Being from New York, I admit it’s taken courage to explore Philadelphia’s bagel offerings. I’ve been loyal to the same suburban bagel shop for years. When I walk in the owner knows my name, that my favorite flavor of iced coffee is hazelnut, and that I prefer poppy seeds over sesame seeds. So, naturally when I went away to college, I was nervous. What if the bagels of Philadelphia couldn’t live up to what I was used to?
My mission to find the ultimate bagel has been a wild ride, and I wouldn’t take it back for a second. If you, too, wake up on a Sunday craving a taste of home, Street has carefully chosen four bagel shops you can go to that won’t disappoint. Each of these places have their own unique story and style, since let’s face it, Philadelphia isn’t New York. And we’re glad it’s not—because this city is doing its own dough thing.
1. Philly–Style Bagels
Location: 1451 East Columbia Avenue OR by order from Caviar
Store Hours: 7a.m.–2p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday, Weekends 8a.m.–2p.m.
Philly–Style Bagels has answered a question that everyone so far has been too shy to ask: why boil your bagels in water when you can boil them in beer? Founders John and Collin met at a beer store called the Bootery in Northern Liberties where they worked for five years. They started their career making homebrewed beer and curing meat. John explains, “We had all the salmon, but we didn’t think about what we were doing with it.” In that moment, they decided to make a batch of bagels, and they were the tastiest bagels they had ever had. They started by making 5,000 for an event at The Little Shul synagogue. Then, they asked their friend Joe Bedia from Pizzeria Bedia to try a one–time pop–up. “Before we knew it we had a line out the door.” Giving the people what they wanted, John and Collin opened their store in Fishtown last January.
What Sets This Bagel Apart From the Others: When John and Collin researched what kind of water New Yorkers boil bagels in, one thing that came up was malt syrup. “We thought, beer is essentially just malt sugar.” They realized they could combine their passion for beer and their passion for bagels, and thought,“Wow. We could do something that no one else has done before.” And so was born the Bagel made with Yards IPA. They describe it as having a “special malted flavor.”
Best selling bagel: The Everything Bagel is at least half of the orders per day, and John thinks you should opt for the Scallion or Veggie cream cheese.
Important Note: They advertise their bagels on their website as if it were a designer clothing boutique. As someone who might want to flip through a catalogue of fancy cream cheese as opposed to handbags, and who hopes there are people like me out there, I've attached it here for your education.
2. Spread Bagelry
Location: 262 S 20th Street since 2013 with a new location at 3602 Chestnut Street soon.
Store Hours: 7a.m.–4p.m. Monday–Sunday
The “Montreal Style” bagels that Spread Bagelry is known for are thinner, smaller and have a sweet, smoky flavor that you won’t find in New York.
If you dig the acquired taste of this Canadian technique, you will probably be excited to find there is no small space on their Everything Bagel that is not covered in some sort of seed. They’ve even come up with the perfect bagel for those who can’t make up their minds: the Nova Scramble is an egg and tomato sandwich on top and a bagel with cream cheese and lox on the bottom. The combination works surprisingly well if you can manage to bite into the monstrous sandwich at one time.
If you are not yet convinced Spread is worth the trek to 20th and Spruce Streets, another location is opening on Penn’s campus on 36th and Chestnut Streets, where Pizza Rustica closed. The second Spread will have a new and improved menu that takes bagels to the extreme—hot dogs with bagel buns, chicken breaded with sesame bagel, and grilled steak with a side of bagel.
What Sets This Bagel Apart From the Others: The Montreal style bagel is made with a honey-glaze and baked in a wood–fire oven. The result is a crunchier consistency that gives a nice contrast to the chewiness of regular “New York Style” bagels.
Best selling bagel: “I would actually pick a breakfast sandwich. Bacon Egg and Cheese on an Everything Bagel.”
Important Note: BYOB on the weekends, and if you go on Sunday from 11:30a.m.– 2:30p.m., you get to listen to Pawel play his accordion.
3. Schmear It
Location: 38th and Walnut Streets and 3601 Market Street
Store Hours: Varies
Like Hubbub, Greek Lady and Rival Bros, Schmear It is following in the great Philly tradition of starting as a mobile business, building a fan base and establishing a permanent residence. The notorious fire–engine red truck often found under the Locust Walk bridge is moving to a restaurant inside an apartment building at 3601 Market Street this Spring.
Schmear It: The Restaurant is an exciting, if rather unexpected, step for partners David and Brian. The pair met the way an authentic bagel business might naturally start—in Hebrew School. David started the truck as a non–profit because "he thought it be a cool project.” He didn't project that within five months he'd be talking about opening a store, or that his buddy Brian would sign on last year to help make their dream a reality. The new store, which they are splitting with a Drexel pizza shop, will have everything on menu now plus some exciting additions; we’re talking oatmeal, fritattas and different kinds of coffee. It'll be primarily take out, with a couple seats along windows so you can enjoy your breakfast with a view.
As happy as we are for David and Brian, we couldn’t help but ask the looming question: what will happen to the bagel mobile? Brian assures us that while David will run the store, he knows Penn students still like their dough on the go. Then he announces even better news; on Saturdays, Schmear It used to move to Love Park, but after the unveiling of the restaurant, he will park exclusively on Penn's campus.
What Sets This Bagel Apart From the Others: They thought about doing Montreal style, but "boiled bagels are better" says Brian. Why wood–fire what's not broken? (We think that's how that saying goes). Schmear It actually imports their bagels from South Street Philly Bagels every morning. "It’s what we put on the bagel that makes them great," explains Brian. This also rings true for their drinks. They now get their hot coffee from La Colombe and cold brew from Rival Bros, although the new store will sell exclusively Rival Bros. The Schmear It twist is a homemade brown sugar cream that you can’t get anywhere else.
A customer who comes every morning says before walking off, "These are the best bagels in Philly. And not just because of the bagels, but because of the people who sell them to you." I had to agree. Just one conversation with Brian as I sipped brown sugar from a cup, and I have definitely set my sights on being a regular.
Best selling bagel: They sell more than double of the Loxsmith than any other bagel.
Is this different than your personal favorite bagel? "I'm actually a very picky eater. The bagel I always make is an Everything with Butter and Sriracha. I know it's kind of weird. But Sriracha tastes especially great with our Veggie Delights.”
4. Williams Café
Location: 255 S. 36th Street
Store Hours: 8:30a.m.-6:30p.m. Monday–Thursday and Friday 8:30a.m.-5:30p.m.
Williams Café, or “WilCaf” to the cool people, is the only coffee shop on campus whose bagels are worth your time, and it is likely your closest option if you want to spike your insulin in-between classes. Plus, it’s a Penn Student Agency, so by eating their bagels you are supporting your fellow classmates. Jessi Yackey (C’16) says that WilCaf has been around for longer than anybody can remember, maybe even for 15 years. Even though they’ve stopped their New York Times subscription (we loved doing the crossword while munching on a bagel), they have begun to sell chocolate chip bagels this past week. We couldn’t be more excited.
What Sets This Bagel Apart From the Others: WilCaf gets their bagels shipped every morning from Redhouse Bagels: these bagels are suburban. Plus, they have different flavors of cream cheese to complement each one.
What's your favorite bagel/spread combination? “Blueberry bagel with strawberry cream cheese. Or Everything with Chive and Onion, if you want your breath to smell bad.”
Important Note: If you whisper “GSL” after ordering, you get your bagel double–toasted and a nod of approval from the barista.