On Monday the Upper West Side outlet of the venerated bagel store H&H closed, and not since the death of Michael Jackson has a New York summer seen so much grief. "There Goes a Piece of the Old Neighborhood, Again" ran a New York Times headline in a story dripping with pathos. The Observer was more succinct though no less wan: "Farewell, H&H" mourned its title. Even the Jewish heretics at Heeb Magazine couldn’t help but let out a deafening cry: "APOCALYPSE!! Upper West Side H&H Bagels Closing Today" it screamed yesterday.
I hate to spoil the mood, but I share no such remorse. But don’t get me wrong: I love H&H Bagels, and despite its owner’s financial shenanigans–a poor-timed expansion and months of unpaid rent did it in–I hope their real factory out in Secaucus, New Jersey keeps pumping out those bagels in all their plump and crusty glory. So what’s my beef? It’s with that particular H&H branch itself; I hated it. Let me explain.
I grew up on a Sunday tradition: bagels and lox. There was no messing around in my family: no matter where you were the night before, or even Sunday morning, you made it back home for my parents’ carefully orchestrated spread: poppy-seed, everything, sesame, whole wheat, bialys, we had them all. But that was just the basis, the foundation; what made it matter was everything else you piled on top of it. Lox, and sometimes sable, was the heart of it, but we spared no punches with the cream cheese: regular, low-fat, whipped, strawberry, scallions, veggie, we had it. Tomatoes and onions and capers topped it off. Then there was everything else you ate on the side, from the cream and vinegar herrings, to the whitefish spread and, for wusses, tuna salad. Dessert was simple but standard: rugallah, rainbow cookies, and of course, black-and-white cookies.
It was marvelous those Sundays, and we still get them on the rare occasions when my siblings and I are reunited back home. This context matters because it’s precisely the reason I hated the Upper West Side H&H–they had none of these essential components, save the bagel. It was like claiming you were the best burger joint in the city, but serving only patties–no ketchup, no mustard, no mayo, and certainly no bun.
To be fair, I understood their logic, I think: when they opened that small branch a few decades ago, they probably had families like mine in mind. The neighborhood was full of Jews and probably everyone had bagels-and-lox for brunch on Sunday. Families would just go pick up a dozen or more bagels, then go across the street to Zabar’s for lox. It obviously worked for quite some time, and it’s precisely that nostalgia for those old Sunday brunches that has sent many old-time Upper West Siders howling like a bunch of Lears.
But let’s face it: many people simply don’t eat bagels that way anymore. The Sunday spread, I’ve noticed, is something of a delicacy even for my family now. Bagels, however, are more popular than ever–it says something that, according to the Wall Street Journal’s investigation, it was the company’s major factory expansion amid the recession that did that specific store in. They were strapped for cash and had to close one operaton; the old Upper West Side branch was it.
Though the owner needs a better accountant, he had the right idea: for the past several years he’s been shipping his bagels to stores all over the country, trying to capture that ever expanding market for bagels. And it’s not just across the country that he’s been shipping his bagels; he’s been sending them all over New York. When I have the time (and cash), I walk up to Barney Greengrass for its marvelously oily, feather-thin lox. There, they serve it with all the fixings and on a bagel from…H&H.
The bakery’s Upper West Side outlet, however, makes you scramble all over the city to do that. Yes, they have cream cheese and a few fishy spreads, but it’s clearly an afterthought: you have to buy it in large tuperware bins that will last you at least a week, probably more. And critically, there’s no lox to speak of (or at least not of any note). These days we eat bagels differently–more of them, but also on the fly, in a sandwich, often for a workday lunch. The Upper West Side branch blithely refused to recognize this fact, and that was its demise.
For those who see in the closing of the Upper West Side ominous signs of a changing, quickly-yuppiefying neighborhood, they’re right. That’s exactly what’s happening. But that’s been happening for years. More important, I sense that, at least among the Jewish writers sitting shivah this week, their grief is mistaken. The Upper West Side is still very Jewish–just now those Jews are wealthier. Barney Greengrass is doing just fine, though it will set you back quite a bit. By my estimate, it’s about twice as much for a bagel and lox there than at any old deli that will do the same service, though it’s worth it.
And there’s a new joint I’ve found that does the trick just fine too, and it’s very Jewish. It’s called Bagels & Co. on 79th and Amsterdam, and its run by Orthodox Jews. I have my issues with it–strictly kosher means it’s closed on Saturdays, and, when I’m in need of switch from all those omega-3s, alas, there’s no meat. Fish, dairy and bread: that’s it.
But at least at Bagels & Co. they toast a half-decent bagel. And certainly they have a bounty of cream cheeses to choose from. Critically, there are precious cuts of thin cured salmon too, every inch of them speaking truth. What’s more, the servers there are happy to serve me–very much unlike the arrogant H&H crew. At that now defunt joint, you were expected to bow at their cheap linoleum alter, and make the rest of the bagel yourself.
Schadenfreude? You bet.