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Several years ago, a friend in London texted me a photo of what appeared to be a bulging bread roll stuffed with chocolate frosting, like some sort of mutant maritozzo. I couldn’t puzzle out what was going on, but then I read the caption: “Nutella bagel on Brick Lane.” 

London has its own distinct bagel culture (of course I don’t mean the Nutella thing), and I understand New York-style bagels are making inroads as well. But while literacy on New York bagels seems to be at an all-time high, I still find out-of-towners lost when it comes time to actually order one in situ

There are so many factors that go into my own bagel calculus: time of day, hunger level, freshness and appearance of toppings, weather, and of course location. My personal view is that it’s rarely worth it to either get on the subway or wait in line for a bagel—part of what makes a given bagel the “best” is its proximity to you. But I wouldn’t expect the same attitude among visitors, and would instead suggest the following as a way to choose your own bagel adventure. 

Absolute Bagels’s unmistakable menu board.

There are several common types of bagel, and the first decision to make is whether you want:

Sesame (seed): In my view, this is “plain,” because there’s never a good reason to get an actual plain bagel. This is my go-to for egg-and-cheese bagels. 

Poppy (seed): This is also kind of “plain,” depending on seed coverage, but it’s not my favorite. Still, they’re great for smoked fish. 

Everything (a mix of garlic flakes, onion flakes, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, for e.g.): I’ll choose everything if I’m having smoked fish or anything cream-cheese based. 

Pumpernickel (rye): Or even better, sometimes shops will have a pumpernickel-sesame or pumpernickel-everything. This is fantastic with whitefish salad.

Egg (a richer, yolky bagel dough): Or even better, egg-poppy. An uncommon order for me, but if I’m somewhere with a platter of halved bagels, and I’m on my third or fourth half, I’d reach for one of these and put a very thin application of scallion cream cheese on top. 

Cinnamon-raisin: I never get this, I’m just mentioning it because of the Cynthia Nixon debacle

Onion (dried flakes): My advice here would be to just get a bialy, like a smaller, thinner bagel with a divot of cooked-down onions in place of a hole. 

Egg and cheese on sesame from Absolute Bagels.

And then, it’s on to the toppings:


The sad truth is that the city’s vaunted purveyors of smoked and cured fish, as a rule, do not have anything close to the best bagels. This is true of Russ & Daughters, Barney Greengrass, and Zabar’s. Conversely, I would not order fish at some of the city’s best bagel shops since it is often sliced too thick, piled too high, and – without wishing to be a snob – it’s just not that good. 

So if tasting the city’s best lox (cured salmon) or nova (cured and cold-smoked salmon) is the priority, do visit one of these decades-old shops. The quality of the fish overrides the neutrality of the bagel, and you can further accessorize with cream cheese (ideally studded with chive or scallion), red onion, and capers. 

Such a premium product, though, inevitably invites high prices, and they seem higher now than ever before. So if you find yourself in New York on a Friday, you can visit the Acme Smoked Fish headquarters in Greenpoint, which sells its exemplary salmon and other delights at wholesale prices – an extreme discount – on “Fish Fridays.” Acme supplies all three of the above shops with salmon, and while the 118-year-old specialist smokes and cures fish to each shop’s specifications, you’re still essentially getting the same stuff. My favorite is the smooth and delicately spiced pastrami salmon. 

From there it’s a short walk to Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, open since 1956, which nobody will acknowledge has great bagels (in addition to the perfect donuts for which it’s rightfully known). Pop into a bodega for some cream cheese, and head to McCarren or WNYC Transmitter park for a DIY bagel picnic of substantially higher quality than any one shop could provide. 

That is, unless you want to wait in line. The newly opened Apollo Bagels, from the folks behind Williamsburg sourdough pizza purveyors Leo, is getting rave reviews for its sourdough bagels topped with high-quality smoked fish and millennial (or maybe just Scandinavian) quantities of dill. It’s worth noting that this is the rare bagel shop that serves its bagels open-faced, which is how I prefer to eat them.


A good bet at almost any bagel place is whitefish salad, the delicious, spreadable marriage of smoked whitefish and mayo. This is my go-to at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, which also serves my favorite bagels. Founded by Bangkok-born Sam Thongkrieng in 1990, the staff are all Thai New Yorkers, and you can get bright orange Thai iced tea with your bagel. Lines here can be long, but move quickly. 

Lox spread or lox cream cheese (cream cheese with lox blended in) is another great alternative at bagel places with less distinguished smoked fish, or a less expensive option at the pedigreed places. A bagel with a schmear of lox cream cheese at Russ & Daughters is $5.50, vs. $17 for a bagel with lox and cream cheese. 

White fish with much dill; salmon at Apollo Bagels. Photo by Sam Freeman.


The egg and cheese (or bacon, egg, and cheese) is a New York City staple, often served on a Kaiser roll but also enjoyed on bagels. It’s a much heavier proposition on a bagel, but sometimes that’s what the occasion demands. For those times, I like Bagel Pub (several locations around the city), which cooks the eggs to order, and where you can also add a cheeky hashbrown. Bagel Pub’s bagels are on the bigger side, so I’ll often split this with a co-conspirator. 

Absolute Bagels serves sheet-pan eggs kept in a warming drawer and cut into squares to order – not ideal. But it happens to have a lovely egg salad, which would be more of a lunchtime order, and it goes particularly well with that Thai iced tea. 


This isn’t something I do often, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional turkey or pastrami sandwich on a bagel. For this, I think Murray’s Bagels in the West Village is the best. Murray’s bagels are substantial, and so is its specialty sandwich menu. I wouldn’t advise anything too out-there (the shop offers one with a chicken cutlet, ham, cheese, and Russian dressing) – just keep it simple.  

“Black Russian bagel” (pumpernickel-sesame) with scallion cream cheese, red onion, caper, and tomato at BO’s.


I’ve saved my most common bagel order for last – essentially, everything I’d get on a lox bagel, just without the salmon. Chive or scallion cream cheese, red onion, capers, and sometimes cucumber and/or tomato (which I think clashes with smoked fish). It’s worth noting that tofu cream cheese is both widely available and delicious. Sometimes I choose it. 

I recently had a great bagel at BO’s Bagels in Harlem, which uses uncommonly large capers, and thoughtfully pushes them into the cream cheese on the bottom so that they stay in place. Many bagel places put them on top, which is a hazard. 

No-nonsense Bagel Talk on the Upper West Side has atrocious ratings on both Yelp and Google, but I can’t understand why – it’s not life-changing, sure, but that’s never my expectation. Here I’ll get a toasted everything with scallion cream cheese, red onion, and capers to enjoy on a bench outside the Natural History Museum or in nearby Central Park. 

Finally, I want to mention Bagel Hole in Park Slope, whose bagels are smaller and daintier than the city average. At its shop, I’d do my “everything but the lox” routine. But on weekends, you can get a Bagel Hole bagel with Acme smoked salmon, red onion, capers, dill, and Ben’s cream cheese (the gold standard for over 50 years) at Winner in the Park, a kiosk run by the beloved local bakery in one of the prettiest spots in Prospect Park. 

On a sunny Saturday morning, there’s nothing better. 

Header image: Everything but the lox on an everything bagel at BO’s Bagel in Harlem, by Luke Pyenson.

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