My podcast, Edacious – Food Talk for Gluttons, premieres here (and on iTunes) Friday, February 27th!
In the depths of February (the cruelest month I don’t care what Eliot says), my mind fixates on brunch. Al fresco. So outstanding you need a nap, take the paper along and stay awhile, you leave with a just the slightest Bloody Mary buzz, brunch. Bloody Marys, never mimosas, which are just a waste of good bubbles. This might be a long post because I’m a brunch fanatic. And I got lots to say.
Brunch is the greatest creation of mankind no matter what that writer at the New York Times says. Wasn’t that a piece of whiney hipster bullshit? No offense to hipsters who enjoy brunch. He quoted Julian Casablancas, lead singer of The Strokes. Seriously? Didn’t his dad run a modeling agency? He’s your expert? I’ve a hard time believing American Brunch Culture is dead because some writer said so. There are tons of folks who gather eagerly over fancy eggs and cocktails every weekend, if only to celebrate the fact they just got through another 7 days without killing someone!
I’m so sick of people who roll their eyes and act “too cool for school” over life’s simpler pleasures. Who doesn’t love lingering with friends over food? Someone who hates eggs? Or breakfast in general? Or who’s had to work too many brunch shifts? I’ll grant you that being on the other side of things is zero fun.
I’ve worked my share of brunches. Early weekend mornings at The Corner Café in Richmond where we’d toss a coin to see who’d be the poor sap manning the pancake station. Usually me. Endless hours of pouring banana pancakes the size of dinner plates. Getting raw batter everywhere. Looking at the line going out the door and truly believing you’re in a nightmare and this will never, ever end. Heading home around 3pm so tired you can’t even remove your shoes. When you do, finding pancake batter in your socks. Smelling like turned milk even after a shower. Swearing you’ll never work another brunch shift. Ever.
Despite that, I’ve loved brunch since I was a kid. Saturdays spent running errands with Momma began with a stop at Shoney’s. Pancakes piled high with strawberries in syrup and whipped cream, Big Boy comic book on the side. We’d wolf down what we could from Cake Mountain and head over to The Imp Peddler where Mom would shop for bargains, and my sister and I would play Hide and Seek in the clothing carrels. On special days we’d go to Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House for a platter of buckwheat cakes, or potato pancakes with fried apples. I was the only 6-year-old in existence who preferred latkes to cavity-forming chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream.
In my youth brunch was a chance to gather and share gossip from the night before. Who hooked up with who. Who was a hot mess. Can you believe he said that and she did that? Making plans for tonight. And tomorrow night. Dreaming of being rich and not having to work while inhaling cheap burnt toast, greasy potatoes, hard crusty omelets, and shitty Bloody Marys. Probably the biggest meal we’d have all week. We’d sit outside at places like Trio’s, or crowd a booth at 3rd Street Diner or McLean’s. Sometimes gathering in the daylight, but never before noon, then heading out for 75-cent cocktails if it was Sunday. Holding onto the weekend with all our might. Most of the time we’d gather in the wee hours after leaving the club, because we couldn’t wait for our grits and red eye gravy, or a hot, sweet 3rd Street Diner Grilled D (a grilled Krispy Kreme topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce) which I swear tastes best when you’re 5-drinks drunk at 2am. Gossip exchanged and stories told while we waited hours to be served by the one strung-out waitress they’d assigned to a giant room during the graveyard shift. So many late night brunches. Most of them good, although there was the “Sour Waffle” episode of 1994 at the now-dingy Aunt Sarah’s in midtown Richmond.
