On this week’s podcast we meet question asker Elaine Cleary. Elaine’s lived in the Chicago area for most of her life, but she’s got a big beef with the local bagel scene. She thinks it’s super hard to find a decent version of this Jewish-American staple in the area — especially compared to New York — and she wants to know why.
Curious City editor Alexandra Salomon got a little hot under the collar over the very premise of this question. But we kept our cool in an attempt to broaden Elaine’s bagel horizons. We did this by recounting the 100-year history of Chicago bagel bakeries, which saw a surge in the early part of the 20th century, then a dip by the ’80s and a glorious bagel renaissance today. We also brought Elaine a batch of some of the best bagels around — based on suggestions from our listeners (see below) — to see if they might change her mind. Listen to this week’s podcast episode to find out if we succeeded. Here’s a clue: Both Alexandra and Elaine agreed there were great bagels in Chicago, although ones with “New York” in their name seemed to fare particularly well.
Here, though, we present you with a little more than a baker’s dozen of top suggestions (in no particular order) we heard from our listeners and social media followers. We bought and tried at least a plain version of each and didn’t find a dud in the bunch.
New York Bagel & Bialy Corporation: Opened in 1965 by a group of families from New York, this Lincolnwood bagel mecca was the top vote getter in our poll. Plus, it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Style: Big and dense with a shiny, chewy crust and a tight crumb.
Price: 95 cents to $1
Taste of New York Bagels & Deli: The motto of this Lake View shop is “Made in New York, baked in Chicago.” The counter staffer said this means the bagels are kneaded, shaped, proofed and boiled in New York before getting shipped here for the final bake.
Style: Crisp exterior with a shiny crust, nice chew and surprisingly open crumb.
The Daly Bagel: Started as a 2018 bagel bake in Amanda Daly’s kitchen, this Oak Park favorite moved into retail digs on Chicago Avenue in 2020 and has been wowing the town ever since. Motto: “East coast bagels with a Midwest twist.”
Style: Big and chewy with a nice crust, medium crumb and faint sweetness.
R&A Bread Bakers: This sourdough bagel operation (near Lane Tech College Prep) “was born out of a need to occupy our days … during the pandemic” according to R&A’s site on Tock. When you order online you get secret directions for picking them up. They also make deep dish pizza-flavored bagel pies!
Style: Chubby and chewy with a dense crumb. Not sour.
Sauce and Bread Kitchen: This Edgewater operation sells fresh bagels, breakfast and lunch sandwiches. They’re also among the Chicago restaurants offering free meals to those affected financially by the COVID pandemic.
Style: Tender and almost pretzelly with a mild flavor.
Rye Deli & Drink: Opened in November 2020 in Greektown, Rye is part of the artisan deli revivalist movement. Here they smoke their own pastrami and salmon and make hand formed bagels with local flours like Turkey Red and Brasetto Rye.
Style: Nice chewy caramelized exterior with a surprisingly open crumb.
Steingold’s of Chicago: Another deli revivalist, Steingold’s recently relocated to Lake View’s Southport corridor next to the Music Box Theater. Find house smoked lox, homemade matzo ball soup and old fashioned boiled and fermented bagels.
Style: Chewy, crispy exterior with a lovely pillowy interior and deep flavor.
Price: $2 (with or without cream cheese — so get the cream cheese)
Tilly Bagel Shop: Chef Hannah Tillett worked in several top Chicago restaurants before launching a sourdough bagel business in the South Loop. When you order them online, there’s a chance the chef herself will bring them to your car personally.
Style: Sourdough with generous topping and a dense chewy crumb. Not sour.
Price: $8 for a half dozen mini bagels. No single bagel sales.
Once Upon A Bagel: There are actually five “Once Upon…” locations, but we visited the one in Winnetka. The fast friendly staff serves classic deli foods and fresh bagels but also an impressive Mexican menu.
Style: Big, fluffy and soft with the definite taste of challah.
Mindy’s Bakery: Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, celebrated chef Mindy Segal morphed her Bucktown Hot Chocolate restaurant into Mindy’s Bakery. Here she serves up classic quiche, babka, coffeecake, bialys and artisan bagels. You can also find them at Foxtrot Markets around the city.
Style: Nicely caramelized exterior, with deep flavor and tender crumb.
Brobagel: This Wicker Park bakery is the sister to Billy Jacob’s adjacent Piece Pizzeria. It’s also the descendant of the Jacobs brothers’ two other excellent bagel bakeries they started in Chicago in the early ’80s.
Style: Shiny crispy exterior, satisfying flavor and very dense crumb.
Price: No single bagel sales currently. Minimum is half dozen for $12.
Gotham New York Bagels & Cafe: Originally opened in Madison, WI by an East Coast transplant, Gotham boasts handmade bagels with an “authentic” New York taste. This year, the shop expanded to Chicago with locations in the Gold Coast and Lake View. Online orders only.
Style: Big, bold, chewy crispy New York style bagels with open crumb.
Kaufman’s Bagel & Delicatessen: This old school Skokie spot was a ’60s era expansion of the original Kaufman’s Bagels in Albany Park (now gone). Over the decades it has survived outbreaks, a strike and fire to keep cranking out quality deli foods and solid bagels.
Style: Chewy and slightly sweet with dense crumb.
Price: 98 cents
More about our questioner
Elaine Cleary is a Chicago area law student, a runner and a big food fan. But she said her bagel consciousness didn’t bloom until her teen years.
“I have always lived in and around Chicago and the rest of the Midwest, so I grew up eating bagels at [the chain] The Great American Bagel, like I did not have a bagel connoisseur upbringing at all,” she explained. “But then I went with my family to New York when I was 13 or 14 and I had a bagel from some random deli in Queens and it was amazing. So ever since then I have become a big bagel enthusiast.”
Elaine’s favorite way to to enjoy the bagel ritual is to buy a warm pumpernickel from the bakery on a Saturday morning and shmear it “with some high quality cream cheese.”
After trying some of the top picks from local bakeries Elaine said she has a new perspective on the quality of bagels that have emerged in recent years.
Her favorite bagel of the half dozen we brought her came from Taste of New York in Lake View.
“It’s not the fanciest bagel on the table, it’s not the sweetest bagel on the table,” she said. “But this is a bagel, ladies and gentlemen.”
Monica Eng is a reporter for Curious City. Follow her @monicaeng.