Mike Varley says there’s no such thing as a perfect bagel. Still, he spent a year eating at 202 bagel stores in New York in order to find the one that came the closest.
"The bagels that take you on a journey are the ones that I enjoy the most," Varley, a 38-year-old resident of Bushwick, Brooklyn, told TODAY Food in an interview.
Varley documented his reviews on the website everythingiseverything.nyc, a nod to his go-to order (an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese) and to the philosophical nature of the endeavor.
On the website, the city map is overlaid with icons, each representing a bagel store. The icons are colored according to Varley’s rating system. The goldenrod is the bagel store that is "of note," and worth traveling to visit. The navy blue is reserved for the designation of "Best in Borough."
The resulting website centers the bagel as a mascot for New York: a carb concoction that exists, in its best form, only in the tristate area. For Varley, bagels are worth buying a plane or transit ticket for.
"It is worth coming to New York to try bagels, and I think using the list I put together will help you," Varley said. Eating and assessing bagels is a gateway to the New York experience, for Varley. "If you don’t like them, that’s totally cool. Part of the New York experience is disagreeing with people."
The project is actually nestled within an even more ambitious endeavor, entitled Project Total Clarity. Varley and his wife, artist Jessi Highet, challenged each other to walk five marathons a week over the course of a year, beginning in June 2020.
Varley figured he had to eat while racking up all those steps, and so began seeking out bagel stores on his route. Eventually, he started keeping notes and forged a system of grading.
To put the project together, Varley tried 150 stores over the course of a year, then fit in another 50 within the span of a month. "I was eating six plus bagels a day sometimes," Varley said. "That was way more difficult than walking all those miles."
Highet, who has a gluten intolerance, was unable to eat the bagels, but enjoyed helping her husband (they married on the last day of Project Total Clarity) during the process.
"I was asked to give him space while he was eating so he could really take it all in. After he ate the bagel, he would give me the rundown. it was fun. I haven't been able to eat bagels since I was 25. It was nice to live vicariously and hear all the little details," Highet said.
She said she could tell "the really good ones" and "the really bad ones" just by watching Varley. "They were a similar reaction. Taking a bite, pulling head head back and looking at the bagel quizzically: 'What is it about you that makes you so different than the others?'"
At first, Varley tried simply ranking bagels a 0-to-5 scale, then realized "that wouldn’t be sufficient."
Each bagel store is rated on three categories: The store, the cream cheese and the bagel itself. The granularity of Varley’s approach is evident in the Stats portion of the website, which maps out all the separate categories on X-Y graphs.
The metrics helped distinguish one pastry from another, as he admits that many of the bagels blurred together. "The good bagels were really special. They stood out as exceptional moments," Varley said. The ratings back up Varley’s instinct, breaking the idea of a "good bagel" down into specifics.
202 bagels later, Varley said he can now identify the components that make up a sublime bagel.
When he takes a bite, Varley is looking for three specific sensations: Crusty, doughy and chewy. For Varley, the "best" bagels have two of the three in one bite — crusty on the outside but doughy in the middle, for example. "The perfect bagel is one that incorporates several experiences into one sitting," he said.
For Varley, a bagel isn’t just a food — it’s a moment. That’s why the vibe of the store goes into the making of the experience.
"The store sets the table for everything," Varley said. Ideally, Varley said, you shouldn’t have to wait more than 30 seconds for a bagel, although some are worth the wait. He describes getting a bagel at a store as a "choreographed dance," when you share "positive energy between the person that’s giving it to you." He said, "You’re like, 'Damn, you did a great job.'"
And then, there’s the X-factor — the thing that elevates a bagel from a pastry to an experience or a nostalgia — and, according to Varley, that's you.
"Subjectively, the best bagel is the one you have an emotional attachment to," Varley said. Think: the bagel store next to your apartment when you first moved to the city, or the place where you used to meet your friends on Sunday morning.
Varley’s decision to choose P&C Bagels in Middle Village, Queens, as the best bagel in New York encapsulates that truth. Varley was taken with the store itself, with its sports memorabilia and vintage vibe. The bagels checked off all the right boxes: "Crusty on the outside, doughy on the inside," and still hot, indicating freshness.
And as he ate that bagel, Varley thought of his family and his own New York story. Both of his parents grew up within blocks of the store and he has family members. His late father is buried in a cemetery down the road.
"All of this came together while I was eating what was a fantastic bagel. I’m thinking about my dad and my family, and how one day I’ll come back with my brothers and sisters and go to his grave. All of that informed this experience. Good pastry: But incredible experience," Varley said.
Big picture, he said, Everything is Everything is a "commentary on criticism," which is inherently subjective.
But if there are any universal truths about bagels, then Varley got close to them after this experiment. He walked away with 10 rules about bagels, which he calls the "Ten Bagel Axioms," which can guide your own perfect bagel-seeking journey. A few of his insights? Don’t toast a bagel that is hot or fresh, because "toasting raises the floor of a bagel but lowers the ceiling."
Another: "At their peak, bagels are the barbecue of breakfast: heavy, savory and almost too messy to bear." Also: An "imperfectly shaped bagel" is better than a perfectly round one.
When in doubt, just remember Varley’s words: "If you can smell the bagels, you’re in the right place."