Although I am a writer who loves food, I am not a food writer, food critic, food snob, foodie, food connoisseur, or food fanatic, and for any or all of aforementioned reasons, many will decide that I have no business making the claim I am about to make, but I’m going to anyway: The best bagels in the world are in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sorry, New York. Sorry, Montreal. Sorry, bagels-the-internet-chowhounds-love-in-far-flung-cities-around-the-world, but it is a bagel south of the Mason-Dixon line that usurped my dough ball-sized heart in 1996 and stayed number one for the fifteen years that I called New York home and ate bagels at least twice a week. I did the math. That is well over 1,500 schmeared bagels consumed. I know them. I love them. I gaze into the hole in the center with a kind of affection usually reserved for my loved ones.
I will not list every establishment in New York where I have ever had a good bagel, because that would be a long list, but Terrace Bagel in Brooklyn is my preferred Brooklyn bagel, with an occasional detour for a Park Slope Bagel Hole bagel. In Manhattan, Murray’s are good, but H&H bagels (R.I.P.) was my favorite bagel on the island. H&H was also the first true New York bagel I ever ate and ever served. The coffee shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I worked when I was a junior in college imported par-baked frozen H&H bagels overnight and, for the year I worked there, I ate one nearly every shift. They were great. I have eaten Montreal’s Fairmont and St-Viateur and London’s Golder’s Green bagels and the beigels on Brick Lane. They are very good, but none of them are as good as Bodo’s.
Bodo’s Bagels are so beloved in Charlottesville, Virginia, that an April Fool's article claiming its third location had turned into a 24-hour operation went viral. I believed it. Even though it was a joke, I have no doubt that Charlotteville's 48,000 people would actually keep a Bodo's busy 24 hours a day. Bodo's is such an institution that my friends and I who no longer live in town talk about the elaborate detours we take to pass through to get our Bodo's fix every couple years. I have never made an elaborate detour for a Murray's bagel, even when I was living in the city. Perhaps because I had such amazing choices right in my Brooklyn neighborhood.
The Bodo’s bagel is not too big and not too small. It comes in ten flavors: plain, sesame, poppy, onion, everything, garlic, salt, 100% whole wheat (a real feat of bagel-baking magic, as most wheat bagels are far from completely whole wheat), cinnamon-raisin, and whole-wheat everything. It is New York style and boiled before it’s baked. It is perfectly toothsome and not too chewy.
The bagel sandwiches are delicious. There is a long list of meats, tuna and egg salads, and vegetarian options, and an à la carte list of sandwich toppings so you can build your own bagel dreamwich. Mostly, though, when I’m at Bodo’s I treat myself to one plain bagel with plain cream cheese or a wheat bagel with honey and pecan cream cheese because I can’t get that cream cheese anywhere else in the world and it is both Southern and of New York at the same time, which is what I am, too.
On the cream cheese front, Bodo’s is more daring. In addition to plain and Neufchatel there is herb, jalapeño lime, walnut raisin, olive, honey pecan, blueberry, vegetable, and strawberry. They will make you an egg-and-cheese bagel at any time of day and it is a perfect egg-and-cheese bagel. The bagels cost 80¢ apiece, or 70¢ if you buy a dozen or more.
Perhaps none of this sounds all that out-of-the ordinary for a very good bagel. What takes their excellent bagels to best in the world? Perhaps it is the logical and Zen-like yet somehow expeditious pace at which the staff carefully and methodologically assembles your order. Bodo’s has the layout of a fast-food restaurant, but without any of the chaos behind the counter. I have no doubt that corporate spies have been sent in to watch and learn from the peaceful flow of their rapid assembly line. But no, that’s not enough—it’s back to the bagel. The bagel could be sold in a dive and I would still believe it’s the best in the world.
What else do I have to tell you to believe me? That I have known New Yorkers who have brought Bodo’s home to New York in bulk and sliced them open and wrapped each sliced side individually to protect from freezer burn instead of going for fresh at their local bakery? That I have known New Yorkers who have asked Virginian relatives to bring them Bodo’s when they visit? That I have done both and so have other people I know?
What else might you want to know? That Bodo’s was founded and owned by a guy name Brian Fox, whom no one seems to know anything about? That one storefront sat empty for ten years with a “coming soon” sign on the window, because he was waiting to resolve a contentious divorce before opening? It was a relief to find that the quality stayed the same after Fox sold each location as franchises in 2007, and now the respective managers co-own all three locations.
Bodo’s is mysterious. I like it that way. I don’t know how the bagels came to be in Virginia. I don’t know how Bodo’s founder perfected his unique organizational system for running a restaurant. And I don’t exactly know why the bagels are so damn good. But I do know that the Montreal vs. New York binary of bagels is so, so wrong. The best bagels in the world are in Charlottesville.