The scene: In most parts of the world, what masquerades as a bagel is not really a bagel, it’s just bread made into a ring shape — a roll with a hole. Despite the proliferation of regional specialties, with great examples of barbecue, various kinds of pizza, and Buffalo-style wings in every corner of the nation, it remains virtually impossible to get a great bagel outside of New York or Montreal. There is no doubt that these two cities are the pinnacles of bagel culture, but while New York is much more globally famous for its bagels, there is a legitimate argument that Montreal makes the best. But even if you rank it second, that’s still pretty awesome in a world full of bagels.
Food historians have traced the invention of the Montreal bagel to a trio of bakers who sold from a horse-drawn cart and eventually parted ways, only to end up founding the city’s two most venerated bagel shops, both still in business today. The most iconic is Bagels St. Viateur, which currently has six branches, with the original 24/7 flagship on St. Viateur Street in the now trendy and food-rich Mile End neighborhood. The walls here are plastered with decades of articles, awards, and even comic strips touting the bagels. Half the locations are just pure bagel stores, with the cooking process in plain view, while the other three are cafes with extensive menus of bagel sandwiches and Jewish deli-inspired salads. They even have a bagel food truck and online store with shipping to the U.S. and Canada.
Arch-competitor Fairmount Bagel is located in the same neighborhood on its own eponymous street, Fairmount Avenue, and also open 24/7. While Fairmount has just one store, its bagels are widely sold at coffee shops and supermarkets throughout Quebec. A NASA astronaut, Montreal-born Gregory Chamitoff, is said to have carried a bag of Fairmount bagels to the International Space Station. Newcomer O’Bagel opened at the now hot Jean Talon market, a bustling foodie epicenter, and joins the pantheon with a first-class take on traditional Montreal-style bagels in a popular tourist location.
Many cafes and restaurants throughout the city that serve bagels also use one of these spots and list it on their menus — the Ritz-Carlton hotel proudly serves St. Viateur bagels at its lavish brunch buffet, while the popular Second Cup café chain uses Fairmount. The trend has even spread to New York City, which recently got its first Montreal-style bakery, Black Seed Bagels, with three downtown Manhattan locations and the tagline “MLT to NYC.”
Reason to visit: Bagels
The food: Real bagels are boiled before baking, the vital step that separates them from other types of rolls and breads. But outside of New York and Montreal this crucial step is largely omitted. New York bagels are boiled in water with malt, then baked in traditional ovens, and the result is a signature shiny crust with a bit of crispness encasing a lighter, air-hole-filled interior. Authentic Montreal bagels are boiled in water with honey, and as a result are sweeter, but the bigger difference is that they are cooked in wood-fired ovens, which gives them a crunchier crust, and a deeper, richer crust flavor. All the Montreal shops use long, thin wooden paddles (“peels”) to remove the bagels from the ovens, then dump them into gravity-fed chutes where they slide to the bottom.
Montreal bagels have a much bigger hole, mainly as result of the dough tube that forms the bagel being notably thinner than New York-style (and positively svelte compared to those fat almost hole-less supermarket bagels). An old article in the Montreal Gazette compared local bagels to the New York version sold at the famous but now defunct H&H Bagels and concluded that the Montreal version weighed half as much. But they are not small by any means, and in general the overall diameter is larger than other bagels, it’s just that they are flatter and less dense. For this reason while Montreal bagels are excellent on their own or with spreads, they don’t make for as user-friendly a sandwich, given the large hole. This is especially true with messier breakfast sandwiches. I think that purely as a bagel, the best Montreal versions taste better than their top-tier New York counterparts (which I grew up on). The dough itself tastes richer, and the dichotomy between an even crunchier exterior and even lighter interior is much more pronounced.
In general, Montreal shops do fewer flavors than are found across the U.S., but often some odder ones. The standards are similar: plain, sesame, poppy, cinnamon raisin, whole wheat, and everything — except they call this version “all dressed.” But St. Viateur also has flax and rosemary with sea salt. Fairmount offers caraway seed, Mueslix, and chocolate chip versions, and oddities such as a “sweet bagel,” which is a hard crunchy ring similar to biscotti, and “Matzah breads,” which are fresh-baked flat breads in various flavors.
Montrealers have strong and divided opinions on which of its bagels are the best, but in a straight-up comparison of sesame and plain, all fresh and warm from each shop, I found St. Viateur to be superior to Fairmount, with a better texture and more pronounced contrast of crust and interior.
What regulars say: “Montrealers go to one of these stores when they want bagels, they do not buy them in advance. They are always better fresh and hot and they make them around the clock,” said Anne Marie, a partner in Spade & Palacio Food Tours, a company offering Montreal culinary strolls.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, for bagel lovers — these are arguably the best in the world, and devotees have them shipped internationally and even into space.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Original Bagels St. Viateur, 263 St. Viateur O., 514-276-8044, stviateurbagel.com; Fairmount Bagels, 74 Fairmount O., 514-272-0667, fairmountbagel.com; O’Bagel, Jean Talon Market, 514-506-3100.
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an email at email@example.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.