The cacao tree is native to either Central or South America. The people who probably first roasted and ground its beans into a powder, to make beverages and gruel, were the Olmecs in southern Mexico, as early as 1500 B.C. When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived at Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City) in 1519, he discovered the Aztecs sipping a drink based on bitter ground cacao beans sweetened with honey and flavored with vanilla and chiles. They called it “chocolatl,” meaning warm liquid.
The Spanish brought chocolate back to Europe, and it became popular there — still as a beverage — minus the chile but with other flavorings, including cinnamon and nutmeg, and the honey replaced with sugar. The first shop in North America selling (liquid) chocolate was opened by Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard in Boston in 1670.
It isn’t known who first made chocolate in solid form, but it was popularized in 1847 by Joseph Fry, who created a kind of chocolate paste at his factory in Bristol, England. John Cadbury, Henri Nestle, and Rodolphe Lindt — all names associated with leading chocolate brands today — made further refinements to the product.
Milton S. Hershey made the first milk chocolate candy in America in 1900 at his factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Candy bars became a fad in the early 20th century, and in the first half of the 1900s, an astonishing 40,000 different candy bars were introduced to consumers. Individual chocolates, as opposed to bars, also became popular; the Philadelphia chocolate manufacturer and retailer Whitman’s first sold its now-iconic chocolate sampler box in 1912.
Exactly when and where the first shop specializing in chocolate candies (as opposed to hot chocolate) appeared in America is uncertain, but early examples include Pulakos Chocolates in Erie, Pennsylvania, dating from 1903; Fowler’s Chocolates, which opened in Buffalo, New York, in 1910; Keystone Candies, a chocolate shop and soda fountain launched by Greek immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1914; and a Dutch-themed chocolate shop opened the same year in downtown Los Angeles.
Nobody knows for sure how many chocolate shops there are in the U.S. today, at least in part because many of them do double duty as patisseries, ice cream parlors, or gift shops. Suffice to say there is probably not a city or a town of any size in the country that doesn’t boast at least one purveyor of chocolates. There are at least 25 in New York City, for instance, and more than 30 in Los Angeles.
Sometimes, the best chocolate shops are generations old, descended from old-style candy-making facilities. Sometimes they’re products of the last decade, started by artisanal chocolatiers. Sometimes they’re even local branches of large chains. All, however, have the goods to satisfy chocolate lovers.
To identify the best chocolate shop in each state, 24/7 Wall St. indexed ratings weighted by number of reviews for thousands of chocolate shops nationwide on Yelp and Google. To be considered, a chocolate shop must be in or near a city with a population of at least 100,000 people. In states with few or no cities of this size, chocolate shops in smaller cities were also considered. Ratings are the number of points given by Yelp and Google users out of a possible 5.