A good bagel with a schmear on a Sunday morning is as quintessentially New York as the Times, a dollar slice, or nostalgia for the seedy days of Times Square. New Yorkers are proud of their bagels, and with good reason: no other city in the country — or the planet — seems to be able to replicate them. Maybe it's the water. Maybe it's the mood. Whatever it is, a New York bagel is like none other.
But in 2011, New York City hit a bagel crisis. After 40 years of operation, beloved Upper West Side bagel bakery H&H, one of the standard-bearers of the form, closed its doors, leaving a hole at the top of the best-bagel hierarchy. In a piece about the closing, former New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton declared the state of the New York bagel "deplorable," saying that the formerly small, dense bread had grown overlarge. Its former malted flavor, and its dark, glossy exterior, which should snap when bitten into, had all but disappeared.
This double-whammy seemed to wake up the city's remaining bagel bakers. In the four years since, traditional-style bagels — where the emphasis is quality, flavor, and technique, rather than the carb-bombs Sheraton was talking about — have slowly started to return. They're showing up in unexpected places — like Freds (inside famed department store Barneys) and at Smorgasburg — and are even evolving in new directions, with Black Seed Bagels introducing something of a Montreal-New York bagel hybrid (much more on that below). This summer, baker Melissa Weller and the Torrisi boys will start selling their heavily-seeded bagels, not to mention a seriously impressive smoked fish tower, at new Soho spot Sadelle's. The moment those bagels land, the endless string of reviews and arguments among bagel fans will begin again. To keep the argument on fair ground, let us establish a few definitions. Here are the essential terms relevant to any proper bagel discussion.
Absolute Bagels — An uptown bagel destination where Thai chef Samak Thongkrieng makes what many consider the city's best bagel.
Acme Smoked Fish — This Greenpoint factory has been smoking fish in Brooklyn since 1954 and is one of the main suppliers of lox and nova to some of the city's best appetizing shops including Russ & Daughters, Zabar's, and Barney Greengrass.
Appetizing — A style of Jewish cuisine that features smoked fish, bagels, and schmear, among other things.
Arguing — Bagel fans never seem to agree on who makes the best bagel in the city, how it should be served, or really anything bagel related. Arguing about bagel supremacy is sport-like and an essential part of the bagel experience. Related: Kvetching — a Yiddish word for complaining.
Bagel Hole — This Park Slope bagel shop is heralded by many as the source of NYC's best bagels. High marks go to its snappy crust and appropriate (read: not ginormous) size. Bagel Hole is also the bagel supplier to Russ & Daughters.
Bialy — The bagel's lesser known cousin: A round baked roll with an indented center filled with onion scraps, that's often hard to find outside of the metropolitan area. The city's best are at Kossar's on the Lower East Side.
Barneys — Some of the city's best bagels are found past displays of designer clothes at Freds, the restaurant inside Barneys' department store. Chef Mark Strausman only makes these petite bagels (2.5 ounces) on Sunday mornings. For those hoping to take a dozen home, orders must be placed by Friday at 6 p.m. Expect to shell out $19.95 for an order, this is Barneys after all.
Barney Greengrass — An appetizing, bagel, and brunch destination on the Upper West Side. The shop has been in business since 1908 and in its current location since 1929. The bagels are sourced from All Natural, a wholesale bakery in Queens that also goes by the name Davidovich.
Black Seed Bagels — Started by Mile End's Noah Bernamoff and The Smile's Matt Kliegman, this mini-chain offers a Montreal and New York bagel hybrid. The bagels are hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, and roasted in a wood-fire oven. Increasingly, the bagels are available at stores and restaurants around town.
California Bagels — The deep hunger for a New York bagel is felt perhaps most acutely in California, where bakers have long tried (and mostly failed) to replicate Gotham's bagels.
Crumb — The crumb, or interior of a bagel, should have a denseness and a chewiness to it. Light, fluffy, filling will be mocked, or thrown in the trash by bagel snobs.
Crust — One measure of a proper New York bagel is a crust with just the right level of snap when it's bitten into. It comes largely from the two step cooking process, in which the bagels are quickly boiled and then baked.
Ess-A-Bagel — Beloved O.G. bagel shop, whose original 1st Avenue location was forced to move out of its home earlier this year. The owner promises the shop is moving "just down the block." Meanwhile, an outpost of Tal Bagels is moving into the old Ess-A-Bagel space.
