“You have to be kidding me,” a tall blond business type in his early 30s and khakis exclaimed to the similarly-coiffed woman whose hand he was holding. “I don’t have time for this.”
They passed by the line of 40 considerably more patient people standing on Elizabeth Street outside Black Seed Bagels, New York’s newest one-menu item wonders.
“What are you waiting for,” asked a stylishly unshaved guy who pulled his bicycle to a standstill to find out. “Bagels? Are they this good?”
“Pretty good,” answered a shop girl who’d come out to warn about the 45-minute wait ahead. “They’re made to order and they’re handrolled.”
“I guess I’ll believe you if you work there,” he said, riding off.
Lines are nothing new in the city, of course. Taxi lines, coffee carts – waiting your turn, or finding a way not to are New Yorkers’ God-given rights. But lines for artisanal food have really taken off over the past 10 years or so. The Grimaldi’s pizza line, the Di Fara line, the Shake Shack line phenomenon, these progenitors have given way to lines at restaurants and shops dominated by one-item menu options. Meatballs (The Meatball Shop), ramen (Ippudo), cupcake (Magnolia), souped-up soft serve (Big Gay Ice Cream), and biscuit lines (though the last seems to have died down), have all had their day. Now? Artisanal bagels."Whatever you want to say the reason is, the overall quality of bagels in the city has fallen off. It’s even contributed to the mainstreaming of bagel toasting, an inappropriate practice when applied to a quality product."
Bagel craftsmanship has taken a hit over recent years. Huge doughy rocks sold by street carts, the soft and chewy abominations sold in Dunkin’ Donuts, and the generic-looking, sorry affairs at Starbucks have become New York’s most-frequently seen representations. Attribute this to it being a dying craft, to bagel bellwethers like H&H closing, changing populations and demographics, whatever you want to say the reason is, the overall quality of bagels in the city has fallen off. It’s even contributed to the mainstreaming of bagel toasting, an inappropriate practice when applied to a quality product. What was once superfluous has become acknowledged as an acceptable practice because there just aren’t as many good versions around that don't need toasting. It's a sad fact that former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton bemoaned a few years ago:
"I remember them [bagels] well. Say, about three and a half inches across with a good wide center hole; a crisp, shiny, golden crust; and chewy, dense, gray interiors that turned to stone if not eaten within three hours of being baked. (A few words about the hole: It is essential first because it ensures a crisp crust at the center, and because the cream cheese and smoked salmon, when properly laid across that empty expanse, afford a luscious mouthful uncompromised by bread.) Their like will not come this way again, given shortages of skilled workers and the modern taste for softness and eternal shelf life, plus the need for a gigantic size to justify a retail price that covers the high cost of labor."
There are still, of course, touted bagelrys in New York City today. Among the best, places like Ess-A-Bagel off 1st Avenue in Manhattan, Bagel Oasis in Queens, and Bagel Hole in Park Slope carry on the tradition of quality, but even there, and at well-regarded places like Murray’s, there's acknowledgement that concessions have had to be made to changing consumer tastes, and that these bagels aren't accurate representations of the bagels Sheraton misses.
Bagels didn’t use to resemble thick puckered momofuku peach babies whose wholes couldn’t be seen through. Their antecedents were thinner, smaller affairs that grew to accommodate people who wanted to turn them into sandwiches.
"Years ago — I’m in my mid-40s now — bagels were about the size of a hockey puck," said Adam Pomerantz of Murray's and Leo's, noting how bagels grown. "Now, they’re about double the size. There is a reason for that. Most bagel stores now also sell sandwiches, and if you were to serve turkey or roast beef on a bagel the size of a hockey puck the customer would not be happy. The bagel has evolved over the years into something that would be more appropriate to serve as a sandwich."
Black Seed Bagels harkens back to this older, better time. Inside the wood-paneled shop there are few tables on the right side where people wait for their bagels after ordering with anticipation. There’s an old speckled mirror over the counter, and on the left a large, gregarious gentleman in white wearing a Montreal Expos hat taking orders. Behind him the handrolling, boiling, and baking goes on. A big white-tiled oven in the back looks like the one you’ll see at Frank Pepe’s pizzeria in New Haven. And at the register on the right, there’s the badge of approval and authenticity that every artisanal shop seems to need to have more than an A rating from the city’s health department, a sign saying they sell Stumptown coffee.
It took about 45 minutes for a place on line outside to actually enter the store, and another 20 minutes to get bagels once you order, enough time to marvel at how long it takes the designated cream cheese spreaders on the left behind the expediter to shmear homemade cream cheese, and to eavesdrop on a man trying to order more than the six bagels limit "because his pregnant wife is outside” (she really was). It was even enough time for an old friend to chance stopping by after seeing your tweet about waiting on line to “catch up” and see if you might have ordered one they can “taste.” It’s also enough time for you to consider both that the situation is all a little precious, but that it’s also really pretty cool that some talented people are caring enough to give one of the city’s staples more of the love that it certainly deserves.
Black Seed bagels are at least a third smaller in size than your typical New York bagel and they have holes you can stick at least three fingers through. But they aren’t pure reimaginations of New York City’s classic bagel. They’re the brainchild of Noah Bermoff of Mile End Deli, which opened to critical acclaim in Brooklyn, before expanding to Manhattan, and co-owner Matt Kliegman of The Smile, and their bagels are being described as Montreal-New York hybrids.