Hole Food

A sk a New Havener where to get a good bagel in town, and you might well be told, “Nowhere!” Unlike pizza—perhaps the only food New Haven diners are pickier about—bagels aren’t yet a point of pride in the city’s cuisine.

But is it really true that there isn’t a good bagel to be found in all of the Elm City? I decided to check out the options and taste them side by side. My rule of engagement: Eat a toasted poppyseed bagel—or its closest available relative—with plain cream cheese at every stop.

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Of course, I couldn’t try every poppyseed bagel in town. A totally unscientific survey of 33 locals led me to four of their favorite sources, starting with The Coffee Pedaler in East Rock. This little coffee shop near the top of Upper State Street garnered recommendations from those who crave a Montreal-style bagel: sleek but dense with a touch of sweetness. The Coffee Pedaler’s hail from Vermont; they’re imported frozen from Myer’s Bagels in Burlington. Let the shop know ahead of time, and they may be able to sell you a whole sleeve—if they can get them. Barista Kyle Austin says Myer’s has more demand than supply. (Owner Ryan Taylor adds that, as a result, The Pedaler is currently supplementing its bagel supply with kettle-boiled, parbaked, New York-style options from Manhattan-based Davidovich Bakery.) Poppyseeds weren’t on the menu here, so I ordered the Montreal Spice instead, with the designated plain cream cheese ($3.50). This wood-fired bagel was just the tiniest bit crispy on the outside and chewy inside with that signature honey-flavored Montreal dough, and the rosemary was a nice touch.

Those who stand by New York-style bagels—bigger, airier, crustier—have plenty of options. I stopped in at Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea on Church Street to try the cafe’s daily imports from Just Bagels in the Bronx. With my toasted poppyseed bagel, I was given a plastic knife and a sealed packet of Philadelphia cream cheese to make my own schmear, which wasn’t quite enough to cover both sides of the bagel. The bagel itself was too crunchy on the outside because it was over-toasted, so be sure to ask the baristas to go easy. However, inside it was light and a little bit chewy, a decent New York bagel and, at $1.85, the least expensive bagel-with-cream-cheese I purchased.

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Just across the street, corporate chain Bruegger’s makes New York-style bagels as its primary product. Their dough arrives onsite frozen, then is boiled and baked on-premises, where toppings are also added, according to assistant manager Olga Domena. Here, a bagel with plain cream cheese will set you back $3, but if you go on a Wednesday, you’ll get $2 off the price of a dozen. My Bruegger’s poppyseed bagel was crispy on the outside and lighter on the inside with a good volume of seeds, but it was too yeasty for my taste. On the up side, no one has a broader selection of flavors than Bruegger’s—there were 15 to choose from, including blueberry and asiago parmesan, during my late morning visit—and they’re purportedly baked fresh all day long, according to a sign outside.

Relative newcomer Olmo makes the bold claim of being “home of New Haven’s best bagel” right on its T-shirts (which you can purchase for $20). Resisting the equally bold Everything Everything flavor—a savory and surprising blend of Italian herbs, Korean chili flakes, soy bacon, seaweed and dehydrated cheddar atop the usual “everything” melange—I stuck to my plan and got a bagel drenched in poppyseeds. Although Olmo will happily slice your order and slather it with cream cheese ($3.50), they won’t toast it. The bagels are baked fresh every morning, chef Craig Hutchinson says, and toasting, he thinks, is what you do to make an imperfect bagel acceptable.

Olmo aspires neither to New York nor to Montreal standards but rather to its own, starting with grains milled specially for this purpose. The dough is made in-house, steamed and then baked—a 48-hour process, Hutchinson says. Olmo’s poppyseed bagel has an earthy, wholesome taste that makes the New York bagels, at least, seem bland in comparison. Still, without being warmed up, I found the Olmo bagel too chewy. If you want them soft and warm, you’ll have to show up with the breakfast crowd that I’m told gathers around 7:50 a.m. to meet them coming out of the oven or bring them home and do it yourself. By the way, of all the bagels I brought home for later, Olmo’s stood up the best.

Other local haunts garnered recommendations as well. A few people named Katz’s Deli, just over the Woodbridge line, which gets its New York-style bagels from Long Island every morning. Other votes were cast for Nica’s Market in East Rock, which bakes its own bagels onsite, and Blue State Coffee, which brings in fresh bagels daily from its own baking facilities in Windham and South Windsor.

But the best-known name in New Haven bagels is actually none of the above. It belongs to supermarket brand Lender’s, started by Polish immigrant Harry Lender in 1927 in his garage in West Haven. He later owned a bakery on Oak Street in New Haven called New York Bagel Bakery, which was located near the current site of John C. Daniels School. Lender’s business was later built into a bagel empire by his sons Murray, Marvin and Sam, first reaching the larger Connecticut market in the 1950s after Harry bought a large freezer, “ensuring that his product would not go stale after 24 hours,” The New York Times reported in Murray’s 2012 obituary. The company is now owned by Conagra Brands and boasts “refrigerated bagels” in “seven satisfying varieties.”

According to a 2009 story in the New Haven Independent, after the New York Bagel Bakery was founded, bagels became a staple at numerous local Jewish bakeries and delis. This history suggests the city should be a bagel hotspot today, but what was striking about current residents’ bagel recommendations was how dispassionate they were. Perhaps the bigger question about New Haven bagels is not where to get one but what happened to them.

New Haven history tour guide Errol Saunders suspects that in order for bagel cuisine to thrive in New Haven, the old bakeries would have needed to survive, too. Instead, these bakeries were lost to the forces of urban renewal and redevelopment. Saunders wonders “what role surviving old places,… grounded in geography, play in the continuation of dynamic food cultures…” It’s hard to imagine a more obvious example than the pizza trifecta of Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern, all old places that continue to thrive as colleagues and competitors. “If it is true that old, grounded places are important to ongoing food cultures,” Saunders wrote in an email, “then redevelopment might have destroyed New Haven bagelry.”

Many are trying to rebuild it. But for now, it seems, we can only dream of the day when the city will fight over its bagels the way it does over apizza.

Photo Key:

1. A promotional display at Bruegger’s.
2. A poppyseed bagel from Bruegger’s.
3. A trio of Everything Everything bagels from Olmo.
4. Sesame (foreground) and Everything (background) bagels from The Coffee Pedaler.
5. A cinnamon bagel from Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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