Once upon a time not so long ago, there was a serious lack of good bagels in the Bay Area. A hole, if you will.
For East Coast expatriates, this mysterious deficiency offered a reason to bond, to gripe and to nurture a satisfying superiority complex. In a land of gastronomic abundance, why was a good bagel so hard to find? Was the problem our tap water? A shortage of old-fashioned knowhow?
Whatever the issue, friends, consider it fixed. Call it a bagel boom, call it “everything bagels, everywhere, all at once,” but we’re sure we’re not alone in recently finding ourselves digging sesame seeds out of our keyboard (and teeth).
We’re talking bagels with character, flavor, chew and satisfying crust; local bakers outshining, yes, even New York City’s finest; and long lines of customers eager for excellent old-school classics and subtle California innovations that, trust us, succeed.
Below we’ve pulled together a guide to a dozen East Bay bagel purveyors, including four of the heaviest hitters up front, noting popular topping options and cost per fresh bagel.
Meanwhile, East Coasters — we’ll need to find something new to complain about…
Thanks to a friend and former New Yorker for sharing news of this Sunday pop-up out of Gioia Pizzeria in Berkeley.
“Kaz” is short for “Kazyaka,” namely Josephine Kazyaka (maiden name Bieganski), the Polish-born great-grandmother of local bagelmaker Mark Bowen. The upstate New York native carefully recreates his great-grandmother’s recipes by hand, and they are exactly the satisfying old-school Polish grandma bagels one might expect, only perhaps better.
Bagels were traditionally meant to offer working people an inexpensive, hearty meal in their pocket or lunch sack, and these provide. Bowen uses high-gluten organic flour, a good dose of malt syrup, and subjects his dough for, he says, “an inordinately long cold proofing” before boiling and baking.
Small batch, lovingly-seasoned (there’s a nice kiss of black pepper on the everything bagel) and compact, this is a crustier, more substantial bagel that belies a beautifully spongy and elastic interior, with excellent chew and character. It’s also a bagel that tells a family story.
Kaz Bagels at Gioia Pizzeria
1586 Hopkins St. (near McGee Avenue), Berkeley
Cost per bagel: $3
Recommended toppings: Bowen keeps it simple with small tubs of cream cheese (starting at $1, about enough for two) including ingredient-driven blends and classic Philadelphia.
Worth the wait?: The pop-up founder’s good humor makes a line worth it. That said, those small batches make for fast sellouts, so best to arrive at Gioia by 9:00 a.m. on Sundays. Join the email list for schedule changes or other news.
Almost everything at Delirama is made in house, and chef-owners Cash Caris and Anahita Cann tested bagel recipes for a year to get theirs just right. They pursued ratios of liquid malt in both the dough and boiling water that gave added depth of flavor, and a steam technique pre-flip during the baking process that boosted texture. The results are plumped-up, hand-rolled bagels that are particularly attractive.
With a nod to New York, Delirama bagels have a special style all their own. Seeded heartily on both sides, with a gorgeous crust and subtle, matte-brown interior, they feature lift but no heft, with just enough chew and seasoning. They taste almost wholesome…but not quite.
In fact, if you’re looking to indulge, this is the place. Sumptuous, over-the-top bagel sandwiches here feature cage-free eggs, cheeses, housemade sauces and Delirama’s notoriously mouth-watering house-cured pastrami.
1746 Solano Ave. (near Ensenada Avenue), Berkeley
Cost per bagel: $2.95
Recommended toppings: Top simply to savor the richness of the bagel itself, or go big with a buttery, gooey, meaty, eggy, toasty bagel sandwich ($12.95).
Worth the wait?: Delirama’s gracious service is as quick as its customers are hungry. The deli’s vibe somehow strikes as youthful, courteous, cutting-edge and old-fashioned all at once. Note: Bagels are only available Thursday-Sunday, and sell out quickly.
The pretty new bagel brick-and-mortar on the scene is Poppy Bagels, having launched a thousand open-faced bagel sandwich images on Instagram since its Temescal opening in February. New baker and New York City native Reesa Kashuk started with a cottage business out of her home kitchen before entering the farmer’s market circuit and, now, a fresh, stylish shop on Telegraph Ave. It’s an impressive trajectory — she quit her advertising day job the first summer of the pandemic, and based on the popularity of her wares, her new business has blossomed through word of mouth at a time when others languished.
