Earning a good reputation in London isn’t easy—especially when it comes to food. The city has eight-and-a-half million hungry residents, many of whom are always on the look-out for newest trends and hotspots. Their options are in abundance, so food outlets are in constant, fierce competition to serve up novel creations, keep menus unexpected, and the ambiance Instagram-worthy. But there are two food shops flouting these rules. They’ve had the same menu for decades, and offer little more than a clean counter and bright lights. They both happen to have one speciality; the same speciality, in fact. And they exist two doors apart from each other.
Both the Beigel Shop and Beigel Bake—"beigel" is pronounced "bye-gul," by the way—are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They sit four doors apart on Brick Lane in East London. The two shops, referred to by locals as "the white one" and "the yellow one," are known for having the best bagels in London—although the question of which one is better remains unanswered.
The story starts back 1978, when Sammy and Asher Cohen, who operated a wholesale bakery out of 155 Brick Lane, moved a few doors down to 159 Brick Lane and opened Beigel Bake—and the buyers of 155 kept the shop as a bagel bakery.
Nathan Cohen is son and nephew of Beigel Bake’s founders. He greets me with a high five and a strong cup of tea. He politely continues working as he assures me there’s no rivalry between the two shops.
“It’s friendly competition. Whenever we run out of stock we need something we’ll go there, and they ask us, too, so we’ve got a good relationship with them,” he says.
The bagels, which consist of flour, malt, sugar, salt and yeast, are made in batches and rolled through a machine. The whole process—soaking the bagels in boiling water before baking them—takes about two-and-a-half hours, and roughly two thousand bagels are baked every day. The method originated from Jewish people who fled Eastern Europe in the 1800s, Cohen says.
“We used to do it by hand but we’ve gotten lazy over the last few years,” Cohen jokes. I ask how long they’re baked for. “Twenty-two-and-a-half minutes,” the head baker tells me, poking his head out of the kitchen and inviting me in to see for myself.
Historically, smoked salmon and cream cheese is the most popular filling, but salt beef has been catching up in recent years, Cohen tells me.
“The menu has evolved over the years, but the foundations have always been the same since, with a few additions here and there. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
I ask Cohen how the shop has survived when many have failed around him.
“We have nothing to hide; we have no doors in here. We’re an old-fashioned, family-run business that tries to keep prices reasonable, which is something people appreciate. Price is always going to increase; but we’re not too worried.”
Cohen tells me he’s seen changes in customers over the years. “It used to be a predominantly Jewish area, but they’ve slowly moved out to other areas, like North London, and other people are moving in. The Bangladeshi community moved in, and now they’re slowly moving further away,” Cohen says.
It’s 10 a.m., and three of Beigel Bake’s regulars sit in the corner of the shop opposite the counter, wearing overalls. They work across the road as caretakers for environmental services.
They come here every day—even weekends sometimes—but they don’t want to give me their names in case their boss finds out where they’re hiding. One tells me between bites of his apple strudel—he’s usually a cheese and tomato bagel man—that he’s been coming to the shop his whole life.
“We used to come here as kids and prank our friend. We’d send him in to buy bacon or ham bagels, because he was new to the area and didn’t know it’s Jewish.”
He says Beigel Bake is a “staple” part of his life.
“It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve never been in other bagel shop. This place treats every customer with respect, and the staff are amazing. They’re so polite it’s unreal.”
His colleague pipes up to tell me he went to the other shop once, but hated it.
“It’s like a family in here,” apple strudel man tells me. “If I’m off work I pine for the place, and I want to come in and see the girls,” he tells me as his colleague rolls cigarettes on the counter.
Linda is one of the girls he’s referring to. With a thick Cockney accent, she ushers me behind the counter and tells me she’s been connected to the shop for a very long time.
“I was born upstairs. This was a kosher butcher before; my mum used to pluck the chickens upstairs. Did Nathan tell you about the stars we’ve had here? We had The Fonz, Mariah Carey and Beyonce.”
Next door at the Beigel Shop, Hayley White, daughter and niece of the current owners, tells me her shop produces at least 7,000 bagels a day. “The menu is pretty much the same as it’s always been,” White says. “I think that's what people like.” The kitchen looks much like Beigel Bake’s—but no one invites me in.
But this shop has deviated slightly from tradition: last year it jumped on a trend from New York: rainbow-colored bagels. This might be partially why, among the crowd of taxi drivers, White tells me the shop sees “a lot of hipster types.”
White says she isn’t worried about gentrification and rising prices, though—despite seeing the effects of it around her. “The coffee shop next door has closed so many times because they can’t afford to pay rent,” she says with a detached concern.
She says her customers mostly use the word “beigel” when ordering. “Especially cab drivers,” White says. “They get really defensive if they hear people say 'bagel,' and get into arguments.”
But rainbow bagels aside, White says she doesn’t feel pressure to be different to Beigel Bake. “This is just how it's always been. We wouldn't like it if the other bakery wasn't there—it just works. People think there’s a big rivalry when they look from the outside, but there isn’t.”
Although the urgency with which White asked me what Beigel Bake had said about her shop when I first arrived suggests she isn’t quite as confident as she sounds.
The Beigel Shop’s customers were less willing to speak to me. I asked one a regular of 50 years why he was loyal to this shop in particular, but his exasperation got a little too passionate and I took it as my cue to leave.
It’s clear from my visit that both shops offer a sanctuary of tradition and informality in an area where the old market stalls dwindle and old-timers can no longer pay rent. They serve as cheap and convenient pit stops for locals, but they’re also ironically novel enough to attract newcomers and younger generations.
And whether or not there’s a rivalry, I do know which shop I’ll return to. But I think I’ll keep that to myself.