As recent transplants to this fair city of New York, we have plenty to learn about bagels. We haven’t had a chance to develop brand loyalties and identify establishments we love — or simply refuse to patronize. We don’t have firm feelings about the Montreal bagel. We can’t yet bring ourselves to speak unironically of the superiority of “New York water.”
But there is one thing we know: There’s a difference between eating a bagel in New York and having a New York Bagel Experience.
The New York Bagel Experience is an idea, an amalgam of the bagels we actually grew up eating; the weekend rendezvous glimpsed throughout Nora Ephron’s oeuvre; the greasy egg-and-cheese hangover cures in “Broad City”; the sepia photos in dusty coffee table books purporting to chronicle “Old New York.”
Large as it looms in our imaginations, the New York Bagel Experience is elusive in real life. It isn’t found in the sleek storefronts that seem to multiply every day. You can’t find it at a watering hole featuring indie music or Scandinavian ambiance, or any ambiance at all. It cannot coexist with espresso machines or cold brew coffee. If a bagel place looks hospitable to coworking or includes any elements of “interior design,” you will not have the New York Bagel Experience there.
Being both intrepid reporters and avid eaters of bagels, we set out in search of the sublimely un-hip atmosphere we knew awaited us, somewhere. We were looking for bad lighting, refrigerated chrome displays housing an overwhelming abundance of spreads, confusing menus that are ultimately irrelevant — because who orders bagels off a menu? We wanted drip coffee and dry pastries, teetering tables where the (vaccinated!) elderly might settle down with the daily paper.
We’re not here to hector you about the city’s best crusts, to wrangle New York’s bagels into some byzantine hierarchy, or direct you to Los Angeles for a satisfactory schmear. Rather, we developed a highly scientific and rigorous rating system, which we used to evaluate the vibes at a not-at-all-comprehensive selection of bagel joints: As you’ll see below, each stop on our route earned poppyseeds for grungy atmosphere and a (lack of) decor, and lost them for any evidence of hipster aesthetics.
Starting in Bed Stuy and biking through Crown Heights and Park Slope to Boerum Hill, we sampled victuals and vibes at some of the most popular (and most overlooked) bagelries Brooklyn has to offer. We scrutinized many spreads, ate some bagels we will enjoy complaining about for the rest of our lives, and even had one or two authentic New York Bagel Experiences.
With Passover in the books, you’re probably craving a bagel. May you find one in a store with nary a trace of minimalism.
Greenberg’s started out as a stall at North 3rd Street Market, a trendy Williamsburg food hall (-3 poppyseeds), and migrated in 2019 to Bed Stuy, where its storefront boasts an eye-catching green awning clearly intended to evoke the classic appetizing stores of yore (+.5 poppyseeds, because we didn’t totally buy it).
One of the only outfits serving a neighborhood notoriously low on bagels (+1 poppyseed), Greenberg’s was doing a brisk counter-serve business when we arrived. There were no menus in sight (+1 poppyseed), though a sign directed us to their Instagram (-3 poppyseeds, especially because social media revealed St. Patrick’s Day green bagels). We ordered the first of far too many toasted everything bagels with cream cheese and sat down next to a loud Israeli couple (+2 poppyseeds) at a chaotic, half-assembled outdoor seating pavilion with no actual seats (+10 poppyseeds) but many dying plants (+1 poppyseed).
Slightly smaller than average, the Greenberg’s bagel is a humble mid-morning snack, not a vehicle for Instagrammable toppings (+2 poppyseeds). While Greenberg’s exceeded our expectations for a newcomer to the Brooklyn Bagel scene, we were saddened to notice on our way out that nitro and cold brew coffee are, as the kids say, “on tap.” (-4 poppyseeds).
Total: 7.5 poppyseeds.
A local chain with franchises around Brooklyn (we visited the one in Crown Heights), Bagel Pub combines the expansive and confusing menu of a diner (+2 poppyseeds) with the studiously “ye olde” vibe of a bar in “Peaky Blinders” (-1 poppyseed).
When we arrived, a line of Airpod-wearing, bespoke stroller-pushing customers snaked along the sidewalk (-1 poppyseed), while millennials with laptops (-1 poppyseed) basked at sunny, commodious outdoor tables (-1 poppyseed). Upon entering, we were distressed to see a sign advertising “iced banana lattes” (-1 poppyseed), as well as a chalkboard full of fresh-pressed juices promising to boost our immune systems (-3 poppyseeds). However, the impressive array of spreads and meat salads (+2 poppyseeds) encouraged us. Some had appetizing names like “Chicken Protein” (+1 poppyseed). Most looked like they were several days old (+1 poppyseed). All were garnished with a little strip of limp kale (+4 poppyseeds).
As evidenced by the line, Bagel Pub’s actual bagels were among the best we tasted: The crunchy exterior was a perfect complement to an egg and cheese sandwich (+3 poppyseeds) and the everything seed medley boasted strong notes of garlic and salt (+2 poppyseeds). Yes, it also included raw oat flakes (-1 poppyseed), presumably a concession to the immune-boosting juice crowd. But we decided to let it slide.
Total: 8 poppyseeds.
Located on a chaotic Park Slope corner near a psychic and a pawnbroker (+2 poppyseeds right there), Bergen Bagels was the weekend spot we sought. Taped unceremoniously to the front window was a facemask reminder clearly created with Microsoft’s WordArt function (+2 poppyseeds), as well as a fake-looking printout of the shop’s feature in Food & Wine (+3 poppyseeds for staying #humble). Inside, design elements included: faux wood (+1 poppyseed) and confusing hand-scrawled menus (+1 poppyseed).