Here fans can find flavors as big as the lines to get in, with a good kick of salt to Kashuk’s lengthily cold-proofed, hand-rolled wares. We also appreciate the heavier coating on seeded bagels, and pedigreed ingredients on top.
Bagels here are a denser chew than others by design. “I think a lot of bagels are more soft and fluffy overall, and I am going for more contrasting textures between the outside and inside,” Kashuk explained. “Chewy and blistered on the outside and soft on the inside.”
Shop production also allows for fresh, warm bagels straight from the oven throughout the day. Neighborhood fans gather in crowds and family groups to munch their attractive wares at the few interior tables and nearby outdoor parklet.
5004 Telegraph Ave. (near 49th Street), Oakland
Cost per bagel: $3
Recommended toppings: Open-faced bagel sandwiches are the popular choice here, thick with colorful toppings, such as the “Basic” ($8.50), decorated with chive cream cheese, red onion and tomatoes, or the “Spicy and Sweet” ($8), with honey drizzled over jalapeno-serrano cream cheese.
Worth the wait?: Yes, though it can be a long one. Once inside the bright little shop, though, patrons are rewarded with a warm, bustling welcome…and a warm bagel.
Like a headliner at a show, we’ve put the top billing last. Food writers can sometimes get a little carried away, so when New Jersey-native Emily Winston was recently called the “mastermind” behind Boichik and California’s subsequent new bagel era, she noted it with her steadfast, easygoing sense of humor. But honestly the mastermind thing? It’s totally true.
People might forget, but Winston has strengths beyond baking, the science of which she took up for the first time only in recent years. According to an early J. profile by Alix Wall, Winston’s major at Cornell was mechanical engineering, and she has a masters in transportation technology and policy. She’s also, notably, a veteran member of The Crucible. Basically, she is someone who loves to tinker, to perfect, and to fix — as with the problem she solved regarding no good bagels around here, specifically ones reminiscent of her childhood favorites in New York (from H&H, RIP).
Despite very little experience, the fledgling baker took up the challenge in 2012, and tinkered and perfected until she was satisfied. She started Boichik as a cottage business in 2017, opened her first shop in 2019, and whammo, Boichik bagels were voted best in the country by the New York Times in 2021. When asked how she cracked the code, she just shrugs and blames her “picky perfectionism,” but whatever her proprietary chemistry, recipe or technique, she basically flipped the entire mythology of bad-bagel California on its ear.
Now Winston’s “problem” is one of endless demand, but even that she has managed. Crowds are streamlined and tended with impressive efficiency; systems run like clockwork. And though Boichik is in expansion mode, with a new location in Palo Alto and now a beautiful new production plant and second cafe in Berkeley, Winston seems to be growing carefully, wisely, while dutifully maintaining the crazy-good quality of her products.
Which brings us to the actual bagels: Boichik’s thousands of fans, including most locals and, yes, the New York Times, are not wrong. These bagels bite off cleanly, with a touch of salty sweetness to the crust, inner maltiness, great chew and lift, are seeded with a lighter hand (why upstage the bagel?) and are delectably fresh and flavorful. To many of us, they are just right.
1225 Sixth St. (near Harrison Street) or 3170 College Ave. (near Alcatraz Avenue), Berkeley
Cost per bagel: $3
Worth the wait?: 100%. Boichik boasts both the longest AND most efficient lines of the lot. A real morning scene at each location, with happy outdoor crowds and fast, friendly service.
Recommended toppings: Though they serve fat, wrapped, winning bagel sandwiches by the fistful (like “The Daily Special” with seasonal cream cheese and fresh ingredients for $6.25), we prefer our Boichik bagels the way Winston did growing up — at home, with cream cheese (see below), lox ($12.99) and the New York Times.
