New York City has the best bagels.
There may be a singular better bagel somewhere else, but collectively there’s nobody who does bagels better. Besides, I don’t like playing the What’s The Best [foodstuff] In [city/country/world/vending machine] Game — at a certain point, they’re all good, and it takes a certain amount of arrogance and self-delusion to believe that your palette is developed enough to distinguish between the world’s best and second-best.
There are a lot of theories as to why New York City seems to be better at making bagels than everyone else. The first, most obvious, and probably true answer is that New York has the most Jews anywhere outside of Israel.
A second popular theory says that it has something to with New York City tap water, maybe its freshness, or the minerals in it, perhaps even the tiny crustaceans living in it that — ironically, given the first theory — make it technically not Kosher.
My theory? Bagels (along with most breadstuffs) have a pretty short half-life. A bagel that was baked two hours ago is a pretty great bagel, while a bagel that’s fresh from the oven is a religious experience. (A couple of weeks ago I took my dad to Murray’s, and he literally said “oh my God” after taking a bite.) There are a lot of people in New York, which means there are a lot of people eating bagels in New York, which means that product moves off the shelves fast enough for there to be a fresh batch every hour or so. A lot of bagel places here are so confident in their bagels’ freshness that they refuse to toast bagels. I respect the hell out of them for it.
Side note: I get a little sad every time someone orders “cinnamon raisin, toasted, with butter,” because let’s be honest, you really just wanted a cinnamon roll.
I don’t think I could ever choose my favorite food, but if you held a gun to my head, there’s a good chance I’d say bagels and lox. Bagels are part of my heritage. One of my distant cousins moved to Atlanta from Chicago forty years ago and brought bagels with him.
I have two favorite New York bagel places so far, and each serves a different purpose.
The first is Murray’s. I came to New York for the Art Director’s Club portfolio review last April, when I was still in design school, and the morning of the review, my two design brothers Christo and Fairchild and I went to Murray’s for bagels, then made a micro-pilgramage to Stefan Sagmeister's office, then went to the review. It was a beautiful moment that I feel encapsulates why I moved to this city.
The Murray’s in Greenwich Village is (more or less) on my way to work. Sometimes I won’t go grocery shopping for days after running out of milk, just so I have a reason to have a bagel for breakfast instead of a bowl of Granola. Their bagels are big and fluffy and chewy, and the crust is just perfectly crisp. They have more than a dozen varieties of bagels and a vast array of spreads and smoked fish, and pretty good coffee, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. They run like a goddamn machine – but they have to, given their location (13th St. and 6th Ave., near Union Square and within walking distance of at least six or seven subway stops). They have tables that somehow miraculously always have one seat open when you get out of the line.
Bagel Hole in Park Slope is not that. It’s a hole in the wall with no seating and a cooler of beverages and an ATM because the place is cash-only. They have one kind of smoked fish, one kind of cream cheese, and a handful of other toppings that they keep in a minifridge behind the counter. Their bagels are perfect. They’re smaller and denser than Murray’s bagels, perfectly hand-formed with a shiny crust. It’s brutally efficient and simplistic, contrasted with the spectacle and endless choice of Murray’s. If I were a more reductive person, I would say that the differences between Murray’s and Bagel Hole tell you everything you need to know about Manhattan versus Brooklyn, but I’m not.
Bagel Hole’s my weekend bagel place. Going there’s not terribly convenient if I’m gong somewhere else, but it’s a half-hour walk through Prospect Park from my apartment, which makes it an ideal hangover journey. The salty restorative powers of bagels and lox have helped me kickstart a few Saturdays. I think that whenifever I move out of my current apartment I’m going to try to live in Park Slope, just so I can be closer to Bagel Hole.
There are undoubtedly other good bagel places out there — and people are always eager to tell you which ones are their favorites and why they’re better than yours — but those two are mine. And in a gigantic city like New York, it’s nice to have something of your own.