Flavors — The only acceptable "flavor" is a simple white flour bagel, with periodic exceptions made for whole wheat and pumpernickel. Flavors such as blueberry and cheddar jalapeño are widely frowned upon by bagel connoisseurs.
H&H — An essential UWS bagel shop for 40 years that shuttered in 2011, breaking a longstanding brunch tradition of many neighbors who visited H&H for their bagels and crossed 80th Street to pick up their smoked fish at Zabar's (see below). When the shop closed, a New York Times article started "What many natives of the West 70s and 80s have long prophesied has come to pass: The neighborhood is finished." H&H always had its diehard fans, but some bemoaned the bagel quality in the shop's later years.
Hand-Rolled — The traditional way to form a bagel. The hand of the baker is responsible for the bagel's signature hole.
Lender's Bagels — The Connecticut-based bagel company, which launched in 1927 and started selling its packaged and frozen bagels to supermarkets in 1955, is credited with helping introduce bagels to Americans outside of New York City.
Lower East Side Pushcarts — New York's first bagels were baked sometime around 1890, along Rivington and Hester Streets and sold by Jewish pushcart peddlers, who transported their bagels on a string.
Lox vs. Nova vs. Smoked Salmon — The most iconic topping for bagels after cream cheese is fish. These three types of prepared fish are often confused by even devoted bagel fans. Here's a cheat sheet: Lox is cured in a salt brine leaving a salty finish. Nova specifically refers to Nova Scotia salmon, though it is also often used to describe cold smoked fish, which has a less salty finish than lox. Smoked salmon is all inclusive term that also covers items like hot smoked salmon.
Melissa Weller — This ex-Roberta's baker is at the helm of the soon-to-open Torrisi spot Sadelle's and in charge of the shop's much-anticipated bagels. Weller's bagels (which she sold at Smorgasburg in 2013) are smaller and denser than most found in New York, a style that harkens back to an older bagel tradition.
Mimi Sheraton — Former New York Times restaurant critic and bagel aficionado Sheraton declared the state of the New York bagel in 2011 "deplorable." Adding, "It's very hard not to remember good old days when it comes to bagels."
Montreal-Style Bagels — These "bagels" from the Great White North are typically smaller and sweeter than their modern day New York brethren. The sweetness comes from a honey water bath before being finished in a wood-fire oven. Montrealers are deeply divided over the best purveyor: St.-Viateur or Fairmount.
Murray's Bagels — This Chelsea bagel shop is a longtime contender in the battle for bagel supremacy in NYC.
Roll With a Hole — A derogatory term to describe a bagel impostor.
Russ & Daughters — The ne plus ultra of appetizing shops and perhaps the city's most iconic destination for a bagel and lox sandwich. The Russ family has been operating its shop on the Lower East Side for 101 years selling lox, cream cheese, herring, bagels from Bagel Hole, and much more. Related: Russ & Daughters Cafe, The Russ family's first sit down spot specializing in similar fare to the shop, which opened a year ago.
Schmear (alternative spellings include but aren't limited to shmear, schmeer) — Both a noun and verb used to describe something spread across a bagel's bisected interior and the action of that spreading. Most commonly, schmear refers to cream cheese, as in "I'll have a bagel and lox with schmear."
Scooped — A trend of scooping out the innards of bagels, which likely became popular around the time of the Atkins diet. Most self respecting bagel shops refuse to scoop.
Shelsky's — A smoked fish shop in Brooklyn that specializes in a variety of smoked salmon and slightly wacky bagel sandwiches like the Peter Shelsky, which piles nova, pickled herring with cream sauce, onion, and scallion cream cheese, on to a chewy bagel from Mill Basin Cafe.
Toasting — Most bagel makers and appetizing shop owners argue that a fresh bagel should never be toasted. H&H went as far as to refuse requests from customers for toasted bagels. Some offer the conceit that toasting a bagel is acceptable if the bagel was baked the day before.
Toppings — Traditionally accepted toppings are limited to poppy, sesame, salt, onion, and everything. Modernists toppings can include pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, other "seasonings."
Water — Many believe New York City water is the secret to the city's bagels. One California bakery has gone as far as to "Brooklynize" its water. However, others, believe the water has minimal, if any, impact on the final product.
Zabar's — Home to one of the city's busiest smoked fish counters with master slicers ensuring long and thin lox slices. Upper West Siders and bagel fans maintained a long tradition of bagels from H&H and lox from Zabar's. That tradition sadly ended in 2011. Today, the bagels at Zabar's hail from Davidovich bakery in Queens.