The cramped layout can create chaos on a Saturday morning (+1 poppyseed); but, having escaped the gaze of the co-working crowd (+1 poppyseed), it was mercifully empty when we arrived. Cold brew coffee is not to be found at Bergen Bagels, but there is a machine where you press a “Cappuccino” button and a mysterious combination of cappuccino-esque liquids comes out (+2 poppyseeds). Aside from standard black-and-whites, the shop caters to the most idiosyncratic palates by offering all-black and all-white cookies (+1 poppyseed).
We opted for an everything bagel topped with scallion cream cheese and a generous helping of capers, augmented by a few extremely dry rugelach (+1 — bagel shops are about bagels.) All goods were consumed at a pair of tables (faux wood of course, +2 poppyseeds) on a trafficky street corner next to the subway entrance (+3 poppyseeds) — Bergen’s only concession to the era of outdoor dining. Our only gripe: The everything bagel was a bit light on seeds (-1 poppyseeds).
Total: 18 poppyseeds.
The Bagel Store, in the heart of Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue upscale shopping district, is the home of the “original rainbow bagel,” a vibrant creation made for Instagram (-3 poppyseeds). It’s an affront to the form, but knew we had to try one — for science.
When we walked in, we were accosted by a rainbow bagel-shaped arch (-1 poppyseeds) and a selection of spreads that included Oreo, cannoli, and funfetti options (-1.5 poppyseeds per flavor). There were only two kinds of classic savory bagels available (-4 poppyseeds — a bagel place without bagels?), contending with a far more prominent display of specialty options, including croissant-bagels, blue and pink cotton candy flavored bagels and a pastel Easter option with vanilla (-12 poppyseeds all together). Yet we were immediately won over by the guy running the counter, who kept up a stream of banter (+4 poppyseeds) that made us hope beyond hope the monstrosity might be good.
Our new friend recommended the funfetti cream cheese on the side, for dipping (-1 poppyseeds; who dips a bagel?); he helpfully cut our order into 16 bite-sized pieces (-.5 poppyseeds). We tentatively dug into our Easter bagel — the irony — on a bright pink table outside. It looked like Play-Doh and had the taste and texture of stale plastic, somehow accentuated by the vanilla flavor; the cream cheese was indistinguishable from frosting (-4 poppyseeds). As a saving grace, they only had drip coffee (+3 poppyseeds).
Total: -15 poppyseeds.
Uncomfortably full but continuing valiantly down Fifth Avenue, we came upon Bagel World. Hot off of the rainbow bagel, we were delighted to see a huge number of savory bagels displayed in baskets behind the counter (+1 poppyseeds) and a wide variety of spreads and cold salads (+1 poppyseed), though there was also a wide menu offering non-bagel options including smoothies, salads and burgers (-1 poppyseed). We also spied an espresso machine (-1 poppyseed). They had black and white cookies for sale (+.5) but also a basket of rainbow bagels (-3 poppyseeds for the PTSD).
While we waited for our toasted everything bagel with jalapeno cream cheese — the scallion had bacon in it (-1.5 poppyseeds) — we considered the chaotic decor, which featured Batman figurines hung off the light fixtures, paired with a multitude of cutesy New England-y farmer’s market signage advertising fresh milk and eggs that are not actually for sale (extremely kooky, +6 poppyseeds) and nonsensical affirmations (“Together is my favorite place to be,” -1 poppyseed). The only outside seating was a narrow bench, where we found our everything bagel to be delightfully seed-covered, with lots of garlic (+2 poppyseeds).
Total: +3 poppyseeds
This cash-only establishment (+2 poppyseeds) is holding strong in the midst of a gentrified shopping district in Boerum Hill. Its surprisingly spacious interior is tiled and spare (+1 poppyseed). A wall of old posters advertises services from dog walkers to exterminators (very appetizing, +3.5 poppyseeds). A man and his two children were buying bagels when we walked in, and the guy manning the counter, who turned out to be the owner, Peter, offered to buy him a coffee (+2 poppyseeds, very sweet). The dad’s name, we overheard, was Moses — definitely a good omen for Passover (+ 1 poppyseed).
We ordered our everything bagel with scallion cream cheese from a messily-scrawled menu (+.5) and admired the magic marker signs adorning everything from the hazelnut-flavored drip coffee (+1 poppyseed) to the tip jar labeled “feeling tipsy?” (+2 poppyseeds). There was also one of those one-button cappuccino machines like the one at Bergen Bagels (+1.5 poppyseeds) and a selection of single-serve packets of Advil, aspirin and Alka-Seltzer for sale behind the counter (+4 poppyseeds), in case the bagels don’t cure your hangover.
Peter was very kind and chatty, with a strong Brooklyn accent (+2.5 poppyseeds) and made sure to pack us copious napkins. He proudly told us that the shop had been serving the neighborhood throughout the pandemic, never closing (+2 poppyseeds), and was only four months behind on rent; we tipped well and added a sizable black and white cookie to the order (+.5 poppyseeds).
Our final bagel, consumed on some nearby steps, was perfect: garlicky, seedy, crisp on the outside and packed with scallion cream cheese.
Total: 23.5 poppyseeds
We ended the day bloated and sluggish, but better for it, having learned not only about ourselves, but having truly discovered the New York Bagel Experience. And having spent nearly five hours pounding the pavement throughout Brooklyn, responsibly hydrating in the spring sunshine, we were extremely aware of the one universal characteristic of every bagel place (even the rainbow one) — no bathrooms.
Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at email@example.com or on Twitter @miraefox.
The New York Bagel Experience is not for hipsters