When I told people that I wanted to find the best bagel in San Francisco, they mostly did one of two things:
1. Laughed uncontrollably.
2. Shook their heads at me with pity usually reserved for tiny puppies wearing casts.
Let me explain. I live in New York City, which is renowned for having the best bagels in the world. In fact, I live just blocks away from two legendary schmear places: La Bagel Delight, which is like the Beyoncé of bagels, and Bergen Bagels, which is like Beyoncé’s equally fierce twin sister Feyoncé.
California, on the other hand, is a tanned Pangaea of glutenphobia famous for avocados and green juice, not plump pumpernickels held together with a thick cummerbund of cream cheese. The bagel situation in San Francisco is so dire that residents recently waited two hours in the rain for bagels overnighted from NYC’s Russ and Daughters.
But I’m an optimist, especially when it means I can get my company to pay me to eat a shit ton of carbs. I decide to make the bagel rounds, hoping the Bay Area could actually produce a satisfying breakfast with a hole. There had to be at least ONE decent bagel in such a foodie-jammed town. Right?
No, people warned me. One friend politely pointed out a few famous taco places instead. Others bodily threw themselves in front of these bagel restaurants, pleading with me not to indulge in such an act of self-harm. An earthquake even struck Napa Valley 10 minutes before my flight took off, a clear warning from Mother Nature to stay in flour paradise on the East Coast. But I could be stopped by no act of God. The bagel quest was ON.
1. Eat at least one Bay Area bagel per day.
2. Do not experiment with lox, because a) I’m vegetarian, and b) like SF lox is even going to be a thing.
3. Be nice to others and have fun.
I ask my Lyft driver where the best bagel in San Francisco is, and he tells me to go to Noah’s. I suddenly realize this is my chance to become the Tom Friedman of breakfast writing. With visions of a weekly column in a revered bagel journal dancing in my head, I head to Noah’s “New York” “Bagels” in the Marina.
Everyone I see in this neighborhood is wearing Lululemon and/or jogging with a robust Airedale terrier, and it hits me that maybe SF is just too healthy to give a damn about bagels (as opposed to New York, where we all go to work in the snow and guzzle bourbon in the office bathroom to stanch our endemic self-loathing).
Inside, the cashier at Noah’s is impossibly chirpy and friendly, and it catches me off guard. Bagel guys in New York always act like you’ve just interrupted the birth of their first child to tell a story about getting your butt mole removed.
My first impression: The amount of sesame seeds present here could harm a toddler.
Second impression: Ugh. Not only is my bagel small and clearly not even boiled, it’s flatter than a note Katy Perry sings live. It tastes too bready and yeasty, and the cream cheese is WHIPPED. I barely finish it.
Still, my Odyssean bagel voyage is already taking me straight between Scylla and Charybdis.
I’m already excited about Katz Bagels, which is nestled among hipster boutiques on 16th Street, because it shares a name with the best deli in New York. This will be the last time of the day I am excited about Katz.
The bagel has a nice, crunchy exterior, almost like one from back east. But it’s too small — everyone who’s eaten a New York bagel knows that a proper bagel experience requires feeling like that snake that swallowed a crocodile afterward. There’s a good flavor on the garlic, though, and after I’m done, I find a piece of garlic lingering on my jeans and stealthily eat it.
Still, tiny bagels do not a good breakfast maketh. I settle in at Stanza Coffee to do some work, the Katz sandwich lounging uncomfortably in my abdomen.
It’s day three, and just thinking about the word “bagel” is starting to give me the dry heaves. Emily Dreyfuss tells me to go to the Bagel Bakery, so I dodge tech bros in baby tees to get down to Townsend Street.
It’s 2:40 p.m. and I haven’t eaten anything yet save for three cups of ridiculously strong artisanal San Francisco coffee, so I’m hungry. (Seriously, what are you guys putting in this coffee? VC-backed liquid Adderall?)
I decide to not get that.
It’s moderately tasty, although the bagel is untoasted. It’s still small and flat, but the cucumber and red onions give it a nice crunch. I finish it and flee the area before any bros can try to mansplain bagels to me using apps.
I’m starting to miss New York. I miss its gruff weirdness, but mostly I miss the fact that when I’m there I don’t have to eat a fucking bagel every morning. Yet I trudge on to The Bagelry, because someone on Yelp claims it has the “best bagels in SF. Better than any of the chain shops.” Also, it’s close to my apartment.
