Mister Bagel himself, ca. 1970s (Photo/misterbagel.com)
Mister Bagel himself, ca. 1970s (Photo/misterbagel.com)

Escaping NYC for more space in Maine — and the best bagel ever

When I was a child, I knew where to find the world’s best bagel: at Mister Bagel, in Portland, Maine.

When my parents brought me into the delicious-smelling shop that was a short walk from our home, we were greeted by Mister Bagel himself, a friendly man who knew my name and my favorite order: a pizza bagel.

I knew he was Mister Bagel because he looked like the goofy ’70s-style cartoon baker emblazoned on the outside of the store, with a mustache, glasses and big curly hair.

Mister Bagel, also known as Rick Hartglass, would go on to establish 11 outposts of his business in southern Maine, but the spot near our house was the original location. He was from Brooklyn, and when he started the business in 1977, his mission was to bring good New York bagels to Maine.

When I was 5, my family moved to Los Angeles and we bid Mister Bagel goodbye. It was 1986, and we got our bagel fix at I & Joy Bagels, a local chain. I & Joy bagels were just fantastic, with hard, crunchy exteriors encasing their doughy insides, and I could never abide L.A. bagels being held up as inferior to their New York cousins.

One of my favorite memories is my dad taking me and my sister to pick up bagels at I & Joy in Studio City one Mother’s Day. The line of men and kids stretched down the sidewalk as we all waited for our turn to enter the store. In 1995, I & Joy was bought out by New Jersey-based Manhattan Bagel, and I entered a bagel desert that would last some years.

In 2006, I moved to San Francisco, and slowly I began to find decent bagels again. First, it was Holey Bagel in Noe Valley, then Katz Bagels (RIP) in the Mission. The foodie explosion changed everything, and there were new great options from Wise Sons and Authentic Bagel Company (also RIP).

Now I live in New York, and while I’ve found good bagels, they’re similar in quality to the good bagels I’ve had in other cities. I know I ruffle feathers when I say that, but I also firmly attest that New York stands alone when it comes to the bagel-adjacent delicacy of smoked fish. I’ve never been able to get the quality and variety of lox, smoked whitefish and other mouth-watering appetizing foods that are available to me in New York.

But I’m taking a break right now from the New York lox that makes my knees weak.

Like everyone else, my life has changed drastically over the past month because of the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve come with my husband and two kids to stay with my aunt at her home in Portland, Maine, while we ride out this period of working from home, schooling from home and practicing social distancing.

It’s been a hard and uncertain time, but it’s meant so much for our kids to have a backyard to play in instead of being confined to our apartment.

Portland, Maine, was Bon Appetit’s restaurant city of the year in 2018, which means it’s changed quite a bit since I lived here as a child.

Even with restaurants closed, you can’t keep a foodie town down. We’ve gotten incredible ramen and so much pizza from restaurants doing curbside pickup and contact-free delivery. And we’ve had top-quality bagels from the new joints in town, Forage Market and Scratch Baking Co.

I’ve driven by the original Mister Bagel a handful of times since coming here and seen the cartoon Mister Bagel in his puffy baker’s hat with a tray full of bagels. And I took a long walk this week to see the home I lived in as a youngster.
It feels right to be back in the place of my birth during this time of cataclysmic upheaval.

Rick Hartglass, aka Mister Bagel, died 10 years ago. And the Mister Bagel location near us has been closed most of the time we’ve been here. However, they’ve just announced they’re going to be open for limited curbside pickup. I think it’s time to introduce my children to the pizza bagel.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.