In 2022, this meal is more popular than ever
Then Xavier Teixido and his partners purchased Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal Saloon, he distributed questionnaires to the patrons of the Trolley Square-area restaurant. “It had only three questions,” he recalls. “Why do you come here? What’s the best thing on the menu? And what do I need to know?”
Of the 650 customers who returned the cards, about a third wrote: “Don’t get rid of the sticky buns.” In effect, they also told Teixido, “Don’t get rid of brunch.” Indeed, the casual eatery is well known for the Saturday and Sunday mealtime.
“Kid Shelleen’s is a favorite for brunch and a classic,” says customer Sean O’Sullivan. “They offer all the brunch basics — food and drink — and great service.”
The guests need not have worried. Teixido’s appreciation for brunch began when he worked at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, which is famous for its Jazz Brunch. “When I started out in the industry, it was so long ago that brunch was a big thing,” says the hospitality veteran, who also owns Harry’s Savoy Grill. “Then brunch died. Now brunch in our market has really grown.”
I second his opinion. As a food writer, I’m often asked for brunch recommendations, which got me thinking: What makes a good brunch? And why is brunch so popular right now?
A Marriage Made in Heaven
Although a trendy meal, the clever union of the words breakfast and lunch has a long history. In an 1895 article for Hunter’s Weekly, British writer Guy Beringer stated the case for it, noting that Saturday night revelers could sleep late on Sunday and still have a meal.
In the 1930s, well-bred travelers enjoyed brunch while changing trains in Chicago. Indeed, the repast has long been linked to an upper-crust lifestyle. For decades, the legendary Green Room brunch in the Hotel du Pont was considered the epitome of gracious living. In a 1980 issue of The Morning News, the discerning critic Otto Dekom called the hotel’s offering “the oldest and most impressive Sunday brunch … in Wilmington. The atmosphere and the service are elegant, food very good, pastries excellent. Eggs and pancakes are prepared to order. It’s a good show and enjoyable meal.”
The hotel was also one of the only games in town. While diners and greasy spoons served stick-to-your-ribs breakfasts, it was hard to find a leisurely brunch. In the mid-century, most of the restaurants that offered it were in hotels — partly because other establishments were closed on Sundays. Or brunch was an Easter or Mother’s Day promotion.
The meal acquired an urban sensibility in the 1990s when Carrie and her Sex and the City pals gossiped over waffles. Once limited to special occasions, brunch became a low-key social affair. Just ask Lee Mikles, who owns Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen with friend Jim O’Donoghue. The beach bum learned the value of brunch long before 2015 when the partners opened their first location in Newark.
A beach brunch was the time to slow down, recover and catch up on the weekend, Mikles says. “It is often the final meal of a weekend with friends before ‘getting back to reality.’ I wanted to make that final meal last as long as possible.”
The new approach is perhaps best exemplified by Le Cavalier, which now occupies the Green Room’s opulent space in the Hotel du Pont. The stiff atmosphere is gone, and a cosmopolitan brunch menu includes eggs Benedict with Parisian ham, and Aleppo-spiced choron sauce (a version of the classic bearnaise).
In the 21st century, restaurants have seen brunch’s advantages. When Home Grown Café opened in 2000, the restaurant closed on Sundays. Then owner Sasha Aber added Sunday brunch. A visit to the Big Apple revealed that hip customers brunched on Saturday and Sunday. Home Grown was among the first Main Street restaurants to offer a Saturday brunch.
“Now it seems like everyone does it,” Aber says. And no wonder. Brunch is the Newark restaurant’s most popular meal.
“It is crazy busy,” she says. Home Grown began opening at 9:30 a.m. instead of 10 a.m. to accommodate the crowd that regularly formed outside the door.
For some, two days is not enough. Brunch has become so big that several Delaware restaurants built a concept around it. Take, for instance, The Peach Blossom Eatery, which opened late last year in downtown Newark. Owners Olivia Brinton, who also co-founded Little Goat Coffee Roasting Co., and chef Sam Ross serve breakfast and lunch all day.
The café follows the early morning footsteps of Ciro 40 Acres near Trolley Square, which is open from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. “Brunch-lunch is our thing,” says co-owner Venu Gaddamidi
That’s also the case at Drip Café, which has locations in Hockessin and Newark. “When I first opened, I wanted to open a coffee shop with a really great food program,” says owner Greg Vogeley. “What I ended up with, over time, was a really great breakfast restaurant with a good coffee program.”
