Rejoice: We’re currently in the third golden age of Seattle bagels.
First, there was the ’90s bagel boom that saw places like Bernie’s, Noah’s, and Bruegger’s come and go. Then the 2010s expansion of local shops brought us Eltana, Westman’s, Rubinstein’s, and Zylberschtein’s. Now we’re seeing the arrival of post-pandemic bakers elevating the region’s bagel bona fides (Old Salt at Manolin, the pop-up Aaron’s Bagels, Tacoma’s Howdy Bagel).
Through every era, every shop closure, and every hype cycle, Bagel Oasis has endured. It’s been in Ravenna since 1988, when it really was an oasis — a fertile place of sustenance and respite in a desert devoid of bagels, or anything else.
“In 1988 in Seattle, there was nothing here,” says owner Peter Ryan. “You could pretty much roll a bowling ball down 25th Avenue and not hit anybody in the middle of the day.”
Bagel Oasis has stayed around not by chasing the ever-evolving trends of the industry or demands of social media-focused foodies, but by keeping things simple and staying close to Ryan’s East Coast roots.
“I used to go to a school in Long Island where it seemed like every day when we got out they would be pulling salt bagels out of the oven and we would always go there for an after-school snack. Get a salt bagel, a Coke, for maybe 25 to 30 cents,” says Ryan. “Because the bagels were a nickel. They were $0.35 when I opened.”
Ryan’s story isn’t dissimilar from those of many of the region’s recent bagel startups, which have often been founded by techies or office workers looking for a second career. After attending business school, Ryan worked a nine-to-five in New York City that paid the bills but left him unfulfilled. “You go to business school, you come out of business school, you got this job, they’re paying you okay, but you’re working like a maniac, and you’re not happy,” Ryan says.
His brother Ken Ryan, who opened the Bagelry in Bellingham in 1984, urged him to make his way west and do the same. While his original plan was to open a bagel shop in Olympia, Ryan was swayed by the untapped potential he found in Seattle. After finding space in the old Schumacher’s Bakery on 65th Street, he set out to become the go-to bagel spot for University of Washington students.
Seattle changed, as Seattle is wont to do. Bagel Oasis tried to change with it. Ryan opened a Fremont store in 1992 and a downtown store in 1994 that shared space with a Starbucks. Neither location stood the test of time. The downtown store was incredibly busy but incredibly unprofitable (“We would do about 1,000 tickets a day but everybody was buying one bagel at a time,” Ryan says). That, coupled with a lease violation related to his briefly selling 80 percent of the company to outside investors in 1996, led to the store’s closure in 1997. Meanwhile, as Fremont became yuppified and condofied, Ryan saw the writing on the wall (“Fremont wasn’t that art community it was in the early 90s anymore. Everything changes”). He sold the location to Roxy’s Diner in 2002.
Back to the one location in Ravenna, Bagel Oasis settled into the 21st century by keeping itself firmly rooted in the century that came before. The interior is the closest you’ll get in Seattle to feeling like you’re in a New York bagel shop, where you’re greeted by baskets of piping-hot bagels fresh out of the oven.
“My thing with the baskets… I wanted there to be a little theater, a little show,” says Ryan. “I think it’s kind of cool when you come in on a busy day and the baker is going back and forth with bagels, throwing them out there and people are buying them like they’re at the stock market.”
The menu sticks to the classic bagel flavors, schmears, and sandwiches. They’re also one of the few Seattle spots where you can get an authentic bialy, something Ryan prides himself on.
“My opinion is if you’re a bagel shop and you don’t do bialys, you’re not a bagel shop,” he says.
Ultimately, a bagel place’s success comes down to the bagels. Bagel Oasis’s offerings have a crispy, blistered exterior, coupled with a pillowy interior that provides the kind of textural balance traditionalists are always looking for. The flavorful schmears complement the bagels and stay put while you chew instead of getting goopy.
Despite its history — and its bagels — Bagel Oasis doesn’t always get its due in articles about Seattle’s booming bagel scene, and Ryan has noticed.
“Any list that doesn’t have Bagel Oasis on it isn’t a list,” says Ryan. “I don’t like seeing those articles. I mean, these people have been around for about 30 minutes. I’ve been around for over 30 years. I find it slightly disrespectful, but I live with it.”
Whether they make a particular list or not, the company is still thriving. It’s selling around 100 dozen bagels a day, and if you ask any bagel aficionado in Seattle, especially those who have lived here a while, chances are you’ll hear them sing the praises of Bagel Oasis.
“I remember watching Anthony Bourdain, one of his shows where he walked in the kitchen. He’s like, alright, show us your scars. We all have them,” says Ryan. “This is where misfits kind of go to be family. You’ll always find the most genuine, real people in restaurants.”