It’s hard to know when brunch first got a bad rap, although many credit Anthony Bourdain‘s prescient book Kitchen Confidential from 2000, which included this takedown: “Brunch menus are an open invitation to the cost-conscious chef, a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights. How about hollandaise sauce? Not for me. Bacteria love hollandaise. And nobody I know has ever made hollandaise to order. And how long has that Canadian bacon been festering in the walk-in? Remember, brunch is only served once a week—on the weekends. Cooks hate brunch.”
Fourteen years later, the media’s public debate over half-baked menus and bottomless mimomas reached peak pissiness, with The New York Times‘ David Shaftel declaring “Brunch Is For Jerks” and New York magazine firing the headline “It’s Time To Shut Up About Brunch” right back at him.
"I don't discriminate when it comes to food! I personally eat when I am hungry, not in any defined time."
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, creative brunch menus are becoming the new norm, exciting chefs and customers. How else to explain why Indianapolis’s exemplary Milktooth is serving Belgian caviar alongside taro chips at noon and not even bothering with dinner? “I decided to focus on brunch for my first project as a way to spend more evenings with my family,” says chef Jonathan Brooks, who founded Milktooth with his wife Ashley. “I also know brunch is normally viewed as an afterthought and that I could elevate it by bringing the same dedication to technique and sourcing as I would for a fine-dining restaurant…. We do not offer an omelet or eggs Benedict; it is, however, common to find tartares, sashimi, and organ meats on our menu.”
“It’s almost as if brunch has become a lightning rod in our food culture,” adds Kevin Caskey, the chef behind Columbus, Ohio’s seven-year-old Skillet. “For me, it’s more of a catalyst for not playing by the societal rules concerning designated meal times. Brunch is fun; it’s not serious, but the food can be.”
Skillet reveals its daily menu rotations online for this very reason—to show just how much thought goes into every recipe, whether it happens to be a country-fried quail biscuit or locally sourced huevos rancheros simmered with smoked ham hocks. While that may sound Portlandia-ish on paper, Skillet keeps things casual and, more importantly, affordable since its margins are much lower than, say, a restaurant in the middle of downtown Manhattan.
About 200 miles away, Lori Beck and Tyler Trotter are going a similar route in Louisville, Kentucky with their self-proclaimed “Bed & Beverage” Gralehaus. Located right behind the couple’s beer-focused Holy Grale restaurant, it offers such standouts as a sauerkraut stew, slow-cooked with tomato, pork shoulder, dried apricot, and duck broth; lamb and grits; and a black pepper biscuit topped with duck sausage gravy, cracklings, and au jus. Not to mention cortados cut with bee pollen and a “coffee rocket” that infuses lagers and IPAs with third-wave leaders like Intelligentsia.
“I don’t discriminate when it comes to food!” says Beck. “I personally eat when I am hungry, not in any defined time; I like breakfast for dinner and big [brunches] and small dinners. I wasn’t aware brunch had a bad rap. To me, brunch is defined by the time of day you eat and the option to choose breakfast or lunch food. I wouldn’t make brunch the criminal here.
“Now, if you were to ask me if I think most restaurants do brunch well, I would say no,” she adds. “While there are many restaurants and chefs that prioritize ingredient sourcing and culinary technique, there are far more that purchase and serve the cheapest, easiest, fastest food options on their menus. It is up the customer to make themselves aware of these practices and choose…. Our hope is to be an option of quality for people any day of the week, when they have time to slow down and enjoy breakfast, lunch, coffee, or an a.m. beer.”