Initially, Vogeley stopped serving breakfast at 11 a.m. Customers rebelled.
“What do you mean you don’t have breakfast all day?” they cried. Those last three words — “breakfast all day” — became his mantra.
On weekends, action at Drip Café is nonstop. You may need to wait for a table at 3:30 p.m. Weekend sports extend the mealtime at pubs like Six Paupers Tavern in Hockessin or Ulysses Gastropub in North Wilmington, where the post-college crowd gathers.
“They come for the football and catch the tail end of brunch,” says owner Steven Lucey. “They get to sleep in and also get a nice breakfast.”
Focusing on Food
Sports and socializing are not enough to fuel a brunch business. From eggs to burgers, the menu must impress, and a proper brunch has something for everyone. Kids and Ulysses, for instance, have extensive salad and sandwich sections “for people who aren’t into brunch dishes,” Lucey says.
Breakfast, admittedly, is the star. About 80% of the customers at Ciro 40 Acres come for breakfast items, says co-owner Venu Gaddamidi. Vogeley sells two-egg breakfasts all day, and Sunday omelets are the top seller at Buckley’s Tavern, says chef and co-owner Tom Hannum.
Restaurants with a concept can work regular ingredients into brunch. Trolley Square Oyster House packs a fluffy omelet with crab, lobster, asparagus and gooey cheddar cheese. El Camino in Brandywine Hundred features huevos rancheros, as well as churro French toast and a ham, cheese and egg torta. Meanwhile, Pizza By Elizabeth in Greenville boasts an impressive selection of brunch pizzas, including quiche Lorraine.
A brunch spot — versus a diner or breakfast restaurant — shows creativity. Grain features a scrapple cheesesteak. (Order a side of scrapple fries.) Skipjack in Newark serves its scrapple sandwich with cheddar eggs, and The Peach Blossom piles scrapple, two over-easy eggs, fresh greens and hot pepper jam on rye. Kid Shelleen’s salutes its community with Union Street Benedict: scrapple, poached eggs and chipotle-cheese sauce on an English muffin.
For many diners, brunch is not the time to count calories. Ciro 40 Acres customers throw Weight Watchers points to the wind by ordering “My Usual”: bacon, scrapple, sausage, pork roll, French toast, waffle, fingerling hash and “cheezy” scrambled eggs.
But if you’re looking for a buffet, a hallmark of brunch gluttony, you might be disappointed. During the pandemic, many eateries halted that practice. For one, there are hygiene issues. For another, few restaurants can afford to waste food. Indeed, Buckley’s halted its half-priced pajama brunch due to food costs.
What about special diets? Home Grown takes it to the next level. “We’re always aware of what can be vegan or vegetarian,” Aber says. “Our chef makes vegan sausage links.
For many, no brunch is complete without libations. Home Grown has a mimosa bar; Kids is famous for its Bloody Mary bar. And no one will bat an eye if you have more than one before noon.
The Rewards Outweigh the Drawbacks
Brunch’s popularity has led to more options. “I’ve been in the business 30 years now, and the only difference I see with brunch is more competition due to the number of new restaurants,” says Donny Merrill, owner of Skipjack.
However, it’s not an easy meal for many restaurants to pull off.
“Brunch requires a major reorganization of the kitchen,” Mikles agrees. “You have to make space for items like eggs and pancake batter, which are only used during those times. And brunch starts earlier than regular weekdays, so that means the staff must come in even earlier. This can be tough on a staff who may have worked late the night before.”
Aber agrees. Home Grown’s brunch relies on up to 30 employees, who hustle to get the dishes out fast, hot and consistently good. Early food prep is essential. Kid Shelleen’s added a Saturday brunch in part to extend the prep over two days, Teixido says.
It’s working. When Kids opens the doors, families and empty nesters come in for their morning coffee and eggs. They’re followed by groups of friends and families celebrating birthdays.
“Brunch is an easy way to get together,” Teixido says. “You can drink or not drink. You can order what you want because brunch is breakfast and lunch, right? It’s not an expensive meal.”
It’s not just a meal, Mikles maintains. “It is an experience meant to be savored over a long time with friends.”
Few would argue that those occasions have taken on greater importance over the past two years. Long live brunch!