Other local bagel standbys (many with less of a line)
Beloved Berkeley old-timer Berkeley Bagels serves what some regulars feel are among the area’s most appealing, especially for the price. The old-fashioned, no-frills shop on Gilman does a brisk business in bagel sandwiches and melts (pepperoni pizza bagel melt, $7.99), as well as extras such as chicken kabobs and rice plates. Berkeley Bagels, 1281 Gilman St. (near Curtis Street), Berkeley
North Bay family-owned wholesalers Ethel’s Bagels has a process that includes a touch of Lagunitas beer in the boiling water and an avid East Bay fanbase built around pop-ups, including at the Kensington Farmers Market. ($3 per bagel.) Ethel’s Bagels, multiple locations
The Posh Bagel on Piedmont Ave. in Oakland is part of a decades-old northern California chain purported to have first created the Asiago bagel. Good for a serviceable bagel in a pinch, though prices can be surprisingly…posh. (A bagel topped with plain cream cheese costs about $5.50.) The Posh Bagel, 4037 Piedmont Ave. (near 40th Street), Oakland
Easy and approachable for a sturdy, bready bagel sandwich is Bagel Street Cafe, with locations throughout California, including a new opening on Berkeley’s Telegraph Ave. The chain’s budget-friendly bagels and sandwiches (a bacon, egg and cheese costs $9.45) sate students in particular. Bonus points for being one of the only businesses open on Telegraph Avenue on early Sunday mornings. Bagel Street Cafe, multiple locations
Saul’s Deli was, until a couple of months ago, serving up Baron Baking bagels, but is now making its bagels from scratch throughout the day. Order them off the menu or buy them at the counter to go. Saul’s Deli, 1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Once a foodie destination for dense, chewy Montreal-style bagels, Beauty’s Bagels merged with Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in 2020. The Wise Sons chain has recently grown to seven locations around California, and bagels start at $2.75 each. Beauty’s Bagels, 3838 Telegraph Ave. (near 38th Street), Oakland. Wise Sons, multiple locations
Lastly, there are those who remember the first Noah’s Bagels on College Avenue, now the location of the first Boichik. (Longtime locals, which bagel would you choose? 1989 Noah’s? Or 2023 Boichik?)
Despite its lauded and charismatic Berkeley history, Noah’s long ago lost its indie chutzpah, and is now a corporate chain. It did have a shot at luring downtown Berkeley lunch crowds with a fancy new Shattuck Ave. cafe in 2019, but that location never reopened after lockdown.
We find it a mark of the times that folks in the long line at Poppy Bagels stand in full view of a nearby Noah’s chain location, where there is usually no queue for an inexpensive bagel and cream cheese ($2.75), but…no one gives up their spot.
Quality, care, freshness — these are things that are worth the wait.
Don’t forget the cream cheese
For those who have privately always wondered — yes, cream cheese is, in fact, a type of cheese. The first batch was made by accident in the late 1800’s in upstate New York, when a dairyman tried to make French-style Neufchatel and added too much cream.
Soon enough, word spread about this new spread — or, to borrow from the Yiddish, “schmear” — as the mild, unripened, slightly sweet cheese was found to complement breads, cakes, and most definitely bagels.
In a surprising bit of origin-story trivia, especially for intellectual property wonks, the in-demand new pantry staple from New York was given the misleading brand name of “Philadelphia Cream Cheese,” since Philly’s robust dairy industry was synonymous with quality at the time.
Cream cheese can be made at home with heated combinations of whole milk, cream, sometimes yogurt, salt and a curdling agent such as lemon juice. Recipes abound on the Internet, but it takes a special touch to get it just right, which is why we prefer to leave it to the experts.
Innovations are limitless and fun. Many of the bagelmakers featured here are improving on classic flavors and texture, or adding local, seasonal or specialty ingredients.
Try Boichik’s Pink Label ($7 per half pint, smooth, sweet, luxuriant); Poppy Bagel’s bold flavors such as black truffle ($14 for 8 oz.) or chivey-lemony lox ($12 for 8 oz.), or Kaz Bagel’s small, rich tubs of indulgence for two ($1-$2), such as the smoked salmon cream cheese with capers and onions.
This story was updated after publication with new info about Saul’s Deli.