Most food historians agree that the traditional New York bagel’s origins lie in Poland, where it can be traced back to at least the 1700s. Bagels appeared in New York City as early as the 1880s when Eastern European Jews first started to immigrate to the city and settle in the Lower East Side. Here the chewy snacks were sold on the streets by vendors who carried them stacked on long dowels. Thus began the bagel making tradition that we still enjoy today.
By early 1900s, the bagel bakers had unionized and had become a powerful force that protected the profession and the quality of the bagel using the traditional method of two hand rollers, one boiler and one baker. It wasn’t until the 1960s, with the advent of industrialized bagel production, such as the Thompson Bagel Machine, that the old-world methods by a team of four workers were challenged. In the 1980s, another dramatic change occurred to the bagel: They became supersized, almost doubling in weight, going from the traditional three ounces to a hefty seven ounces. Thai bagel bakers began to work at some of the best bagel shops in the city and learned the traditional craft, and by the 1990s, they were opening their own shops, as well.
The classic New York bagel is unique and requires specific ingredients and preparation. The ingredients are simple — high-gluten flour, water, yeast, salt and barley malt. Some bakeries substitute honey or white sugar for the malt, but the malt lends a balanced slight mellow, nutty sweetness that produces the classic taste that is hard to beat. Traditionally, bagels are hand-shaped, and then the bagel dough is left to rise for about 12 hours. The bagels are then boiled briefly in water, pressed side-by-side and baked. Surprisingly, there were only four original flavors: plain, sesame, poppy and salt. In modern New York it’s now common to find everything bagels, garlic, onion, pumpernickel and cinnamon raisin varieties, and even some new-school types like blueberry, in the bins next to the four originals.
First, if you want to go classic, look at the size. Is it hand-sized, something you can easily get your mouth around it? Next, look at the color. Does the crust have a rich, medium-brown glow? What about shine? A great bagel will shine back at you; its crust firm and crunchy, protecting the chewy, dense crumb inside. Mass-produced bagels are machine-rolled and baked in a steam-injected oven, producing a pale white-crusted mound with a doughy and often too sweet interior. Grate marks or raised dots on the bottom are signs that the bagel probably came from a big baking facility not a bagel shop.
Bagels are best enjoyed fresh out of the oven. If it’s still piping hot, it’s probably best to just get it buttered. Of course, to schmear or not to schmear — it’s a tough choice. A swab of fresh cream cheese on a true New York bagel is hard to beat, and flavored schmears such as scallion and lox are easy to find and make a perfect accompaniment. If you’re at one of the classic smoked fish shops like Russ and Daughters or Barney Greengrass, don’t miss out on getting your bagel dressed house cured salmon or whitefish. You have now reached bagel nirvana. Go forth and discover 16 of the best New York City bagel shops where you can find perfectly crafted bagels made the classic way — by hand.
New York City’s Best Bagel Shops
There’s a reason this Upper West Side mainstay almost always has a line out the door. The bagels never stop streaming out of the oven, and it’s easy to pick one up still piping hot. Peer over the counter and you can see them boiling them right before your eyes, before they pop them into the oven for the final step. If you want to see what an original 3-ounce bagel looks and tastes like, this is the perfect spot to try one out. They usually have a few mini-bagels stacked behind the glass. 2788 Broadway, 212-932-2052
For almost half a century, this Fresh Meadows shop has been using old-school baking practices blending water with flour, salt and malt syrup instead of sugar and then boiling them in a kettle before they hit the oven for authentic final results. Their time-honored recipe hasn’t changed a bit since 1961. The best part? It’s open 24/7 every day of the year, so you can get your bagel fix at any time of day or night. 183-12 Horace Harding Expy., Queens, 718-359-9245, bageloasis.com
Opened in 1987 by Thai immigrants who cut their teeth in the bagel-baking business at competing shops, David’s crew has an inside knowledge of the traditional methods and it shows at this Stuyvesant Town shop. Even better, it doesn’t branch out into exotic flavors, so every bagel here is near perfection and usually hot out of the oven. You’ll be tempted to buy a dozen after taking a bite. And you should. When you buy 12, you get an extra one for free. 288 First Ave., 212-780-2308
Going strong since 1908, this appetizing shop and restaurant has been feeding the Upper West Side for over a century. If you have the time and the money, it’s worth sitting down in the old-school dining room for some sturgeon and eggs, but it also serves up some mean bagels in an adjacent grab-and-go deli section. The store specializes in Jewish delicacies, so getting a bagel topped with Nova Scotia salmon or chopped herring salad is always a winning combination for a bite of old-world New York. 541 Amsterdam Ave., 212-724-4707, barneygreengrass.com/welcome.php
