I shouldn’t have been surprised that my incredibly disappointing meal was brunch. I had gotten a reservation at a place some local papers had said was one of the best new additions to the neighborhood, maybe to that city, but the only time that worked for my schedule was brunch. And with brunch potentially “being back” after a slow emergence from pandemic lockdown, who was I to skip it?
The outdoor terrace was bustling with families and dates and groups of friends catching up over pitchers of mimosas, but one look at the menu and I was apprehensive. It seemed like a combination of brunch staples that had nothing to do with the Latin American seafood this restaurant normally served — French toast, omelets, a Monte Cristo sandwich — and poorly thought-out combinations of seafood and eggs.
The meal was terrible, but as I walked back to the metro, I wanted to chalk it up to a fluke. Brunch isn’t their real menu, I argued to myself, so I had no right to judge. It didn’t take me long to realize what an absurd caveat that was. They were serving me brunch, I was allowed to judge them on brunch. And the biggest question I had was, why the hell was this place serving brunch at all?
It’s long been established that chefs hate brunch. Anthony Bourdain railed against it, the New York Times said it was for jerks, and all the fictional cooks groaned about it on The Bear. And yet many restaurants that do not usually offer a breakfast service call their staff in on weekend mornings to whip hollandaise and mix bloody marys, because it seems like no matter what, diners dutifully show up.
I am someone who should love brunch. I love foods traditionally served at breakfast, sparkling wine, and lingering meals with friends. But I’ve lost track of how many disappointing meals I’ve had at otherwise lauded restaurants, where the previous night’s considered, creative dinner platings give way to lukewarm potatoes and serviceable waffles. On both the restaurant and the customer side, weekend brunch has become both a requirement and an afterthought. It’s time for brunch, as we know it, to die.
For those making it, brunch is a combination of work that’s both frustrating and uninspiring. Jeff Hester, who has worked in the food industry for over a decade in San Francisco and Chicago, says that while dinner service ebbed and flowed during his shifts, allowing for natural periods of rest, “brunch was an intense full-on press for a determined amount of time.” It also tended to come with fewer tips, as brunch entrees were on the whole cheaper than dinner entrees.
Holly Rowland, who has been working as a chef since the ’90s, says one of the issues is that many restaurants that offer brunch do not offer regular breakfast or lunch service during the week. “For back of the house, this is an enormous wrench in your week,” she says, “Because you’re not already making this food.” That means cooks have to redo their entire stations on Sunday morning, after they’ve most likely worked the previous night.
It’s obvious why restaurants that may have normally focused on dinner service throw in brunch on the weekends — eggs and batter are cheap (at least in most economic climates), some groups have an easier time going out on weekends during the day, and bottomless mimosas are an easy way to make money. Hester says a few places he worked saw it as a necessary and straightforward way to drive revenue — if you build it, they will brunch. But the paint-by-numbers simplicity that makes brunch work financially for a restaurant is also what makes it awful both for chefs and many customers.
While there are many restaurants that put time and effort into crafting breakfast all week long, there are many more churning out the same Benedicts, pancakes, and pitchers of mimosas without much care. “When I’ve worked in different restaurants and we did brunch, it was always brutal,” says Eric Rivera of now-touring restaurant Addo. The disappointment for him came from even lauded, creative restaurants resorting to serving the same egg and bacon platters as everywhere else, so when customers snagged a brunch table, they were easily disappointed. “You’re like, ‘Hey, I can get this at the Denny’s. Why the fuck am I coming here?’”
Those already critical of brunch note that things like eggs, bacon, and pancakes are relatively easy to make at home, and while I agree, we can all understand that dining out is about more than just eating good food. Rivera notes that at brunch it’s both easier to make a larger reservation, and easier to get a reservation period, at a trendy restaurant. Brunch can also be more friendly for kids, and on the whole, it’s cheaper.
But the combination of stressed workers and unimaginative menus means there’s a ceiling on just how good brunch is going to be for anyone. “People who go out for brunch generally tend to want the same things,” says Rowland, and notes that over the decades she’s worked, the menus have never changed. But for those who care a little more about the food, it’s a letdown. There’s no room for creativity. More often than not, it’s just a bad restaurant experience. Rowland says that at her last job, the kitchen staff refused to do brunch even when management tried to implement it, knowing it wouldn’t be a good time for anyone.
Brunch has its history as a post-church cooldown, a Mother’s Day celebration, and a way for the rich to flout Prohibition laws, as mimosas and bloody marys allowed for the consumption of booze with a little more discretion. But in the 1980s brunch began to spread from elite hotels and homes to restaurants across the country, and by the 1990s it became synonymous with the weekend plans of fashionable, cool people. “I swear to God it’s Sex and the City. This is only my theory,” says Rowland as to how brunch became such a thing, and also why people put up with such a mediocre meal. The point is not the brunch itself, but being at brunch.
The idea of a long, lingering, midday meal is still pretty alien in American society. We are not a country of siestas. It’s through this lens that putting up with sweaty eggs and soggy bacon makes sense — it’s that or nothing. We perhaps do not want brunch so much as we want to feel leisurely, like devoting three hours in the middle of the day to get tipsy and gossip will not cost us anything. We want to feel like we have time to spare.
I’d like to think there’s a better way of doing that than what we have now. You can linger over waffles at any good diner, usually without the lines. There are more restaurants, bakeries and pop-ups devoted solely to breakfast and lunch, where workers have not clocked in that morning after just leaving their last shift at 2 a.m.
Just because brunch at many full-service restaurants has been boring doesn’t mean it has to remain so. I had a wonderful brunch recently, where the menu didn’t feel artificially tacked on, but a thoughtful extension of what was served for dinner the rest of the week. The service was relaxed, the reservation easy to come by, and as I lingered over coffee and the last bites of a warm lentil salad with friends, I remembered this is what a weekend could be like. I could unwind, enjoy myself, and be nourished. And didn’t have to accept a sad hollandaise to do so.