After years of making lists of great bagels in town, I’d have to say the best neighborhood for bagels is the Upper West Side, with Park Slope the runner-up. In New York, bagels are a way of life, available in every bodega and snack shop, but the UWS has the most bagel bakeries, which vie with each other for bagel supremacy.
So I decided one afternoon to visit all of them to find which bagel bakery is the best. I started at 108th and Broadway, and worked my way down to 61st and West End Avenue, noshing all the way. I resolved to always order a plain bagel, untoasted, with plain cream cheese for comparative purposes. I’d take two bites of each and judge both the bagel and the cream cheese, then rank the bakeries in order of excellence.
It took me three hours and 20 minutes, walking a total of 5.1 miles, stopping nine times along the way. The bagel with cream cheese varied from a low of $3.54 to a high of $5.44, including tax where it was charged. The quality of bagel and cream cheese varied widely. The bakeries are described in geographic order, and afterwards you’ll find a ranking of the shops.
Absolute Bagels means business. It is basically a counter, a bagel boiling pot, a wide oven, and bins upon bins of bagels, many still warm. Lines form during the day that can extend out to the sidewalk, but there’s no place to sit. Bagel slightly larger than average size, nicely browned with a shiny surface, hole has pretty much disappeared. Cream cheese is slightly tangy. $3.97 2778 Broadway, near 108th Street
Silver Moon Bakery
This well-regarded bakery of breads and pastries also makes bagels, I noticed as I walked by — so I dropped in and bought one. The shape is odd and twisted, the taste is wheaty, the crust too thick and firm. Cream cheese is provided in packets. $4. 2740 Broadway at 105th Street
This corner deli offers a vast selection in bins. The problem is, when I turned over the bagel it had the grid marks that indicate that it had been steamed rather than boiled (Editor’s note: When I called they said they’re not boiled). Ergo, it’s suspect: Is it really a bagel? It’s large, too soft in the middle, and on the sweet side. The cream cheese was nicely fluffy and generously applied. $3.54. 2658 Broadway at 101st Street
This shallow storefront is a beehive of activity and features a broad range of stunt bagels and cream cheeses — in the latter category the sprinkle-studded birthday cake cream cheese. Bagels are of average size, darker than most, good flavor, no hole to speak of, provides a good chew. Odd spiraling fissures on the top, though: Is that a manufacturing defect? $4.34. 2350 Broadway at 85th Street
H&H produced the most famous bagels in the city when it closed in 2011, with a reputation of being too sweet for some (including me), but the brand has now been revived and has several locations. This specimen was pale and shiny, a perfect size and old-fashioned, a real retro-bagel. It’s chewy without being overly so. $4.84. 526 Columbus Avenue, near 85th Street
I got the bagel from the Zabar’s corner deli right next door to the grocery store, which was a wild scene around lunchtime, selling all sorts of sandwiches and pastries. Maybe following the current caramelizing fad, this average sized bagel was a very dark brown with an adamantine crust and a slightly salty flavor, almost meaty. $4.12. 2245 Broadway at 80th Street
Bagels & Co.
This shallow storefront with a broad deli menu was among the most popular spots I visited. Tasting Notes: More bulbous than usual, the small hole was like a whirlpool on this one, and the crumb more finely textured, without a speck of sweetness. The taste was slightly toasty without being toasted. $4.63. 391 Amsterdam, near 79th Street
Bagel Talk is another of those impossibly shallow storefronts on Amsterdam with the bagel bakery in back. The place specializes in bagels with nova, which it offers in several permutations. The size and level of doneness was perfect, but the outside was positively crunchy, and crazed with fine cracks. By contrast, the inside was softer than most. Fluffy cream cheese is a plus. $4.36. 368 Amsterdam at 77th Street
Pick A Bagel
This comfortable cafe stands among the high-rise apartment buildings of this remote Upper West Side neighborhood. For some reason, it was completely filled with students when I entered around 2:30 p.m. Bulbous and slightly larger than usual, this bagel was unremarkable, and corporate seeming. It was the most expensive on my bagel run despite its meager schmear of cream cheese. $5.44. 30 West End Avenue, near 61st Street
1. Bagels & Co.
2. Absolute Bagels
4. Bagel Talk
5. Broad Nosh
7. Pick A Bagel
8. Silver Moon Bakery
Disqualified for not boiling their bagels: Broadway Bagel