Brunch. It's the meal that many of you love to get tanked at after a long weekend of getting tanked, before settling in for a long Sunday's nap. And it's the meal that many love to hate because of all the waitlists and hangriness and prix-fixe mediocrity that it can entail. As Gothamist's Lauren Evans put it a couple years ago, "Everyone hates brunch, just like everyone hated 'Call Me Maybe' after its 3,000th rotation around the airwaves." Nevertheless, and under the right circumstances, brunch can be a perfectly lovely thing, especially when not hungover and not waiting an hour for a table. And today we take a dive into the history of this meal we call "brunch," and just when it became the capital-B Brunch that is a vital, and often too-popular feature of most urban weekend dining scenes, and an indispensable weekly touchstone for the chattier classes.
Origin of the word: The portmanteau of "breakfast" and "lunch" is much older than you probably think. The Oxford English Dictionary pegs it to 1895, and an article titled "Brunch: A Plea" by British author Guy Beringer that appeared in Hunter's Weekly. Beringer wrote that, unlike the heavy, traditional, post-church Sunday dinners, "Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week." Pointing to brunch as the traditional hangover helper, Beringer also wrote, "By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers." Shortly thereafter, in 1896, the word "brunch" popped up in a Pennsylvania paper called The New Oxford, according to the Washington Post, marking its first mention in the US. There it was referred to as a "fad" that is "a repast at 11 o'clock a.m."
There is also another early source for the term's American usage, as noted by Gothamist a couple years back: New York newspaperman Frank Ward O'Malley, who wrote for The Sun between 1906 and 1919, and was known to use the term referring to "the typical mid-day eating habits of a newspaper reporter."
Origins of the concept: Given that the word first appeared in a hunting magazine, and given that the components of the meal, and in particular the occasional buffet aspect, are similar to English hunt breakfasts (set up outdoors, à la Downtown Abbey), Smithsonian Mag notes that some food historians think that urban hotel and restaurant brunches evolved out of these "lavish multi-course meals that featured a smorgasbord of goodies such as chicken livers, eggs, meats, bacon, fresh fruit, and sweets." Also: wine and Champagne.
Still others suggest that the meal evolved out of post-church Sunday meals for Catholics, who would fast until mass and then combine breakfast and lunch items in one family feast.
How brunch came to the US: While nice hotels in bigger US cities probably took some cues from London in the early part of the 20th Century, the boom in American brunching appears to have happened a bit later. The concept of combining breakfast and lunch items on weekend menus, though, likely began first in hotels because traditionally restaurants in most US cities would have been closed on Sundays.
One of a couple of conflicting accounts of the origin of Eggs Benedict, for instance, derives from a hungover guest at the Waldorf Hotel in New York in 1894 (the year before Beringer wrote his "plea" about brunch), who ordered "buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and a hooker of hollandaise" for breakfast, and the maitre d' was supposedly so impressed by the artery-hardening combination he added the dish, substituting in English muffins and ham, to the breakfast and lunch menus.
Brunch entered the broader American public consciousness in the 1930's around the end of Prohibition. As noted in a 1983 New York Times piece, food historian Evan Jones, author of American Food: The Gastronomic Story, points to media coverage of the brunch at the famed Pump Room in Chicago's Ambassador Hotel, ca. 1933. The place became popular with movie stars like Clark Gable and Helen Hayes taking cross-country train trips between New York and Los Angeles, who would stop between trains in Chicago on Sunday mornings to dine at the Pump Room.
When, exactly, brunch became a thing: Jones describes how Sundays came to be known for different social habits following World War II, as America became more of a secular place. "We like to sleep in Sundays, read the newspapers and loll in bed," he said. "After the World War II generation went away from church altogether, Sunday became a day to enjoy doing nothing and brunch just grew like topsy." In the 1940's, according to one food blog quoting a Times piece, the Fifth Avenue Hotel featured a "Sunday Strollers’ Brunch" which "consisted of sauerkraut juice, clam cocktails, and calf’s liver with hash browns." Sounds like solid hangover food, no?
While American food icon James Beard wrote of his distaste for brunch in the early 1960's ("If I'm going to have sausage and eggs I want them in the morning. I think I'd banish brunch and ask people for late breakfast, between 11:30 and 12, or I'd ask them for lunch at one.''), it was around then that brunch started its swing into trendiness in New York especially. Brunch was a notable meal at the chic Tower Suite a.k.a. The Hemisphere Club, the Eames-chair-filled restaurant that opened on the 48th Floor of the Time-Life Building by Joe Baum in late 1960, and was featured on Mad Men.
The Hemisphere Club at the Time-Life Building in the early 1960s. Photos: Library of Congress
Celebrities would have found brunch served at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel in this era too and this is to say nothing of Jewish delis on both coasts, like LA's Canter's and New York's Katz's, where pastrami and herring have long sat side by side with bagels and eggs on eclectic all-day menus.
