We Must Brunch

It’s Sunday morning, a day reserved for rest, but you are working. You are mildly hung over, making you painfully aware of the truths of life in the restaurant industry. It’s Sunday morning, and you are in the business of facilitating a lifestyle for someone else. You’re rolling out of bed, gulping your coffee and tying your apron behind you. You swallow a carton of yogurt so that you can bring bright, bubbling mimosas and Eggs Benedict with house-made ham to others. It’s Sunday morning, and you are working brunch.

At fire food & drink, where I’ve been serving on and off since 2001, the Sunday brunch shift has a certain easiness—the service is less formal, less complicated, and the pace more steady. I have come to appreciate that simplicity. It helps that the food is great.

I never understood brunch. Like many a restaurant worker, I love to eat out, but when I think of “dining,” I usually think of dinner. I like to go out to breakfast, but that’s often brief; it’s a meeting or a couple of scrambled eggs at a deli. I’m all right with eggs, and I believe that Bloody Marys are the perfect marriage of salad and alcohol. But I think I’m starting to get it—what makes brunch a special meal—that it’s more about when than what.

The first appearance of the word “brunch” in print was in an English magazine from 1895:

“Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a post-church ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee… By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers.” (“Brunch: A Plea,” Hunter’s Weekly, 1895).

Even at that point, it was a matter of timing, a compromise between the hungover and the churchgoer. But it was, as it still is, an acknowledgement of the cultural value placed on Sundays as a day of rest—whatever that entails.

Advances in transportation and technology have changed food and its traditions dramatically since then, but the bedraggled look of some of our patrons certainly suggests that Saturday night carousing has persisted throughout the decades. By many accounts, the rise of brunch coincides with the decline in church attendance, a behavior that has reshaped the way that industrialized nations look at Sundays in general. It remains sacred, but for different reasons.

As a result, people are different on Sunday mornings. They wear different clothes and have different demands on their time, and in fine dining the distinction is even sharper. A regular customer who you see on Thursday night drinking a $90 bottle of Barolo at a table of suits is, on Sundays, a mom dishing housemade granola for her 4-year-old. A Saturday night dinner is a table of four with concert tickets; Sunday mornings, it’s just two of them with newspapers.

Despite the origin of the word as combination of the first two meals of the day, brunch is more than the sum of its etymology. It is its own thing, with its own energy and traditions—and, of course, its own food. The logistics of the menu can be a challenge for restaurants, as the dishes often require ingredients, preparations, and serving pieces that don’t work for dinner and make brunch dishes less economical in a variety of ways. Brunch can be a challenge from a staffing perspective as well, particularly if you normally are not open for lunch during the rest of the week.

Your staff works especially late on Saturday nights, in an industry in which workers have a habit of seeing the sun come up before they go to bed and, seriously, no one wants to get up and go to work on a Sunday.

But as it turns out, duck confit is amazing with grits and poached eggs. The local apples will be delicious both on French toast Sunday morning and with the chicken Sunday night. You will find storage space for all those extra teapots and champagne flutes during the week, and find someone who will sacrifice their Sunday morning to the brunch gods. Because what was true in 1896 is true still: “To be fashionable nowadays we must ‘brunch’” (Punch, Aug. 1, 1896).

Cleveland and its environs are now bursting with places to enjoy a relaxing late Sunday morning meal, and in many places the Sunday ban on liquor sales is no longer an obstacle to a Bloody Mary before one o’clock. Be sure to have one for me.