Brunch is still my favorite. I love fancy eggs. Sitting al fresco with a fabulous Bloody Mary and a heaping plate, doesn’t matter whether it’s eggy or pancakey, is my version of heaven. Too bad restaurants in the region don’t agree. Is Saturday brunch going the way of the dinosaur? Is that writer correct? I see no established Saturday brunch culture in Charlottesville like I experienced in Richmond, DC, and later in Pittsburgh. Places here offer it maybe seasonally, maybe occasionally on Sundays, or not at all. Yep, no Saturday brunch in Charlottesville, and if they do offer it, it’s more lunch than eggs. And Sunday brunch? Sure I can promise to get my ass up on a Sunday and head out, but let’s get real. It ain’t happening. It’s me and the paper on Sundays. With coffee.
Don’t get me wrong, you can get eggs on Saturday. There’s Tip Top. Bluegrass Grill and Bakery is great, except you can’t linger (an important brunch element), and Blue Moon is fantastic. The Nook is good. The Hubby and I usually end up at one of these. But none of them is perfect. Is anything ever? No matter. In my little headspace, because it is my favorite meal, I’m always dreaming about what the perfect brunch would be in a perfect “Every Day is Saturday” world.
It’s outdoors, preferably a pleasant 70-75 degrees. I don’t care about the setting, but if you pinned me down, the view from Blue Mountain Brewery’s deck is pretty damn splendid.
Let’s start with a cocktail, because all good meals start this way. I’ve had some earth-shattering Bloody Marys in my time, including Bouchon in Las Vegas, and Zocalo here in Charlottesville. My favorite? The Bloody Mary at The Magpie in Richmond, Virginia. Made with bourbon, lager, house-made hot sauce and Bloody Mary mix, with a pickle and Slim Jim garnish, this cocktail brought me to my knees! It had a deep, smoky-spice and a meaty flavor. I could SWEAR Chef Owen Lane added bacon. One is usually enough, but this drink? I could’ve easily downed four and canceled my day.
On to eggs. Some people like fried, over easy, scrambled. Or a great Eggs Benny. I love my omelets. I’m lumping Huevos Rancheros into the omelet category because I consider it “eggs with stuff inside”. The best? Huevos Rancheros at the now-defunct Texas-Wisconsin Border Café in Richmond. Spicy, cheesy, peppery, and the size of your head. Covered in their special house-made salsa you can STILL GET here in town at places like Feast!
Kudos go to The Magpie again, who ran a close second. The omelet with rabbit, goat cheese, leek tops and red wine-caramelized onion jam had me floating off the floor in glee. Not only that, the leftovers I took home TASTED FRESH THE NEXT DAY! When was the last time you microwaved day-old eggs and had them taste light and fluffy? I thought so. Chef Owen Lane has a magic touch.
Honorable mention goes to the Bluegrass Grill’s caramelized onion omelet. Delicious, the size of Shaq’s shoe, and so light! They might’ve ranked higher if Bluegrass was a “lingering” kind of place (I need to linger after consuming Shaq’s shoe). One of the downfalls of being small and wildly popular.
If Eggs Benedict is more your taste Zocalo has a great one according to The Hubby. Spicy and filling. Too bad they only do brunch seasonally. Sigh.
Hash browns? Scattered, smothered, and covered at Waffle House. I don’t care, you can present to me any combination of heirloom fancy schmancy hand-grown by kid-gloved potato scholars in Ireland preparation of potatoes and I’ll still want scattered, smothered, and covered. Double order please. Bacon from Coca Café in Pittsburgh on the side.
French toast? The unique version at The Bright Morning Inn in Davis, West Virginia is my benchmark. So good I’m not sure I can eat any other kind. Banana Dream french toast starts with potato bread dipped in a cinnamon batter with banana liqueur, then it’s dipped in oats, fried, and topped with more bananas. Tastes like a big ol’ nap!
Pancakes? I’m still a sucker for the potato pancakes at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House with a side of fried apples. In fact, if any brunch I’m attending serves potato pancakes I’ll probably wolf them down. WITH hash browns please.
