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Brunch Tales
By B.A. Nilsson

“For it’s Sunday morning breakfast time,

The time all men adore!

Why don’t the poets go into rhyme

And rave about it more?”

—Cole Porter

Sunday brunch gets a bad rap in chef Anthony Bourdain’s hilariously revealing book Kitchen Confidential, in which he no doubt correctly notes that it can turn into a dumping ground for unsold Friday and Saturday specials. I think, however, that it has earned a certain amount of scorn from those in the business because it requires you to rise early, and work after putting in a punishing shift Saturday night. And no restaurant worker I ever knew just went home to bed after closing on Saturday.

The origins of brunch as a restaurant meal continue to elude me, but the so American-seeming word itself is actually a Britishism. As an article in an 1895 issue of the British humor magazine Punch noted, “To be fashionable nowadays we must ‘brunch.’ Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct Hunter’s Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch.”

Back in 1935, when Cole Porter celebrated it, the word “brunch” had yet to make its way into common American parlance. According to H.L. Mencken, “Brunch, designating a combination of breakfast and lunch, eaten around noon, appeared in England about 1900, but it was thirty years later before it began to make any headway on this side of the water. On April 10, 1941, the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York was advertising a ‘Sunday strollers’ brunch, $1 per person, served from 11 AM to 3 PM’ in the Villager.”

My whimsical belief is that brunch was invented to showcase a single entrée: eggs Benedict. There are many felicitous food combinations, but eggs Benedict is one of the few truly perfect assemblies.

The most credible origin story credits a Wall Streeter named Lemuel Benedict with inventing the dish in 1894 at the Waldorf Hotel, in a quest to quell the ill-effects of a party the night before. He asked for “some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs, and a hooker of hollandaise sauce,” so impressing the Waldorf’s maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, that he reworked the dish slightly and put it on the menu. (The creative Tschirky also is credited as the source of Thousand Island dressing, Waldorf salad and veal Oscar.)

Another story suggests that the dish originated at Delmonico’s in 1893 when Mrs. LeGrand Benedict enlisted the help of that restaurant’s maître d’ to come up with a new breakfast item.

In any event, the combo of English muffin, Canadian bacon, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce not only is unbeatably rich but also does seem to chase those morning-after blahs away. Especially when conjoined with the therapeutic power of a Bloody Mary.

Should the dining public be more grateful? This was the question I always asked when, somewhat bleary myself, I faced the brunch-hungry horde of a Sunday.

In most restaurants, meal items are priced based on two considerations: food costs and exclusivity. Some restaurants use a simple food-cost multiplier to calculate entrée fees, but there’s also a need to determine the proper clientele. The whiner who agonizes over the Country Buffet price won’t be happy forking over $21.99 for a peppered lamb loin with Asiago polenta. But brunch gives the proletariat access to fancy restaurants.

The reasoning, if there is any, could be that it’s a lower-cost opportunity to sample a restaurant’s fare—although the menu usually is quite different. Unfortunately, as the Entertainment Book coupons have proven, those who get a discount tend to return only when another discount is offered. (This I have witnessed both as a waiter and a chef.)

Because it was called the Horse and Hound, the restaurant where I worked in South Salem, N.Y., was brunch-visited regularly by members of the Westchester County Hunt Club. You think hunt club and you think Grande Olde England; you think of refinement and of pinkies crooked whilst sipping tea. You think incorrectly.

This boorish aggregation descended in a flurry of shrieks and ugly clothing. Food that was praised in the other dining room was damned by the hunters, whose chaos infected the whole restaurant and spoiled the experience for the others, even though we seated them as far away as possible.

For the chef, it was a madhouse—with or without the Hunt Club in attendance. From 11 to 3 he sent out a nonstop stream of eggs and meats and sandwiches and such. And we had to keep a buffet table of salads and breads looking plump and neat. By 4 PM, as the last of the latecomers finished coffee, we staggered like the war wounded.

Which made it a relief to go into a kitchen where I shared line duties with two or three others. Brunch at the Elms Inn in nearby Ridgefield was, on the whole, an easier-to-manage affair. A full complement of waiters worked the floor, and the customers usually were regular visitors.

But there’d be frequent visits from “snowflakes,” as Frank, one of the waiters, termed them. “Put a money-off coupon in the paper,” he said, “and they fall on the restaurant like snowflakes.”

He had the misfortune to wait on six such one Sunday, a group whose first-ever visit to the restaurant was a screaming misery. Nothing was right, as far as they were concerned, and they left no tip on their way out.

They arrived in two cars; they piled into one to take a tour of the scenic area. As I returned to work the dinner shift, I saw that the party had returned and was supervising the towing-away of the car they’d left behind. For some strange reason, it wouldn’t start.

Metroland restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experience may differ.

Food Rating Key: ***** An exciting, fulfilling experience; the food and service are everything they set out to be. Brillat-Savarin would be proud. **** Way up there with really good food, definitely worth your dining dollar. Julia Child would be proud. *** Average, with hints of excitement. Your mother would be pleased. ** A dining-out bogey; food probably isn’t the first priority. Colonel Sanders would be disappointed. * K-rations posing as comestibles. Your dog would be disgusted.

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