There are two baseline tests to determine if you’re in the presence of a remarkable NYC bagel. Ask yourself: 1) Does this hunk of hand-rolled, boiled-then-baked bread pass the smush test? No matter how thin or thick the bagel is, it should easily spring back to its original structure after you squeeze it. And, 2) How does your mouth feel after chomping its way through the dough? A great bagel should have enough chew to take over your mouth for a couple of seconds, but your jaw shouldn’t respond like it now has a nine-to-five office job under fluorescent lighting.
Us New Yorkers are privileged to live in a city with an outstanding volume (and history) of bagels. If every person in NYC woke up and decided they wanted an untoasted bagel with schmear today, they’d be able to get a decent version close enough to wherever they live. Even the run-of-the-mill bodega bagel is a dream compared to what you’ll find at dedicated bagel stores in many other cities. But what about New York’s best bagels? The ones that have stood the test of time since the 1950s, or are making their distinct mark on a city already known for bagels. The ones that scoff, “aww that’s cute that LA likes bagels now, too.” You’ll find those - the city’s best bagels - below.
If we had to pick one singular bagel to reign supreme over all of its New York City carbohydrate kin, it’s the untoasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese from Absolute Bagels on Broadway and West 108th Street. Tiny and round like a softball, each springy dough globe you’ll find here has a blistered bottom. The dough itself tastes malty and sweet, like it had a daydream years ago about being a dessert. But the real magic is how Absolute Bagels’ subtle sweetness is counteracted by the salty garlic everything seasoning that adheres to the exterior. Absolute Bagels also makes fantastic Thai iced tea (the place was founded by Sam Thongkrieng, who moved from Bangkok to NYC in the ’80s and worked at Ess-A-Bagel for years). Try one and it’ll add some needed relief to the salty-garlicky, cream cheese-gushing experience.
For better or for worse, this Queens bagel shop that’s been open since 1961 will stand out in your mind years after you go there. That’s because these bagels have a completely different texture and mouthfeel than most of their New York City counterparts. They’re inexplicably light and toast-like. Bagel Oasis bakes their bagels at such a high temperature that tiny air bubble bumps form on the outside. If you like bagels with a little less chewiness and a little more delicacy, these will be your favorite.
The Russ & Daughters bagel experience should not exist without smoked fish. Please, we repeat, please order a bagel with some sort of fish topping, or at least a side of their excellent hot-smoke-cold-smoke salmon combination dip to dunk your bagel into. The near-translucent nova at this 1914 Lower East Side appetizing institution is sliced so fine that a puppet master could use it as a backdrop for casting shadows. Russ & Daughters’ white-coated staff expertly layer the soft, pliable fish drapings onto sturdy bagels. These chewy bagels, which are comparatively small, act as the ideal mattress for all of the toppings.
Let the record show that Empire Bagels in Pelham Bay deserves to be on several guides in addition to the Best Bagels in NYC. Including but not limited to: The Lightest Cream Cheese In NYC, The Best Takeout Window Parallel To The Above-Ground 6 Train, and The NYC Spot You’ll Want To Visit At 6am. If you grew up eating massive, buoyant bagels in Jersey, you’ll feel at home at this bagel spot in the Bronx. Their versions are puffier than the average New York City bagel, with a shiny caramelized exterior and an extra fluffy inside. Empire Bagels is open from 5am to noon every day, and they only serve bagels, cream cheese, coffee, juice, and a few pastries. Come early - if you show up later than 11am, they might be out of your favorite bagel varieties.
In 2011, someone with experience at places like Kossar’s, Zabar’s, and Eleven Madison Park opened up a bagel and appetizing shop with a seafood expert who used to work at a market called Fish Tales. That’s the story of Shelsky’s, and it partly explains the time-tested technique behind these airy bagels and their fixings. The bagels at this store on Court Street in Cobble Hill all have at least a couple of air pockets and a caramelized exterior. If you want to keep things simple and fishy, get the classic “Member Of The Tribe,” which comes with nova, plain or scallion cream cheese (you want scallion), on a bagel or bialy. But we also love the pastrami smoked salmon. It’s so peppery and glossy, we often think of making curtains with it. If you live closer to Park Slope or Gowanus, Shelsky’s has a second location there.
The bagels at Tompkins Square Bagels in the East Village may appear gargantuan, but they pass the smush test with flying colors. These springy, air pocket-laden, kettle boiled bagels somehow contort to their sandwich fillings - which is why this is one of the few bagel shops where we recommend ordering a breakfast sandwich with gooey American cheese, crispy bacon, and perfectly soft egg crepe. If you’re a cream cheese purist, prepare to be offended by Tompkins Square Bagels’ various chocolate chip cookie and olive varieties in the refrigerator case in front of the counter. But make no mistake, the straightforward bagels are the reasons this place always has a line in the mornings.
