9 favorite brunch spots in Madison
A history of the cherished midday meal, plus nine favorite brunch spots in Madison
For the most part, when I was growing up, we had Sunday dinner at noon. This was the only time—excluding Thanksgiving—when we partook of a big meal midday. It was usually some kind of roast. At about the age of ten, my dad started slipping me a dollar every week to make sure it wasn’t over cooked. My mother had a fondness for very dry and gray meat. My father and I did not.
Sometime in the ’60s, my mother discovered brunch. Actually, it was an excuse for her not to cook. When she announced we were having brunch, it translated into her picking up something readymade at Kroger. I especially detested the factory-baked cinnamon rolls, all wet from the frosting sweating beneath their cellophane wrapping. Needless to say, I was not a fan of brunch.
It wasn’t something I thought about a lot until I left college; on my own, it become a popular way to spend Sunday with my friends and an excuse to drink. Still, I never much appreciated the culinary potential of brunch until I went to New Orleans. There, I experienced the legendary “Breakfast at Brennan’s,” which despite its trademarked name was by any definition “brunch.” I returned many times, inevitably to order the same thing: turtle soup, Eggs Sardou (poached eggs on artichoke bottoms with creamed spinach and Hollandaise sauce), and Bananas Foster. Of course, a few of its “eye-openers” were included. I swear Brennan’s Bloody Mary was the best ever made. As the years passed, the French Quarter landmark increasingly became an anachronism, and despite its exorbitant prices, only a destination for tourists. Yet, it never lost its appeal to me as part of my past that I was for whatever reason reluctant to give up. Last year, after having been in business since before I was born, the restaurant sadly closed.
I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that brunch had originated in the City that Care Forgot. The tradition of a large, middle-of-the-day hybrid meal goes back to the nineteenth century and the heyday of the French Market. Sales started before dawn and purveyors would eventually retreat to Madame Begue’s for one of her famous gargantuan Creole breakfasts.
San Francisco would also seem logical as the birthplace of brunch. I remember being impressed with its popularity there that bordered on fanaticism. It was also the first place I enjoyed a mimosa; in my opinion, the second best morning aperitif.
I was flabbergasted to learn that London can claim bragging rights for the invention of brunch. Though indisputable, I still find it difficult to believe. First of all, the word “brunch” is much too cutesy a portmanteau for the British. Secondly, I’ve never been any place else where the big Sunday lunch—roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, several veg, treacle tart—was such a revered institution as in the U.K. That said, the term first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1896, crediting its origin to Punch magazine, using the term to describe a meal following a Saturday night of carousing.
I’m not sure what composed the original English brunch. Today, it tends to emulate the American version—revering things like pancakes and huevos rancheros which are very un-British. Bucks Fizz—their name for a mimosa—is much beloved, but the origin of that drink is French (the same is true of the Bloody Mary).
However, the most famous brunch dish of all, Eggs Benedict, assuredly is American. The classic combination of poached eggs and ham on an English muffin with Hollandaise sauce originated in New York (as did the English muffin!). There’s a dispute as to whether this dish named after Lemuel Benedict first appeared on the menu at Delmonico’s or the Waldorf Hotel (he worked at both).
In this country we willingly embrace just about anything, regardless of its origins, on the brunch menu, whether it be domestic corn beef hash or imported quiche. The birthplace of the criterion Bloody Mary (that shares a name with an English queen) may have been a Paris bar, but it certainly grew up here. (If you don’t believe that, just order one in France!)
The fact that few sit-down restaurants now serve lunch on Sunday is a testament to brunch’s success. Recognizing a good thing, many eateries no longer serve brunch just on Sunday any more, but Saturday as well. Regardless, there is no shortage of places to enjoy what has become a hedonistic weekend ritual.
A few great spots for brunch around Madison:
It figures that at a place where breakfast is the main attraction daily, brunch on Saturday and Sunday would shine. In addition to all the regulars like assorted egg scrambles and sandwiches, there’s the signature Blue Bird—a chicken salad with dried blueberries, walnuts, and white cheddar, plus weekly specials. The atmosphere is as bright and chipper as the food is fresh; many of the ingredients local and organic to boot.