Large bins of different flavors await the long lines of fans at this Sixth Avenue shop that opened in 1996. Sandwiches are popular here as well, so it also makes a great lunch option. The items in question are made in the traditional way of hand-rolling, boiling them in kettles and baking fresh batches throughout the day, Murray’s creates just the right combination of crispy crust and chewy inside, so there’s no need to have it toasted. Matter of fact, there’s a strict “no toasting” rule, so it’s not even an option. Why ruin perfection? 500 Sixth Ave., 212-462-2830, murraysbagels.com
With busy locations on First and Third avenues not far from Stuyvesant Town, these shops draw longtime customers and tourists alike thanks to tasty, rotund bagels that the shops claim — with pride — are largest in the city. Owner Florence Wilpon blames an early error in the refrigeration process of the dough that caused the bagels to puff up beyond the normal size. But no one is complaining; people have been lining up for these oversized creations since the 1970s. 359 First Ave., 212-260-2252; 831 Third Ave., 212-980-1010, ess-a-bagel.com
This Lower East Side institution has always kept things simple. There’s no seating, just a counter selling hot and fresh bagels and bialys that you can see on huge trays stacked all over the cluttered space. This summer it underwent an ownership change, so adjustments may be soon on the horizon, but for now you can still stop in for delicious egg bagels (using fresh eggs not a mix, an unfortunate rarity in New York), the best-selling everything bagels, and its famous onion-laced bialys. The shop does run out of flavors, so if you have your heart set on a particular type, get there early to wake up and smell the bagels. 367 Grand St., 212-473-4810, kossarsbialys.com
In a quaint stretch of Windsor Terrace is this local favorite where they hand-roll and boil each tasty bagel. Rolled by the same expert baker for nearly the past 20 years, these 5.5-ounce beauties have slightly smaller holes so they can hold up to all the sandwich fixings offered. This place is much more than a typical bagel shop — it has an enormous amount of salads, deli options and to-go food, so you can grab a bunch of stuff and hit Prospect Park down the block … with a few bagels, of course. 224 Prospect Park W, Brooklyn, 718-768-3943
The Bagel Store
A gregarious crew greets the hordes of hipsters at this neighborhood fixture that had to recently relocate after being kicked out of its busy Bedford Avenue shop for, ironically, a Starbucks. The Williamsburg shop is now down the street making the same hand-rolled, bigger-than-average bagels for which it’s known. If you’re in the mood for a hearty breakfast, try the bacon, egg and cheese on your choice of bagel. It’s massive, so come hungry or bring a friend. 349 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn, 718-218-7220, thebagelstoreonline.com
This cramped spot doesn’t make many “best of” lists, but it’s an under-the-radar winner and one of the few spots on the East Side to score a great bagel. The bins are behind the counter up front, so you might have to squeeze by to see what’s been coming out of the oven, but it’s worth it to see if they have any flat bagels left. These unique treats are flattened after being boiled and then moved to the oven to finish them off with a delightful crispy exterior. 1229 First Ave., 212-744-6444
Eleven different varieties stream hot out of the oven at this Park Slope icon that opened almost 30 years ago in 1985. Like Absolute, the Bagel Hole also makes mini versions in the size of the original New York bagel, and the shop’s devoted fans include iconic appetizing shops like Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side (see below). 400 Seventh Ave., Brooklyn, 718-788-4014, bagelhole.net
Russ & Daughters
A must-visit culinary destination on the Lower East Side, this smoked fish shop has been serving classic Jewish specialties since 1914. And you know the bagels are top quality, because they get them fresh from Bagel Hole in Brooklyn. When you top them with their signature Nova lox and foodie favorite Ben’s Cream Cheese, you have one of the most perfect bites in the history of New York. 179 E Houston St., 212-475-4880, russanddaughters.com
One of the newest additions to the NYC bagel scene may look and feel a bit like a chain deli, but it still serves up reputable bagels in TriBeCa, a neighborhood that isn’t known for a wealth of options. A former Wall Streeter and born-and-bred New Yorker from the same family that opened Murray’s is behind this spot, so it has real NYC bagel cred. There’s also a convenient outpost in Grand Central Terminal for morning commuters pouring into the city or those looking to grab a snack on the train for the way home. 146 Chambers St., 212-608-5844; 370 Lexington Ave., Grand Central Terminal, 212-661-1080; zuckersbagels.com
With three locations in Astoria and one in Chelsea, there’s nothing Brooklyn about these bagels except for the old-school baking methods and classic combinations of crunchy exterior and chewy center. 286 8th Ave., 35-05 Broadway, Queens, 718-204-0141; 36-14 30th Ave., Queens, 718-777-1121; 35-9 Ditmars Blvd, Queens, 718-932-8280; and 286 8th Ave., 212-924-2824; bkbagel.com
The sister shops may not make the most gourmet bagels in town (they use sugar instead of malt), but the familiar sign is a welcome beacon on the Upper East Side, which has surprisingly few top-notch bagel options. 333 E 86th St., 212-427-6811 and 228 Lexington Ave., 212-717-2080, talbagelsny.com
Off the main drag on 29th Street in the Flatiron District, this Israeli shop not only serves specialty items such as the sesame seed-packed Jerusalem-style bagel but also a range of Judaica. 121 W 19th St., 212-633-4330, gezuntebagel.com