A couple of Sundays ago, I was doing something I’ve done on many weekend mornings over the past few years, driving my 2014 Jetta eastward along I-495 toward Jericho Turnpike, feeling slightly ashamed. I asked myself, as I always do during these drives, whether I was betraying some sense of loyalty to New York City. I wondered what compelled me out to Long Island, but I already knew the answer: I wanted some bagels.
When I got to Hicksville, I pulled into the parking lot for Bagel Boss. There is usually a line, and this morning was no different. I stood behind a woman who looked like Lady Gaga’s House of Gucci character if she’d been played by Susie Essman. Behind me, an older man with a beard was yelling “No,” repeatedly, into his flip phone. We were all there for the same reason, but I’m certain I was the only one who felt bad about it.
The line was moving slowly, so the Essman lookalike and I got to talking. “Why would you feel bad?” she asked after I admitted my guilt. “These are the best bagels in the world — everybody knows that.” So assured was she in her belief that I didn’t dare tell her, “No, hardly anybody knows Long Island is where you go for the best bagels in the world.”
Sure, I’ve heard people from Long Island tell me the bagels are better out there, but to be fair, I’ve heard people from Long Island tell me a lot of things are better out there. I might never have found out for myself if I hadn’t first heard about Bagel Boss’s T-shirts, Grateful Dead designs where they swap out the Steal Your Face logo with a bagel or give the dancing bears one to hold. I’m a sucker for merch, and we had a car because my wife needed it while she was in grad school. So I drove out and figured I’d get a bagel since I was there anyway.
One bite was enough to convince me that the bagels didn’t possess any of the traits I complain about in the city. It didn’t have the chew of a flotation device or some glaze applied to its exterior. Instead, it was softer and lighter, and it reminded me of the bagels I ate as a kid. And then there’s the simple fact that places on Long Island tend to bake their own bagels, and they do it in the same place where they serve them. That’s becoming rarer in the city, where all too often places bake off-premises or, worse, contract the baking out to someone else.
Hooked, I started to investigate other shops on the Island. They are uniformly plain looking. Their signs, if they have them, weren’t designed by an expensive firm: West Islip Bagels’ exterior displays “Hot Bagels” in two different fonts alongside the shop’s logo, which is a repurposed Pillsbury Doughboy with a Yankees logo on his chest. Inside, the stereo is tuned to WBAB (“Long Island’s only classic rock”) or Howard Stern, and there’s the unmistakable sound of people kibitzing, of older guys sitting around chatting, drinking coffee, picking at their bagels. It’s a beautiful thing, old New York City energy that’s moved to the suburbs.
There are lines, but not because customers heard about a shop on Instagram or TikTok. Long Islanders go to a place like Bagel Boss because, well, it’s a place to go. There’s no pretense, and that extends to the bagels themselves.
It’s a bad time for New York City bagels, as both California and Connecticut have been designated as places that make better bagels, and let’s not even get into the Montreal discussion. I don’t want to pile on, but there does seem to be a growing consensus that the city’s bagels are maybe not what they used to be.
To gain some more insight, I called Kate Arfin, a television producer who lives in the city and grew up near Bagel Master in Syosset. When she first moved to Manhattan to start at NYU, she says she quickly grew annoyed with downtown bagel culture. The bagels’ taste and texture were one thing, but it was the “no toasting” rule some shops enforce that pushed her over the edge. “I want my bagel fresh and toasted. Not one or the other,” she explained. “I don’t get it.” Arfin said that a friend recently clued her in to an even more nefarious scheme: “She says there’s a place that charges 50 cents extra to toast. It just doesn’t make sense! That’s like giving someone a raw bagel and trying to pass it off as fresh.”
To be clear, I’m not saying every bagel on Long Island is better than every bagel in New York City, but taken as a whole, the bagels in New York’s easternmost suburbs are criminally underappreciated. I suspect that one reason more people don’t know about Long Island’s glorious bagels is because of Long Island itself. It’s always existed in the shadow of the city, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to explore without a car. Long Island’s bagel shops are more or less impenetrable to outsiders.
One person who wants to change that is Vadim Nayman, the owner of Bagel Master. “I took it nationwide,” he boasted when we sat down to talk, a claim that he meant literally, rattling off all the states and cities where he sends bagels. He said he wasn’t sure why there’s such a demand for his bagels outside of New York State — maybe people just want a taste of home — but he’s happy to oblige, cutting out middleman delivery companies and handling all of the shipping himself.
But why, I pressed, are his bagels so appealing? “Consistency,” he replied. “That’s something I learned a long time ago — when a bagel tastes a certain way one day, and then it tastes different on another, that’s the worst thing.”
I thought about how many times I’d wondered if my local Brooklyn bagel shop was having an off day; about how two bagels from the same place can look and feel like they’re from completely different shops; how I’ve seen, with my own eyes, shop employees dispatched to the nearest grocery store to stock up on smoked salmon because somebody screwed up the wholesale order. Nayman knows how much work it takes to ensure that his bagels are always the same — and that there’s no need to change something if it’s already great.
That’s the reason I’ll keep driving an hour to get bagels, even when there are dozens of shops within walking distance from my apartment. I know that I’ll get bagels unlike anything I find in the city, and I’m fairly confident I’ll keep meeting interesting people in the process.
I thought about all of this as I walked to my car outside Bagel Master before I was interrupted by someone who said he overheard me talking to Nayman and wanted to weigh in. “Longtime subscriber to New York Magazine,” he said by way of introduction. “I met Jimmy Breslin once.” He told me he was “Paul from Woodbury,” like he was calling in to talk sports on WFAN. He explained that he’d moved from Brooklyn to Long Island when he was a kid and that he didn’t miss Brooklyn one bit because it’s too expensive and, as he put it, “I went to get a bagel from the place I went when I was a kid, and they’re doing yoga there now.”
Paul from Woodbury talked to me for about ten minutes until, fortunately, he got a phone call he had to take. Before he answered, he left me with this bit of parting wisdom: “I want to make sure you tell everybody from your magazine or blog or whatever it is that you’re right: The best bagels in the world are right here.”
A half-dozen Long Island bagel shops that are worth the drive.