Going out to brunch

One can enjoy brunch at home (and many people do), but it can be a great excuse to dine out.
eggs, bacon, pancakes from Bassett Street Brunch Club
Bassett Street Brunch Club (Courtesy of Food Fight Inc.)

Editor’s note: Some places may have modified menus due to delivery and takeout.

One can enjoy brunch at home (and many people do), but it can be a great excuse to dine out. Ironically, it’s the antithesis of the ritual it supplanted: Mom cooking a big dinner for family members dressed in their Sunday best. In the early 20th century, brunch featured faux French dishes — like eggs Benedict and chicken Divan — that were rarely attempted by the novice cook. Now, when it comes to the menu, pretty much anything goes. What really fueled the takeoff of the restaurant brunch was the growth of our ever more casual and cosmopolitan lifestyle.

I mistakenly assumed this midday meal with its cutesy name was surely was American born and bred; my guess was that it first appeared in mid-20th-century California. However, many food historians credit the origin of this modern noshing habit to the venerable and elegant English hunt breakfast. Others claim it originated in the 19th century at New Orleans’ French Market, where German-born butchers who labored until 11 a.m. consumed a humongous second breakfast. The word “brunch” first appeared in print in Hunter’s Weekly in 1895 when British author Guy Beringer proposed an alternative to the heavy, post-church Sunday meals. The term was little known in our country before the 1930s and didn’t really catch on until after World War II. With church attendance in decline and most restaurants closed on Sunday, hotels promoted the idea of sleeping in and then socializing with family and friends over food and drinks. Restaurants soon followed suit with the enticement of lavish buffets, bottomless mimosas and bloody marys.

Sardine breakfast platter

Courtesy of Sardine

Today, we have restaurants specializing in daily brunches, including here in Madison. Marigold Kitchen shines as bright as its name suggests with creative cuisine and baked goods that are exceptionally toothsome. Short Stack Eatery offers a whimsical atmosphere, but the food conjured from fresh and local ingredients is seriously satisfying. Bassett Street Brunch Club has a retro coffee shop vibe and features diner delights and doughnuts to die for. Many other places still stick to offering brunch on the weekend only, but they make sure it’s special. Sardine doesn’t dumb down service or quality and adds atmosphere to boot. Graze is spacious and chic — and with chef Tory Miller in the house, the food is brilliant. The Weary Traveler Freehouse makes for a cozy rendezvous and reliably renders imaginative variations of familiar favorites. Shamrock Bar & Grille is downright cheap, and though the service can sometimes be slow, it couldn’t be more friendly, and the home-style grub is worth the wait.

Truth be told, not everyone is a fan of brunch — especially chefs, since it often comes on the heels of a busy night. The British newspaper The Guardian was downright harsh when it editorialized, “Brunch is just a symptom of the soulless suburban conformity that is relentlessly colonizing our urban environments.” Perhaps that’s a slur on the former colonists, but I’m sure many Americans would beg to differ. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that brunch has radicalized how we eat and is here to stay.

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.