locations of Top Pot. I’d consider this the archetypal Seattle donut stop – not the best in town, but where you’ll always get a fresh, warm donut that’s above-average in size (with a proportionately higher cost) and a thick covering of maple goodness.
  • I also enjoyed the maple bar from Good Day Donuts in White Center. My donut here had come straight out of the oven, and the glaze had barely started to solidify before I inhaled the whole thing. I’ll need to return for the sandwiches they sell at lunchtime, including a meatball sub that Seattle Times food critic Tan Vinh called “the ideal trinity of meaty, gooey, and tangy elements.”
  • Finally, I’d recommend the maple bar from one of Seattle’s recent influx of innovative donut shops, Raised Doughnuts, which opened in the Central District in 2018. It’s a classic version whose dough I found a little more bready than the other ones I tried. The shop also sells special weekend and monthly flavors (June’s include tahini chocolate and earl grey), as well as donuts for your dog. And I’m particulary intrigued by their regular savory offering: the everything bagel donut.

What are your favorite places for a maple bar in Seattle, and do you have any theories on why they’re so popular on the West Coast? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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More from SeattleFoodHound: 

What I Ate: Maple bars from Chuck’s Donuts in Renton

The maple bar can be found all over California and the Pacific Northwest, but nowhere else in America