As you can probably tell from this list, most great New York bagels are purchased over a counter. At Baz, you can order your bagel from a laminated menu at a table without having to wait an outrageous amount of time to get in (or having to pay Sadelle’s prices). Even if you’re not typically a pumpernickel person, we thoroughly encourage you to try the pumpernickel everything bagel here, which is equal parts molasses-sweet and funky. You’ll probably leave a pumpernickel convert. Baz also serves some good eggs, latkes, and salads if you’re looking to expand beyond bagels. And if you’d rather get your bagel to go than have a full meal, there’s a counter up front where you can do just that.
H&H Bagels has been making bagels in Manhattan since 1972, and, as far as we know, it’s the only spot on this list mentioned in both Seinfeld and Sex & The City. Carrie and George aside, these rotund bagels follow the textbook New York style. Each one is swirled with a dark, caramelized sheen, and is loaded with tiny air holes where the gluten has formed. The sparsely-seasoned exterior makes for a hearty chew while the dough stays soft and malleable. Plus, there’s an excessive amount of cream cheese slathered in between the two halves.
We get that people will always have their preference between toasted and untoasted. It’s the New York bagel equivalent of Fender vs. Gibson, skinny jeans vs. wide-leg jeans, or excessive throw pillows vs. not-excessive throw pillows. But we urge any toasted truthers to try an untoasted, plain bagel from Leo’s in Fidi. It’s one of the puffier bagels out there, and has a pleasantly gooey chew, while the bottom remains partially crispy. Our order also includes scallion cream cheese, featuring actually crunchy scallions, as well as their very salty belly lox that ties it all together.
Even though we’re smitten with Action Bronson’s “Only For Dolphin’s” sandwich, you can’t come to Utopia in Whitestone and not get an everything toasted with cream cheese. The place has been around since 1980, cooking all the bagels in a carousel oven from 1947. And the ones they’re serving up are an exercise in balance. Their everything seasoning doesn’t completely overpower the surface of the bagel, which itself is slightly chewy, not too puffy, and has a perfect cream cheese ratio so there’s no spill-over from the sides when you take a bite.
Sadelle’s cascading fish towers deserve as much recognition as their tiny, crusty rounds of dough, which might be the smallest on this list. You can select your favorite fish topping, or, for $125, you can opt for the whole lot that comes with basically every bagel-appropriate fish you can imagine (like salmon, sable, sturgeon, and whitefish). Use the other accoutrements from the tower - tomatoes, dill, and cucumbers - to build a triumph of a bagel, whether you’re using a toasted everything caked with seasoning, or an untoasted plain that still comes fresh out of their oven blistery and hot. Or, since the bagels run small here, do what we do: get both and order one extra bagel for every two people.
If you want a bagel with as much puff as it has history, head to Ess-A-Bagel. The original location opened in 1976, but now they’re slinging their big, doughy bagels out of a location in Midtown. And when we say these bagels are big, they’re about the size of the wheels on a tricked out Tonka Truck - only these are filled with a perfect ratio of cream cheese to fluffy dough, and have a bubbly crust that’s still chewy and a little crispy.
Bagel Hole keeps things plain and simple. This tiny Park Slope bagel shop has been baking the same eleven flavors of hot kneaded bread since it first opened in 1985. Our favorite is the everything with cream cheese, which is a textbook example of a golden brown shell, chewy white center, and crunchy edges that give you a satisfying cracking sound with every bite. But no matter which bagel you choose, know that this place refuses to toast. And don’t be discouraged by the fact that these run small - that just means you’ll have more room to take down a salt bagel with lox spread and the pumpernickel with butter in one sitting.
Walk into Bagel Pub in Crown Heights on a Saturday morning, and you might feel a bit overwhelmed. The folks behind the counter are simultaneously slicing bagels and taking names, patrons stand in two seperate lines glued to their phones, and an Ariana Grande song from 2010 will probably be blasting from the sound system. But once you taste the thick bagels, you’ll thank yourself for pushing through. Exceptional spread options like za’atar cream cheese aside, the airy bagels from this Brooklyn mini-chain will bring you more joy than at least two or three of your current friendships. And even though it gets busy at Bagel Pub, the bagels typically come out piping hot.
If you consider sourdough the superior form of bread, you’ll worship the sourdough bagels from Leo in Williamsburg. This pizza place doubles as an all-day bakery, which means you can get their bagels between 8am and 4pm daily. Leo’s palm-sized bagels are light and airy, with a tangy flavor that pairs especially well with smoked salmon and cream cheese. And although they only serve two flavors right now - plain and everything (with fennel and poppy seeds) - these caramel brown rings of pillowy-soft dough are good enough to eat week after week on rotation.
Greenberg’s is more than just an excellent bagel shop. It’s the place to be on a weekend morning in Bed-Stuy. Walking by this spot any time after 8am on Saturday is like passing Pier 59 during NYFW - from microscopic Telfar bags to sunglasses bigger than ski goggles, trends are on full display. Other than to people-watch, come to Greenberg’s for thin and soft bagels that taste like they were baked a few moments before they reached your mouth. The sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich is excellent with an added hashbrown - the crunch from both the crispy bagel and fried potatoes combination will likely pop up every once in a while in your daydreams.