It’s easy to louse up biscuits and gravy. The biscuits can be dry and puck-like, and the gravy can end up a gloppy, tasteless goo. The Frost Diner in Warrenton serves up an amazing version, with flaky light biscuits and a nice creamy, peppery gravy. But they don’t have the BEST biscuits. That award goes to the now-closed Betsy’s Coffeehouse on the corner of Auburn and Cary Streets in Richmond. Large and square, these babies were sliced open and toasted with lots of butter. Sage and feta, rosemary and gruyère, cheddar and chive. With a latte and a nice spot on the porch, this was my dream meal back in the day. I discovered Nick Drake while studying at Betsy’s, and watched prudes leave in droves when she played Prince’s “Darling Nikki” at top volume. I must’ve written a million words on her porch. And when we left Richmond for Pittsburgh, our last stop was for biscuits. Betsy bagged them up with a sad face. I’ve attempted to recreate her biscuits, to no avail, ever since.
Grits? You can have your shrimp and grits, your cheese grits. I’ll take my grits swimming in red eye gravy. From McLeans in Richmond. Consumed preferably at about 3am with greasy eggs, hash browns, and toast. You gotta love a place only open from 11pm to 3pm. As long as I live, I’ll never forget a late night when a group of friends looked over to see four pretty heinous-looking girls sitting in a booth in taffeta prom dresses, one of them with a massive black eye. We spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out the story. Because there was surely one.
Coffee? Any good cup of diner coffee in a white mug will do. I ain’t picky. You can forego the fancy foam design, as I take my first cup black, and my second cup with copious amounts of cream and sugar. Breakfast dessert.
Finally, because I can’t find a proper place to stick this dish, I must address the Chicken and Waffles from Bouchon in Las Vegas. I must because it’s as close to brunch heaven as I’ve ever achieved here on this dim, dusty planet of ours. Chef Thomas Keller takes roasted chicken and sets it atop a bacon-chive waffle with Tahitian vanilla bean butter alongside. Pour some velvety sauce Chasseur over the entire thing (imagine the creamiest chicken gravy you’ve ever put to lips) and you’ve reached brunch Nirvana. Everything on the Bouchon brunch menu is stellar, but this reaches new heights. They get bonus points for not requiring reservations.
I understand restaurants have to survive and doing a year-round Saturday/Sunday brunch might not be feasible. I can still gripe about it. Just as that hipster declared, “Brunch is over!” I’m here to declare it’s not. American Brunch Culture is alive and well. Eating eggs with cocktails and friends, lingering over your food with no other plans for the day is one of the great joys of life. I bet there are plenty of people out there who agree.
Sure there are places who throw their leftovers into a quiche as a “Brunch Special” but the restaurants who take time and care to offer creative brunch options week after week? They’ve got my respect for keeping the flame alive. They’re carrying the torch for those of us who look forward to making it through yet another week by celebrating with pancakes and tomato juice spiked with vodka. Brunch isn’t dead. Or there wouldn’t be 10-gazillion versions of the Bloody Mary!
As long as people go to bars on Friday night, there will be brunch. As long as there is a farmer’s market to run a stroller through, and a Targe-Home-Depot-WalMart-Kroger run to be made, there will be brunch. As long as there is church to visit, there will be brunch. It’s one of the great shames of my life I’ve not yet visited Brookville’s brunch, served only on Sundays. We’ve discussed why my ass can’t seem to get out the door on a Sunday. It’s a problem I plan to address in 2015. But what about the rest of you? Won’t someone please take up the cause of great, creative eggs-centric brunch on weekends? I selfishly implore all chefs completely unashamed! Purdy please? I’d like to do this list again in a year or two with ONLY Charlottesville restaurants on it. Me and my tummy are waiting.
Note: I didn’t include Bodo’s because Thank God for Bodo’s. I can satisfy my bagel craving any time of day. Even if they don’t toast.
Addendum: Several people contacted me after publishing to let me know Chef Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant has both Saturday and Sunday brunch. And has been doing it for at least a year. Doh! Is my face red? Another signal I need to get out more…and will.