But it wasn't until 1980 that Sunday brunch as a middle-class pastime started spreading like wildfire on both the East and West Coasts, as discussed in the 1983 Times piece. The Chicago Tribune had its own piece about the rise of brunch culture in 1980, which noted how the meal gained traction also because there were more married women in the workforce who "needed a relief on Sunday, too." Growing up in New Hampshire, I can recall a hard-to-get-into, upscale brunch that my parents went to weekly at one trendy, rustic spot called The Country Gourmet beginning around 1982, with plenty of mimosas, Dutch apple pancakes, and a lavish buffet.
This is also around the time that people started saying "Let's do brunch."
[Addendum: I reached out to Jeremiah Tower for his take on brunch in San Francisco in the '80's and 90's, and he said, "I never understood brunch and tried it at Stars and then gave up. The decor just was not right, let alone my not knowing how to make pancakes, and hating waffles. As for fried chicken on top of them, well, beyond the pale then. One needed a view, garden, hotel buffet..."]
How brunch morphed into the monster it is today: You could blame Sex & The City. You could blame the rise of bottomless mimosas. You could blame everyone's alcohol problems in general. Whatever it is, between the late 1990's and early 2000's brunch became the worst. For those in their early 20's who still think getting drunk during the daytime is a new and exciting game, and who never dine in packs smaller than five, brunch has always been awesome. But for everyone else, it can be a necessity and/or a chore, a contact sport we'd rather avoid, or just a bitter obligation because some old friend is in town for the weekend and it's all she had time for and OMG she really wants to try this amazing poutine Benedict she read about on Eater.
In a 1998 piece in the Times, writer William Grimes discusses how the name of the game in New York brunches at the time was "the more bizarre, the better," from a sardine-potato tart topped with an egg to a Thai-influenced shrimp frittata. The late 1990's in San Francisco, also, saw a boom in brunch experimentation along with the dot-com boom, from Boogaloo's vegetarian herb gravy over biscuits to the Pork Store Cafe's "Two Eggs in a Tasty Nest," the nest being made of bacon, crispy potatoes, peppers, and onions.
As for drinks, "hair of the dog" was likely an option at every brunch since brunch began. The Bloody Mary, for one, originated at a bar in Paris under a different name in 1920's (following the introduction of vodka to the bar scene by Russian émigrés, and one bartender's confusion over how to give it some flavor), and the drink rose in popularity in 1930's New York via the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, as Esquire tells us, under the name Red Snapper.
Much like everyone started ordering Cosmopolitans post-1998 because of 'Sex & The City,' gal pals and gays in every city wanted to do weekly brunch just like these ladies.
And it should be noted, in as notorious a drinking town as San Francisco has always been, one of the city's longtime signature beverages, Fernet-Branca, was first invented as a hangover cure, according to Smithsonian Mag, and the original formula contained opiates.
Where brunch stands in the food culture of 2016: First of all, it's now pretty much universally understood that brunch is served both on Saturday and Sunday, which was not always the case and in New York it's usually until 3 or 4 p.m., while on the West Coast, where last call is 2 a.m. and therefore people don't tend to sleep as late, the cutoff is almost always 2 p.m. In the last few years there's been plenty of loud backlash against brunch in general, not only from Gothamist and the Times, but all across the foodinista sphere, which then spawned a backlash against the backlash in pieces like this one from Grub Street in 2014. ("Brunch has done nothing wrong. Brunch just wants to be there for you, should you choose to partake... It's an excuse to be lazy right in the middle of the day.")
There is some reason for all this harping back and forth, as every year brings a new round of young singletons to every city to overhype a new round of brunch spots and newly mashed up brunch foods burrata French toast anyone? Now there's an actual BrunchCon coming LA this summer, as LAist reported this week which is just nuts.
But as the Washington Post shows us via some handy graphs based on Google searches, brunch remains in the last decade still an urban and coastal phenomenon, with its popularity directly correlated, interestingly, with a state's Jewish population.
While brunch has become a guaranteed money-maker for many big restaurants, it's also become a notorious amateur hour for both front- and back-of-house staffs at these places, because the experienced, Class A personnel all work Saturday nights and wouldn't be caught dead at a brunch shift unless they're covering for someone. Also, executive chefs are most definitely sleeping in and letting the place run on auto-pilot.
That said, no matter where you live, Brunch as a thing shows no signs of slowing down or going away, and every city in the nation (besides those in Nebraska, Arkansas, and the Dakotas) has more than its share of brunch faithful. And that's cool! Especially if there isn't a line. As the lists linked below show, there's also still plenty of unique deliciousness to be found around the country at this oft-derided weekend meal.
But can we all agree that a Bloody Mary doesn't need to be stacked with an entire meal's worth of garnishes? Thanks.
Related: The Best New Brunches In San Francisco And Oakland
The 12 Best Brunch Spots In NYC
18 Of Our Favorite Brunch Spots In Los Angeles
13 Of The Best Brunch Spots In Chicago
The Best Brunch Spots In D.C., Part Two