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A tour of New York City’s bagels

Egg, bacon, and cheese bagel at Nussbaum & Wu.Lisa Zwirn for The Boston Globe

NEW YORK — Manhattan is known for its bagels, but in recent years the symbolic New York City food was upstaged by cupcakes, cronuts, and other trendy baked goods. Now bagels have retaken their place at the center of the culinary landscape, with newer outfits coexisting with classics. The best bagels are still made the old-fashioned way: the dough hand-rolled, kettle-boiled, coated in seeds, and baked on burlap-covered boards. There’s never been a better time to take a (by no means comprehensive) tour of the offerings.

During the first half of the 20th century, there were said to be hundreds of appetizing stores in the city. These shops sold dairy, fish, and salads — the things you ate with bagels — as compared to delis, which sold meat: Jewish kosher dietary laws prohibit dairy and meat to be eaten together.


Today, there are only a handful of old-style places remaining, with the most well-known being Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. The 102-year-old shop, family-owned and -operated, was joined a few years back by Russ & Daughters Cafe, located nearby. Here, wood boards are laden with bagels and bialys, smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, sliced tomatoes, and onion. Both the bagels and bialys — yeasted rolls that feature an onion-sprinkled depression where the bagel’s hole would be — are made at the company’s Brooklyn bakery, along with babka and black-and-white cookies.

Russ & Daughters also has an outpost at the Jewish Museum. On the ritzy Upper East Side, the space doesn’t have quite the same atmosphere, but it offers essentially the same food.

Take a leisurely stroll across Central Park to Barney Greengrass, the century-old stalwart of the Upper West Side. A third-generation Greengrass, Gary, now runs the business, known for its expansive fish selection, including nova (cold-smoked salmon), lox (salt-cured, not smoked), kippered salmon (brined and hot-smoked), pastrami salmon (black pepper-spiced), gravlax (cured with salt, sugar, and dill), whitefish, sable, sturgeon, and pickled herring. Bagels and bialys are not made in house but are delivered fresh daily.


To really focus on the bagel itself, head to Absolute Bagels, which offers more than a dozen varieties, baked fresh all day. It’s mostly a takeout joint, although there are a handful of cramped tables, so get a bagful to go.

Whitefish salad on a honey bagel at Ess-a-Bagel.Lisa Zwirn for the boston globe

The bagels are also baked all day long at Ess-a-Bagel, where the salads and smoked-fish sandwiches are reliably good and there are more than 15 kinds of cream cheese to choose from, including olive, jalapeno, and sundried tomato. The lines are long at this classic (its original location closed in 2015) — typically an hour at peak times on weekends — but the plump, thick-chewy bagels with whitefish salad are worth it.

Meanwhile, the breakfast crowd might try Nussbaum & Wu, a Columbia University hangout where the fried egg, bacon, and cheese sandwich on an everything bagel is irresistible. In warmer months, ample outdoor seating handles the overflow of diners. And in the East Village, Tompkins Square Bagels gets a constant flow of people weekday mornings, with lines down the block on weekends. Freshly baked rounds — store bins are constantly replenished by the energetic bagel maker, whom you can watch plying his craft at the back of the store — boast that seldom-achieved oven-crisped bottom. A store sign says it all: “Our bagels are baked hourly, toasting is not recommended.”


Choose from more than 10 breakfast egg sandwiches, which include the likes of hot pastrami and chorizo. The egg salad is wonderfully chunky; you’ll need a fork to stab all the tasty bits that drop from your sandwich. Tompkins Square Bagels is also the home of the French toast bagel, an eggy, sweet round coated with cinnamon and powdered sugar, and “birthday cake” cream cheese, where multicolored sprinkles create a fantastical swirled effect.

Hipsters favor Sadelle’s in SoHo, more fashionable bistro than bagel shop, opened in 2015. Make a reservation, even for breakfast. The house salmon entree comes as a three-level tower with separate plates of thin-sliced smoked salmon, bagels and cream cheese, and sliced tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion.

More retro-traditional (and tiny) is Baz Bagel & Restaurant, a year older than Sadelle’s. The signature offering at owner Bari Musacchio’s Little Italy eatery is the “Baz,” a hefty nova, scallion cream cheese, tomato, and onion sandwich on a pumper-
nickel-everything bagel. The “Pretty in Pink” features nova with beet and horseradish cream cheese. Musacchio, who grew up on Long Island “eating bagels every weekend,” says that when she moved to Grand Street, “there were no bagels here.” Now, if the entrepreneur would only move to Boston.

Don’t forget about bialys while you’re here: Head to Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys on the Lower East Side. At noon on a Sunday, the bialy bins are empty. The guy behind the counter says to come back in 20 minutes. I make the rookie mistake of returning 35 minutes later, again to sold-out bins. The bialys fly out the door. “That’s what we’re famous for,” says the same guy, as I watch a woman hop out of her car, run into the store, and grab her bagged order of three dozen. Not risking a third miss, I stay put until the next batch emerges from the oven. Hot bialys, golden and lightly crusty on the outside, their centers filled with sweet chopped onion. Mmmm, just like the old days.


Where to go

Absolute Bagels, 2788 Broadway, 212-932-2052

Barney Greengrass, 541 Amsterdam Ave., 212-724-4707, www.barneygreengrass.com

Baz Bagel and Restaurant,
181 Grand St., 212-335-0609, www.bazbagel.com

Ess-a-Bagel, 831 Third Ave., 212-980-1010, www.ess-a-

Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys,
367 Grant St., 212-473-4810, www.kossars.com

Nussbaum & Wu, 2897 Broadway, 212-280-5344

Russ & Daughters, 179 E. Houston St. (store), 127 Orchard St. (cafe), 1109 Fifth Ave. (Jewish Museum), 212-475-4880, www.russanddaughters.com

Sadelle’s, 463 West Broadway, 212-776-4926, www.sadelles.com

Tompkins Square Bagels,
165 Avenue A, 646-351-6520, www.tompkinssquarebagels.com

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.