At first, we weren't sure if we'd come to the right place. The Crowne Plaza looked abandoned from a distance, and a temporary construction office occupied the parking lot. As we soon discovered, the hotel is being renovated: We strolled down a hallway lined with plywood and exposed piping, then spotted a registration table, where we donned a name tag and set off to work the floor. Scanning the crowd, we were a bit disappointed to note that our fellow singles fell almost exclusively within the 38-to-70-year-old demographic. On a brighter note, we had the foresight to bring a date. The expo included all sorts of interesting groups: Solo Sierrans (eco-friendly singles), Meeting for Good (volunteer-minded singles), Equally Yoked (Christian singles), and the Golden Gate Tip Toppers (tall singles), whose hostess, Jill, stood an unapologetic 6 feet 5 inches in heels. It didn't take long to spot Gosse, a mustachioed, silver-tongued devil who claims to have hosted more than a thousand singles' parties over the past two decades. According to him, speed dating is the hottest thing since online personal ads. That, and Russians.
"A man can get a woman who's a lot younger, a lot slimmer, and a lot prettier if he imports her from Russia than if he tries to meet her here," Gosse said. "There are negatives associated with that as well as positives, but that's true of any way of meeting."
Intrigued, we strolled over to the table sponsored by Lifetime Partners, a company that specializes in women from the city of Tver, north of Moscow. "This particular place has a lot more women than men," explained Tver native Maya Quintarelli, herself a mail-order bride. Behind her, a video depicted women from Tver, where fashions apparently lean toward revealing tops, strappy shoes, and extremely short skirts. Some -- OK, most -- were gorgeous. "And the most important thing is that they're just as beautiful inside as outside," said Quintarelli.
Lifetime Partners was a hit among male eligibles, a handful of whom were ogling the video at any given time. Still, this is not to say international matchmaking has gained across-the-board social acceptance. As Gosse introduced Quintarelli, a wave of frowns swept the faces of female attendees, whose disgruntlement seemed justified. After all, where were the mail-order husbands? Where can they be imported from?
"Australia," suggested our date. --Greg Hugunin
"For a city that thinks so highly of its own culinary sophistication, how is it that you can't get even a slightly edible bagel?" So laments Jacqui, a New York transplant who's seriously unhappy. She's staring at her poppy bagel and cream cheese like the thing just slapped her. It's an unusually warm Sunday morning at Fillmore Street's Noah's Bagels, where the menu's sprinkled with schmaltzy New York/Jewish terminology: "toikey," "plotz," "shmear," "shlepper," and more than one "oy vey."
Jacqui's not buying it. She reminisces about bagels on the Upper East Side. "We'd wander into H&H Bagels on Broadway at like midnight and get everything fresh. Or we'd go to Katz's on Houston Street and get onion bagels with cream cheese, and they'd take burnt onions from the bottom of the bin and mash it into the cream cheese. Uccch! It was so good!"
We've never been much impressed with San Francisco bagels either, we lamely interject.
"They don't know what they're doing here. And what's with the flavors?" Jacqui continues. "Jalapeño, sun-dried tomato, Asiago cheese ... it's just not right!"
Suggesting she try the cracked peppercorn potato doesn't seem like a safe thing to do at the moment, so we leave our semihysterical friend to think this over. Maybe she's on to something. After all, she does say How-ston instead of Hew-ston. What is wrong with the bagels here, exactly? Could this be the unreported story of the year? Following the scent of Pulitzer, we begin to do some research.
Ruthlessly interrogating patrons at Noah's across the city, we come to a somewhat ambiguous conclusion: Nobody is outraged by San Francisco bagels. But no one's particularly impressed, either. Then: a eureka moment. It turns out we've been asking the wrong question. Upon further cross-examination, almost all Noah's patrons admit to never having eaten a New York bagel. Aha! They've got nothing to compare it to!
We call up our New York friend, launch a full-scale investigation, and discover the cardinal bagel secret, the thing that makes bagels different from other types of bread: They're boiled before they're baked. Thrown in a giant kettle of water, where they gurgle and float around like Cheerios in milk (warm milk, that is). Noah's skips this bothersome step by using a newfangled oven that steams the bagels instead. Thus, you don't get that soft-chewy-inside-with-hard-shiny-outside effect. A pleasant-tasting bread product, sure. But not a true bagel. At least, not our kind of bagel.
At this point, our investigation starts to bog down. It's unbearably hot, too many people are crammed in our compact car, and Jacqui's making us crazy. She's a veritable wealth of information, sure, but she never shuts up.
"You guys have to look into bialys! Jesus, you've never heard of bialys? They're ... I don't know how to describe it. Someone told me they're actually just bagel accidents. All I know is, they're good, and they don't have them here."
Bialys? How do we investigate this alleged bagel cousin, or even verify its existence? No matter. Jacqui's on to coffee now:
"What I really miss is the 'New York breakfast special.' Every place has it. Bagel, cream cheese, and a regular coffee for like two bucks. I bet you don't even know what a 'regular' coffee is. Two sugars and whole milk. They don't have that here. Hell, do they even have whole milk here?"
Needless to say, we're forced to ditch Jacqui. After a nap and some ice pops from that cart-pushing guy in Dolores Park, we hit just about every bagel shop in town. Katz's, Levy's, Manhattan, the Bagelry, House of Bagels, Posh Bagels. We're pleased to find many of these places use the authentic boil method. But even so, something's still not right. Three sad conclusions emerge:
1) New York bagels are better.
2) Nobody knows why.
3) It might be the water.
The evidence is overwhelming. But don't take our word for it. See for yourself:
Melissa: "There's a difference, although I can't put my finger on it. West Coast bagels tend to be bigger, but ...." (Melissa ponders, staring off into the distance.) "They say it's the water. I don't know. And I don't like when they take Jewish culture and use it as a marketing tool."
Pete: "I actually used to bake bagels, and there's definitely a difference. It's something in the water. They're lacking something here. Probably the same thing that makes Californians not understand sarcasm."
Jordan: "New York bagels are better. I don't know why." (Jordan stares off into the distance, like everyone else does when trying to explain this.) "They just have a better taste. Here they feel cheap, like they skimped on something. I think it's got something to do with the water."
We're getting somewhere now, but like most investigations, this one has raised more questions than it's answered. The most beguiling, of course, being the thing with the water. Is this a hard vs. soft thing? Are Californians boiling their bagels in purified spring water? Hell, maybe it's even more complicated than that. One self-proclaimed bagel expert attributes it to a certain balance of atmospheric conditions, including humidity, dew point, and barometric pressure.
Anyway, the whys of it all will never be answered. Because this is where our editor put an end to it. His position could be summed up as follows: "Forget the atmospheric crap. Just tell us how to find a good bagel shop."
10 Ways to Identify a Good Bagel Shop
1) The bagels have a soft inside with a crisp, shiny outside.
2) The employees don't smile.
3) All patrons talk with their mouths full.
4) The bagels are hot, or at least warm.
5) The bottom of the bagel has cornmeal on it (a foolproof indication of the boil method).
6) The shop opens its doors 15 minutes early.
7) The reading material of choice is the New York Times.
8) The place looks like it should be condemned by the Health Department.
9) Banter with the staff always ends in a resigned, "Whaddyagonnado."
10) There are no signs that read "bagle."
If you find such a place in San Francisco, please let us know.