Before you order a bagel in New York City, there are some things you should know.
Bagels and fillings are to be chosen separately. You might forgo a filling entirely because New Yorkers will sometimes eat their bagels plain as a snack. But you may also opt for a bagel sandwich, with pastrami, smoked fish, cheese and eggs.
Or perhaps you’ll choose a bagel with a schmear. New York City is known for house-made cream cheese with a truly mind-boggling array of flavours to choose from (think jalapeño, blueberry, olive, chocolate chip and pumpkin for starters).
Received wisdom is that you should always ask to have your bagel toasted. That is unless they’ve just come out of the oven — in which case to toast it would be to ruin it.
Once you’ve made your decision and reached the front of the queue at your bagel shop of choice, declare it loudly, confidently and with gusto. Absolute indifference from everyone behind the counter indicates a roaring success – well done!
Got it? Great – let’s go.
Since first opening its doors almost a decade ago, artisan bagel shop Black Seed Bagels have garnered quite the following for their hand-rolled, wood-fired creations. These days, you can stop off at any of their ten NYC locations to find exquisite New York-style bagels made with baking techniques borrowed from Montreal.
A key feature of the bagel-making process is that the rings of dough are boiled before they are baked in an oven. This lends them their distinctive chewy-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-the-outside texture. Here, the dough is boiled in water and honey, which makes the bagels a little sweeter (and more delicious) than average.
Black Seed Bagels is the place to come for a breakfast sandwich. The Black Seed BLT with spicy mayo, the Turkey Reuben or the Hot Honey Ham are all solid choices. However, a personal favourite is the pastrami, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on a salt bagel.
Warning: this is only for those who like their breakfast as salty as seawater!
Zabar’s is an NYC institution and the city’s pre-eminent gourmet shop – Charlotte mentions it in Sex and the City during season 6, episode 4 when she is converting to Judaism. Wind your way through the aisles bursting with a staggering array of cheeses, olives, meats, and salads, until you reach the bagel counter.
Order a freshly baked bagel (all of them are good, but poppyseed comes particularly recommended) and relish the feeling of the bread warming your hand through the waxy paper.
With no filling to distract you, this will be one of the best bagels you’ll ever eat. The shiny, smooth crust resists just a bit when you bite down, then gives way with a small crunch. The middle is warm, soft and comforting. A pro tip: after eating a poppyseed bagel, always be sure to check your front teeth in a mirror before smiling too widely at anyone.
Absolute Bagels was billed to me as ‘the best bagel place in New York’ by an actual American. He went on to say that the only thing wrong with this place is that “they only put poppy seeds on one side of the bagel.” For those of us who are happy to reduce our chances of alarming poppyseed smiles (see above), Absolute Bagels does not disappoint.
Arrive any time from midday onwards and you’re likely to find a queue that curls around inside the tiny shop. It moves surprisingly quickly. The time should give you adequate time to contemplate the huge creamy mounds of house-made cream cheese behind the counter.
My favourite flavour is jalapeño because the cooling cream cheese takes the edge off the spice. Whatever you choose, be sure to pick a flavour you really love, because helpings are pleasingly hefty. Cash only.
Arriving at the dark brown façades and forest green signs of any of the seven Zucker’s in NYC, you’re likely to find a mob inside clamouring for their lunch. Take my advice: join the mob and clamour alongside them. Order the Traditional (everyone else will also order the Traditional).
The sweet juiciness of the beefsteak tomatoes and the sharp saltiness of the capers are heavenly companions for the luxurious cream cheese and oily Nova Scotia salmon. You can taste every individual element in each bite.
Every ingredient brings something unique and distinct to the table whilst also balancing each other out perfectly – like the Spice Girls. Transcendent.
Walking into the wood-panelled interior of Ess-A-Bagel feels like stepping back in time. It’s as though the clock stopped when it was opened in 1976 by the Wilpon family, who previously owned a doughnut shop. ‘Carbs with holes’ was apparently their niche.
Join the queue that snakes back and forth past two elderly but feisty women sitting at desks behind teetering piles of paper and an actual fax machine. Both are likely to be loudly taking orders in broad New York accents over phones with ringleted cords.
Service is curt but polite by New York standards, and when you’re called forward to the counter with a nod, remember to yell your order. It’s loud in here, and probably heaving with people.
Come early if you want to be in with a chance of nabbing a table. There are tons of options and all of them are customisable. Use the time you’re going to spend standing in the queue to make an informed decision as well as soak up the old-timey atmosphere.
For the bagels alone, New York City is worth travelling to. Ready to taste all the New York has to offer? Don't miss our guide to the best areas to stay in NYC.
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