It’s an indisputable fact that New York City is home to the best bagels in the country. Whether it’s the water used, the hundreds of years of history, or some magic spell, it’s nearly impossible to recreate the magic that is a New York bagel anywhere else but there.
But plenty of places come close.
In assembling our list of the country’s best bagels, we used rather strict criteria. The bagels needed to be produced in adherence with the old-fashioned style: that means boiling instead of steaming, hand-rolled instead of machine-rolled (made entirely by hand is preferable), and once the product is finished, it shouldn’t be the size of your head (that’s actually a modern adjustment; they had to be made larger in order to be used as sandwich bread).
Also, a bagel should taste like a bagel. That should go without saying, but many store-bought bagels (and, we’ll admit, most of the ones we get from bagel carts in New York), simply taste like round bread. A bagel has a malty sweetness that takes some nuance to get just right. Also, the crust needs to be an actual crust. If you squeeze it in your hand and it springs right back, that’s not a bagel. When bitten into it should give slightly before the crust crunches away, and the resulting bite should be chewy without being dense, light without being airy, and deeply satisfying.
Also, crazy flavors and cream cheese varieties do not a great bagel make. Your jalapeño-Asiago bagel with bacon-Cheddar-scallion cream cheese is probably delicious, but if your plain bagel with plain cream cheese isn’t up to snuff, you’re not on the list. We also decided against including Montreal-style bagels, which are different creatures entirely.
The single most important quality to keep in mind when it comes to bagels, however, is freshness. Right out of the oven, there’s nothing better than a crusty, chewy bagel. Let it sit around for a few hours, however, and you might as well be eating cardboard. Toasting a bagel should never be necessary when you’re dealing with the country’s best.
We found a few gems in some unexpected places, including two in the Chicago suburbs (but none in the city itself), and there's even one Florida-based mini-chain that claims that the reason their bagels are so good is because they replicate Brooklyn water in-house. And in New York, jumbo-sized gutbusters don't always rule the day.
Without further ado, here are America’s top bagels. To keep the playing field even, the first slideshow has the best bagels outside of New York, and the second counts down New York’s finest.