(NOTE: This is a user-uploaded photo from Yelp from 2007 because I forgot to take a pic of the outside. The giant levitating bagel is no longer there. Had there been a hoverbagel, I would have awarded Bagelry vastly more points.)
Unwrapping a bagel has become a reluctant, Sisyphean task. Inside, the bagel is pasty and white, things NO ONE likes. There’s also too much salt, which is as-*salt*ing my tongue. What’s worse, the cream cheese is really thin and has a weird smoky flavor, like remnants of burned bacon.
My colleague Sapna and I end up back in the Marina on our early-morning way to wine country. “Let’s get Noah’s, I guess,” I say, because it’s there. She says fine. By now the smell of bagels has become an uncontrollable nausea trigger to me, just like the waves of hot garbage aroma lilting over a nice New York City August. I hold my breath.
It’s flatter than me in middle school. Next to me, Sapna’s spinach and Swiss bagel has almost no cream cheese. We eat our shoddy bagels quietly and quickly, if only because they will function as wine sponges for later.
House of Bagels is on Geary Street going out toward the Pacific Ocean. It touts itself as “family owned and operated,” claiming it brought its “secret bagel recipe” all the way from Brooklyn. It also boasts that it’s “HOME OF THE CRAGEL since 2014!” (Cragels appear to be a croissant-bagel mutt that remind me of NYC’s popular Cronut, a croissant-donut hybrid designed to trick white people out of their money.)
Inside, I scan the rack of bagel baskets, which contain horrifying flavors like pumpkin spice, apple ginger, pizza, chocolate, and CORN, FOR GOD’S SAKE. “Get the rye,” the cashier tells me, a bit briskly.
OK, House of Bagels has, hands down, the best cream cheese. It’s melty, and there’s finally an adequate amount. Is this a culinary version of Stockholm syndrome, or am I actually having a good bagel time in the Bay Area??
The rye is pleasant too. Over the speakers, Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” starts playing, and I smile to myself, trying to think of a joke where I insert “bagels” into Robert Plant’s lyrics. I still haven’t thought of one.
Momentarily pleased by House of Bagels but still generally aghast at the city’s bagel options, I finally take BART out to the East Bay, gluten churning in my stomach. As we go underwater, I envision myself as a human submarine stuffed with flour, or as an imprisoned Han Solo, eternally frozen in bagel dough.
Beauty’s is a small place on Telegraph Avenue, and it already has a crazy line of Brooklyn-esque types waving organic locally sourced pitchforks while demanding lox. “It moves fast,” a lady in line tells me, “and it’s worth the wait.” I don’t tell her I am legally bound to be here by the gravitas of travel bagel journalism anyway, because I don’t want to seem braggy. Besides, being surrounded by cranky hipsters scrolling through their phones is making me feel at home.
There’s a lot of stuff happening. But finally, I think I have found Bay Area bagel heaven, or at least purgatory. The bagel is crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, and it’s coated with a flavorful but not overwhelming dust of salt and pepper. The capers help give the sandwich a tangy kick. I wolf the whole thing, shoveling stray bits of arugula and onion into my mouth like a greedy tourist at Grimaldi’s.
Back in SF, I’m exhausted. The concept of bagels is starting to make me existentially queasy, and all these refined carbs are playing Stretch Armstrong with my colon.
Mike Isaac recommends I abandon the whole bagel quest, because it’s sad, and instead suggests I “just expense a $4 piece of toast.” Yes, I think, already daydreaming about how fun of a time I’ll have uploading this receipt into Concur.
Thus, I head to a coffee shop called The Mill, which made these fancy luxury toasts for the 1% famous. It’s teeming with glaring trendy people stabbing at toast chunks with forks and knives, and my cold East Coast heart is strangely warmed. I toil in the out-the-door line, wondering if luxury bread will ever IPO, and choose a $3.75 piece of cinnamon sugar toast.
It’s cinnamon-y and sugary and inflicting wild damage on my pancreatic system, but I don’t care, so grateful am I for a crappy-bagel reprieve. I take a moment to reflect and pantomime stirring coffee thoughtfully, because I was too poor to buy one after paying for the $4 toast.
This week I ate a couple decent bagels; some borderline questionable bagels, and some that made me question my own existence as a human being and eater of food. I wonder if I could ever live in a land where bagels are indistinguishable from chewable hockey pucks. Here’s an idea: DISRUPT YOUR OWN BAGELS, TECH PEOPLE.
But thank you, San Francisco. Please, never come to New York and rate our Mexican food.