Like the corner bodega and 24-hour restaurants, the bagel is one of those New York institutions that’s easy to take for granted. Which is precisely the point: the joy of the bagel is its ordinariness – a reliable, ever-present birthright of every New Yorker. This is not to discredit the technique and labour that go into making a good one, but rather to appreciate the bagel on its own terms. Because these are strange times for the New York bagel. While it’s as ubiquitous as ever, finding a great one takes more skill than it used to.
In many ways, the bagel is a victim of its own success. The form dates back to 16th-century Poland, where Ashkenazi Jews rolled coils of malted bread dough into rings (for even cooking), boiled them in steamy vats and baked them in wood-fired ovens to sell to Jews and gentiles alike.
By the 18th century, Jews escaping eastern Europe’s ghettos established a healthy bagel outpost in London, and by the 19th century the bagel arrived on American shores. Jewish bakers opened shops in the only part of town that would have them: the slums of New York’s Lower East Side. It was here in the tenements – among Christian immigrants from Germany, Italy and the old country – that the bagel took on new life as one of the city’s essential breads.
As the bagel flourished in the US, so did American Jews
But the evolution of the bagel is a grim reminder that the cost of American acceptance is losing a part of where you came from. The very factors that made the bagel a success story have also contributed to its decline. As the bagel flourished in the US, so did American Jews. Statistically, Ashkenazi American Jews today are well educated, well off and more or less assimilated into the national culture. The economic and sociological pressures that drove many into food service no longer apply, and since no one gets rich making bagels, the job of making them was relegated to a wider, more diverse population. The resulting bagels have evolved to fit the broader American palate: less robust, more sweet and so overweight that the hole often disappears. This is the case even in historic Jewish neighbourhoods, where generations of New Yorkers have grown up with diminished standards for what a bagel should be.
A bagel is not a dinner roll. It should be dense and resistant to the teeth, the result of long, careful boiling, which gelatinises surface starch molecules to curtail the bread’s expansion in the oven while browning the exterior. It should fit comfortably in your palm without eclipsing your fingers. The crust – and this is key – must blister and crackle like fried chicken skin, and the crumb should be ripe with aromas of fermentation, toffee and burnt wheat.
Fortunately, good bagels are far from dead – if you know where to look. A few Manhattan hold-outs have become quasi-legendary, ensuring a steady stream of locals and tourists alike. Meanwhile, some of the city’s best bagels come from shops on the periphery of its outer boroughs – the neighbourhoods of Brooklyn and Queens that border Long Island suburbs with large Jewish populations. And in an invigorating turn, a new cadre of bagel evangelists, trained in decidedly non-Jewish fine dining kitchens, are breathing new life into old recipes, applying the lessons of artisan bread-baking to turn out some truly fantastic bagels.
Where to find the best bagels in New York (a non-exhaustive list)…
Jewish food evangelist Peter Shelsky, the owner of one of the city’s finest appetizing stores, doesn’t mince words about the state of the New York bagel: ‘They’ve gotten shitty everywhere,’ he told New York magazine. That is why he opened a bagel shop of his own called Shelsky’s Bagel Store. The plump rings are made with a tangy sourdough starter that accentuates their dense, chewy crumb.
453 Fourth Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215
+1 718 855 8817
For years, baker Melissa Weller has been on a nomadic journey to bring high-end bagels into the spotlight – first at a market stall, then at the flashy Sadelle’s, and now at High Street on Hudson, where her diminutive crackly crusted bagels play on the classic salt coating with fleur de sel and rough ground black pepper.
637 Hudson St, New York, NY 10014
+1 917 388 3944
A department store restaurant is hardly a place you’d expect to find bagel greatness, but Mark Strausman – a New York native and the chef of Freds in Barney’s Madison Avenue flagship – makes delightfully malty renderings that sport a glossy sheen on the crust. Takeaway orders must be placed in advance, but the planning is worth it.
660 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10065
+1 212 833 2200
Absolute Bagels is a no-frills Upper West Side institution that regularly draws morning queues. The bagels are on the large side but not too fat, and they make excellent bases for sandwiches. Absolute is one of the few bagel shops in town where you can also enjoy a condensed milk-enriched Thai iced tea – a nod to the Thai owners who have run the shop for decades.
2788 Broadway, New York, NY 10025
+1 212 932 2052
Arguably the best traditional bagel shop downtown, Murray’s in Chelsea steadfastly refuses to toast its bagels – an oh-so-New Yorkish way of boasting that the offerings are so fresh they don’t need toasting. Depending on the hour, this is mostly true: a warm Murray’s ‘everything bagel’ unlocks a primordial taste memory.
242 Eighth Ave, New York, NY 10011
+1 646 638 1335
Skyrocketing rents have driven most credible bagel shops from hightraffic parts of the city, but deep in southeast Brooklyn near Jamaica Bay, Mill Basin Bagel Cafe continues to thrive, offering bagels with rich yeastiness and a satisfying chew.
6319 Avenue N, Brooklyn, NY 11234
+1 718 531 3630