A little while back I went on a bit of a cream cheese-fueled rampage in order to protect the name of good bagels the world over. I'm a man with strong opinions, most of them about breadstuffs, good vegetables, tofu, and The Beatles. If you're the kind of person who thinks a) they know what a good bagel is and b) thinks toasting is good for bagels, then I highly suggest reading that story, because you are wrong on at least one and probably both of those counts.
Right there at the top of that article, I mentioned that my recent obsession with bagels had stemmed from my goal of finding the best in San Francisco. At this point I can safely say that I've tried bagels from every single shop that bakes their own bagels on premises in San Francisco and East Bay. My standard order was one plain bagel and one everything bagel (un-toasted so that I could appreciate the full range of textures and gauge freshness) with cream cheese along with a half dozen unadorned bagels of various flavors. I didn't begin this quest hoping to find greatness—San Francisco does tons of things really, really well, but you don't expect bagels to be one of them—and it's true: most of the bagels I tried serve no greater function than as vehicles for calories and cream cheese.
But a few bagels stood out from the pack. Bagels that are more than just bits of round bread. Bagels with properly crackly-crisp crusts with dense centers. Bagels that, as one of our poetically inclined readers suggests, got bagely soul.
My mother and father are from Japan and Pennsylvania, respectively, but even if they were born and bred New York Jews, these are bagels I'd confidently take home to meet them. These are bagels that aren't just good-for-the-Bay-Area, but would stand shoulder to shoulder with the best bagel shops in New York or Montreal.
These are, in other words, bagels best consumed as god intended: fresh and un-toasted.
My Favorite: Beauty's Bagels
These are hands down some of the best bagels I've eaten anywhere. Properly bagel-sized (that is, not as big as your face) with an intensely blistered, crackly, eggshell-thin crust that reveals a dense, chewy crumb with well-developed flavor. They're ostensibly Montreal-style in that they're boiled, then baked in a wood-fired oven, but they thankfully don't follow the no-salt-in-the-dough mandate that some Montreal bagel shops stick with, nor do they have that Montreal honey sweetness. Their everything bagels are a little sparse on the toppings, but I love the scattering of fennel seed they add. It's not a traditional flavor, but it works.
If you don't want to make the trek out to Oakland, you can get Beauty's at Wise Sons on the weekends, though there are rumors of a Wise Sons bagel operation launching soon, so who knows how long this arrangement will last.
Best Everything: Authentic Bagel Company
Their browning is a bit spotty (some plain bagels are dark and blistered, others are pale and anemic looking), and they seem to love piling way too many toppings into their bagel sandwiches, but the everything bagel at Authentic Bagel Company is pretty kick-ass with its slew of flavors and full 360° coverage with best-in-class adhesion. You can be damned straight that every chewy-crisp bite is gonna be coated with sesame, poppy, garlic, onion, and caraway.
Best When You Can Get Fresh: Baron Baking
Dan Graf at Baron Baking is my kind of bagel guy. An East Coast transplant from Jersey, when he couldn't find a good bagel in San Francisco, he started making his own, turning his experiments into a full-blown wholesale company. You can bet your butter this bagel obsessive knows what a good one is, and his are excellent: dark brown and incredibly crisp with just the right level of microblistering covering a dense, malty, slightly sweet crumb. But there's one major, major caveat: you can't walk in and get a bagel from the bakery.
Most of Baron's bagels are sold direct to restaurants and cafes, where they are then re-sold to customers. We all know the Heisenbagel Uncertainty Principle, which posits that a bagel's true qualities can only be appreciated when the bagel is consumed direct at the source. Long story short: These are the best bagels in town if you manage to get fresh ones right after they've been delivered.
The good news? If you order at least a dozen of them, you can give Dan 48 hours notice to place a personal order and pick them up fresh yourself. It is worth the advance planning.
Best in San Francisco: 20th Century Cafe
As a New Yorker who grew up buying his bagels from a shop that barely had room to stand in much less sit down and actually eat a bagel in, it felt oddly bourgeois to sit at a marble-topped table and have a waitress deliver a sliced bagel with lox and cream cheese on a gold-trimmed plate with house-pickled red onions and fronds of dill artfully peeking out from inside while I sip on house-made natural sodas, but I was willing to put that all aside when I tasted their bagels. They are that damned good—quite easily the best within San Francisco city limits.
Most sub-standard bagels suffer from being too soft and bready. That's not an issue here. If anything they border on slightly too tough, but I'd take that over too soft any day. 20th Century Cafe may well convince me that coarse Maldon sea salt should be the default for salt bagels and that nigella seeds should be on my approved-bagel-toppings list if only they could get those seeds to stick to the bagel!
Reminds Me Most of My Childhood: Levy's
It's tough to argue that Levy's on Alameda would be anything more than your run-of-the-mill bagel shop if it were transplanted to New York, but while every other bagel shop on this list produces excellent bagels, Levy's is that one that reminds me most of the bagel shops back east with its warm smell of malt and dried garlic and its wire baskets of fresh-baked bagels behind the counter. No frills, no claims at artisanship, not even much deep browning or microblistering to speak of. Just good, straight-forward, nicely sweet and doughy, crisp-crusted bagels with what some folks would consider too much cream cheese but I consider just enough.
This is the bagel equivalent of a good corner pizza joint that serves a solid workingman's slice. It's not a place you'd take your friends out to, but a place that you'll look back on fondly after you leave the neighborhood thinking "why oh why did I take that simple bagel shop for granted?"