I shouldn’t have been surprised that my incredibly disappointing meal was brunch. I had gotten a reservation at a place that 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 “coming back” after a slow exit from the pandemic lockdown, who was I to skip it?
The outdoor terrace was packed with families, 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 normally served at this restaurant (French toast, omelettes, a Monte Cristo sandwich) and poorly thought out combinations of seafood and eggs.
The food was terrible, but as I walked back to the subway, I wanted to chalk it up to fluke. Brunch isn’t his real menu, I told myself, so I had no right to judge. It didn’t take me long to realize how absurd that warning was. They were serving me brunch, I was allowed to judge them at brunch. And the biggest question I had was, why the hell was this place serving brunch?
It has long been established that chefs hate brunch. Anthony Bourdain criticized this, the New York Times said it was for idiots, and all the fictional cooks complained about it on Bear. And yet, many restaurants that don’t typically offer breakfast service call in their staff on weekend mornings to whip up hollandaise sauce and mix up Bloody Marys, because it seems no matter what, diners dutifully show up.
I am someone who should love brunch. I love traditional breakfast foods, sparkling wine, and long meals with friends. But I’ve lost count of how many disappointing meals I’ve had at lauded restaurants, where last night’s dinner’s creative dishes give way to lukewarm fries and serviceable waffles. For both the restaurant and the customer, weekend brunch has become both a requirement and an afterthought. It’s time for brunch as we know it to die.
For those who do, brunch is a combination of frustrating and uninspiring work. Jeff Hester, who has worked in the food industry for more than a decade in San Francisco and Chicago, says that while dine-in service came and went during their shifts, allowing for natural rest periods, “brunch was intense pressure for a specified time.” It also tended to come with fewer tips, as brunch entrees were generally cheaper than dinner entrees.
Holly Rowland, who has worked as a chef since the 1990s, says one problem is that many brunch restaurants don’t offer regular breakfast or lunch service during the week. “For the back of the house, this is a huge key in your week,” she says, “because you’re not making this meal yet.” That means the cooks have to redo all their stations on Sunday morning, after working the night before.
It’s obvious why restaurants that typically focused on dine-in service offer weekend brunches: Eggs and dough are cheap (at least in most economic climates), some groups find it easier to go out on weekends during the day and the bottomless mimosas. they are an easy way to earn money. Hester says some places he worked saw it as a necessary and easy way to generate income: if you believe it, they’ll eat. But the paint-by-numbers simplicity that makes brunch work financially for a restaurant is also what makes it horrible for both chefs and many customers.
While there are plenty of restaurants that spend time and effort making breakfast all week long, there are plenty more that churn out the same Benedicts, pancakes, and pitchers of mimosas without much care. “When I worked in different restaurants and we did brunch, it was always brutal,” says Eric Rivera of Addo restaurant, who is now on tour. Disappointment for him came even from lauded creative restaurants that resorted to serving the same bacon and egg dishes as everywhere else, so when customers snagged a table for brunch, they were easily disappointed. “You’re like, ‘Hey, I can get this at Denny’s. Why the hell am I coming here?’”
Those who are already critics 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 well. Rivera points out that at brunch it is easier to make a larger reservation and easier to get a reservation window, in a trendy restaurant Brunch can also be more kid-friendly and is generally cheaper.
But the combination of stressed-out workers and unimaginative menus means there’s a ceiling on how good brunch will be for anyone. “People who go out for lunch generally tend to want the same things,” Rowland says, noting that over the decades he’s worked, the menus have never changed. But for those who care a bit more about food, it’s a disappointment. There is no room for creativity. Most of the time, it’s just a bad restaurant experience. Rowland says that at his 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 wealthy to circumvent Prohibition laws, as mimosas and bloody maries allowed alcohol to be consumed 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 hangouts of the cool and edgy. fashion. “I swear to God it’s sex and the city. This is just my theory,” Rowland says of how brunch became like this, and also why people put up with such mediocre food. The point is not the brunch itself, but to be at the brunch.
The idea of a long, drawn-out meal at midday is still quite rare in American society. We are not a country of naps. It’s through this lens that putting up with sweaty eggs and soggy bacon makes sense: it’s either that or nothing. Maybe we don’t want brunch so much as we want to feel calm, like spending three hours in the middle of the day getting drunk and gossiping won’t cost us anything. We want to feel like we have time to spare.
I’d like to think there’s a better way to do it than the one we have now. You can stick to waffles at any good restaurant, usually without standing in line. There are more restaurants, bakeries, and pop-ups dedicated solely to breakfast and lunch, where workers haven’t clocked in that morning after leaving their last shift at 2 a.m.
Just because brunch at many full-service restaurants has been boring doesn’t mean it should stay that way. I had a wonderful brunch recently, where the menu didn’t feel artificially added, but rather a thoughtful extension of what was served for dinner the rest of the week. Service was relaxed, reservations were easy to come by, and as I sipped coffee and the last few bites of a warm lentil salad with friends, I was reminded that this is what a weekend could be like. I could relax, have fun and nurture myself. And he didn’t have to accept a sad Dutch to do it.