Even though the Upper West Side location has thus far managed to stave off permanent closure, there’s no denying that things are bleak over at H&H; Bagels, arguably the city’s most visible bagel purveyor. Last week’s Wall Street Journal report painted a dire picture: The UWS store’s landlord figured that H&H; owed nearly $350,000 in back rent on the location; four separate bankruptcy cases have been filed in Manhattan to prevent foreclosure; and there are indications that the company may owe as much as $3 million to the IRS. In some quarters, the potential demise of H&H; has been treated as almost apocalyptic — “There was nothing quite like those rounds of dough traveling before your eyes from the silver mass of the oven to your own paper bag,” said the Times this weekend, and Upper West Side residents have organized a “Preserve H&H;” campaign. Which raises the question, how good are H&H; bagels, really? And if the store goes under, who will be left to fly the New York bagel flag?
New York Magazine’s Underground Gourmet critics, Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld, will miss the H&H; shop if it closes, but not necessarily the bagels, which they find decent when eaten at the store, but not at the delis and coffee bars around town that sell them well past their prime; their picks are the mini-bagels sold at Russ & Daughters, and they strongly recommend Kosher Bagel Hole on Coney Island Avenue. Grub Street’s own favorite bagel comes from the outlier choice of Brooklyn’s La Bagel Delight mini-chain. And of course, a few other names come to mind when compiling a list of the city’s best: Ess-a-Bagel, Murray’s Bagels, and Tal Bagels.
And then there is the rise of the Montreal-style bagel, a flatter, sesame-studded interloper that some say might actually be better than the homegrown product, an opinion with which we’re willing to bet most New Yorkers don’t agree. (We know Mimi Sheraton doesn’t.)
But even if H&H; is not in fact New York’s best bagel — and you’ll still be able to find the brand around the city, including at the H&H; location in midtown, after all — it’s hard to argue with the fact that the store itself is an important part of the city. H&H; came to represent a part of New York’s specific food culture, not just to residents, but (thanks to its regular TV cameos) to the entire country. Now it’s easy to imagine the prime corner location turning into yet another bank, or pharmacy, or Starbucks — products that are already far more ubiquitous in New York than decent bagels.