As far as I’m concerned, brunch doesn’t get any better than this. It’s where you take mom on Mother’s Day, celebrate good times with friends, or just hang out on Sunday. As expected, the menu has a French accent with omelets, charcuterie, and Croque Monsieur. Maybe not as authentic but delicious nonetheless is a burger topped with a trio of cheeses and served with aioli and fries. Personally, the buckwheat Belgian-style waffles with orange-cinnamon butter, fresh bananas, and real maple syrup are … je t’aime.
Some might consider going here for weekend brunch a bit fishy and it delightfully is. The Tempest Benedict adds lox and avocado to the standard mix, and there’s another spin-off made with crab cakes. Lobster mac and cheese, shrimp and scallop grits, and a smoked whitefish omelet make the menu, too. Waffles with fresh raspberries and rhubarb syrup or a classic steak and eggs should satisfy non-pescetarians.
As is the case at so many places that are primarily the purveyors of morning meals, Manna is a neighborhood rendezvous. Obviously, baked goods are no afterthought here: sticky buns (elsewhere known as morning buns), scones, muffins—and just in time for brunch—bialys on weekends. Several renditions of Eggs Benedict, omelets, frittata headline the brunch menu, but a loyal following would never consider anything but the quiche of the day. Sweet indeed is French toast made from leftover sticky buns, further gilded with fresh strawberries and chocolate maple syrup.
This urbane bar and café caters to twenty-first-century taste. Well-known for its craft cocktails, for brunch a Ramos Gin Fizz—a traditional New Orleans eye opener—is a must. The farm-to-table fare features uncomplicated dishes. Some are to share like the local meat and cheese board and Chartreuse-cured salmon, but there are a handful of hearty big plates. Notable is the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich prepared one of two ways and comes with coleslaw, but demands a side of the garlic and rosemary roasted potatoes.
On a sunny summer Saturday or Sunday, head here for brunch on the patio—and don’t forget to bring the dog along as well. The Bloody Marys are worth the trip alone, but stay for the food (it’s under the same ownership as , a brunch shrine just up the street). Mickey’s is a never-boring bohemian rhapsody of local color and well-prepared food. Specialties include Eggs Benedict, waffles with fresh fruit, tofu scramble and home-fried potatoes.
A lot has changed at this friendly downtown bar that’s now more inviting than ever. With expanded food offerings, it’s with good reason that the Shamrock added “Grille” to its name. The weekend brunch packs in regulars who chow down on hearty helpings of home-style favorites like biscuits and gravy and the Big Daddy Breakfast—two eggs, bacon strips and sausage served with a choice of buttermilk pancakes or French toast. It’s also one of the best deals in town.
Its hours of operation are a bit eccentric; only open Thursday through Sunday, early and late—no doubt when most people crave the breakfast specialties this diner serves. The pancake-centric menu includes old favorites but also a truly inspired sweet potato oatmeal rendition served with fresh strawberries and bourbon and maple flavored mascarpone. Regardless of the day or time, there are bona fide brunch offerings as well: pulled pork and cheesy grits, chorizo and egg-stuffed burritos, Eggs Benedict and, of course, Bloody Marys.
Dim sum has never enjoyed the rabid enthusiasm here that it does on the West Coast and elsewhere, but that could all be about to change. Tory Miller’s third restaurant, Sujeo, is a pan-Asian pantheon of comfort foods and promises (a still forthcoming) dim sum on Saturday and Sunday. For those who find eggs revolting (a phobia ironically shared by Alfred Hitchcock), they no longer need dread brunch. There is something appealing about picking and choosing from a parade of plump dumplings and bite-size tidbits.
RECIPE: Ramos Gin Fizz
Milk-based, alcohol-laced libations have long been a popular way to start the day in the South. The Ramos Gin Fizz is New Orleans’ contribution to this milk punch tradition. It’s named after bar owner Henry C. Ramos who came up with the concoction in the 1880s. Louisiana’s flamboyant governor and senator Huey Long was a big fan of the drink, especially those made at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans.
1 cup coarsely cracked ice 3 ounces gin 4 egg whites 1/4 cup half-and-half or whole milk (never heavy cream!) 3 tbsp confectioners’ sugar 1 tsp fresh lemon juice 4 drops orange flower water 2 drops vanilla extract
Garnish: Fresh nutmeg (optional)
Combine all the ingredients except the nutmeg in an electric blender, cover and turn on high speed for about 1 1/2 minutes or until the mixture is thick and airy.
Divide the mixture between two Collins glasses. Garnish with a light grating of fresh nutmeg if desired.
Makes 2 drinks.