5 Places to Try for the Best Bagels in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh bagels – they’re not just duds donuts more. OK, bagels have always been awesome, when done right. (Source: NYC, Montreal). But Pittsburgh has long been an arid wasteland for bagels.
Of course, New Yorkers have often argued that real bagels cannot exist outside of the five boroughs and that any attempt in a bagel backwater like Pittsburgh is doomed. And you know what? Maybe they are right. (New Yorkers will pay $4,000 a month to live with six roommates, half of whom are rodents. Let them have their bagels.)
All I know is that those curious dough rings are starting to taste better in Pittsburgh, and we deserve to know why.
The bagel itself was created by the Jewish diaspora in Poland, probably as early as the 1600s. Today, they can be found everywhere, although they are especially popular in places with large Jewish populations.
Unfortunately, the most common bagels are probably frozen or packed with preservatives at the grocery store. It’s better than no bagels, but not by much. Until recently, it was pretty hard to find someone who was truly dedicated to the art of the bagel in Pittsburgh.
However, a few brave souls threw their own ring-shaped bread into, er, the ring. Yes, we have a long way to go to make eating bagels a competitive option for breakfast and lunch. But judging by the construction workers lined up at Gussy’s in Oakland, bagel time has finally arrived.
East this the bagel place that was foretold in song and story, that we’ve waited so long for? He is! The Pittsburghers to-do list got shorter in 2019 because we finally got a great local bagel shop in Squirrel Hill. Garlic Sea Salt, “Everything” and Seeded Marble are great places to start, but you really can’t go wrong.
Schmears goes beyond cream cheese to include figs and honey, hummus, jalapeño, and grassy vegan tofu. There are also bagels sandwiches with Acme Nova Lox (smoked Atlantic salmon) and or Vegan Carrot Lox. Get there as early as possible as they run out of stuff and there is often a queue outside the door.
Chef Scott Walton, formerly of the excellent Acorn in Shadyside, told me a few years ago that he was working on developing the perfect bagel – which ended up being a take-out project during the pandemic – and he seems to have cracked the code.
The result is Gussy’s name after Walton’s pal, former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte. Here, the dough is freshly prepared each morning and rises by natural fermentation. It contains no sugar or corn syrup, although it does add honey for a touch of sweetness. The dough rings are boiled, then baked in a 75 year old Italian oven. They come out delicious – with a dense, slightly chewy interior and a bit of crunch on the outside, so toasting is superfluous.
The store itself is in a tight, odd spot on Fifth Avenue that’s easy to miss (and it’s Oakland, so parking is tough).
To grill or not to grill? Bagel connoisseurs hate it…BUT the toast is definitely delicious. Of course, toasting changes the flavor and removes the characteristic chewiness of a bagel – making both bad and good bagels taste more or less the same. So when they asked me if I wanted my bagel sandwich toasted, I blurted out my first instinct, which was “Yes”. (Did I mention I love toast?)
So it’s not fair to this very clean and polished store in the new Arsenal apartment complex in Lawrenceville. Despite the name and decor, it’s not a chain, and apparently they get their bagels from New York, which means they’re not quite out of the oven. But their sandwiches are great and there are plenty of options – I’ve never considered putting hash browns, sausage and eggs on a bagel before, but I know exactly what lox, cheese to cream and capers are capable (size).
This curious small shipping container perched above the Allegheny River in Aspinwall is becoming one of Pittsburgh’s top vegetarian restaurants. Pretty much everything is sourced locally (some is grown on owner Jen Urich’s farm).
But for our purposes, it’s the bagels here that are exceptional, and the organic grain bagel sandwiches are pretty much the ultimate. The Veggie Beast offers all the fresh, roasted or pickled vegetables they can find (trust them). The Vegan BLT includes pickled green tomatoes, greens, aioli, and “sweet potato bacon.”
The menu is always short, but everything is worth trying (bagel or other). They also manufacture some of our favorite sandwiches in town.
It was the only real game in town for a long time if you wanted fresh bagels – so kudos to them for keeping the bagel dream alive. They’re still pretty good, in a pinch. Again I go for their bagel sandwiches (did I mention I love sandwiches?) – Bagel Nova Lox with cream cheese and capers, and a liter of matzo ball soup to go. Bonus: they have chocolate Babka!