Where to go for America's best brunch

Image: Eggs Benedict, Bistro Francais, Washington D.C.
Washingtonians are a culturally diverse, well-traveled bunch, and the $24.95 Champagne brunch at Georgetown's 33-year-old Bistro Français is a draw because it looks, tastes and feels authentically French. Getty Images
/ Source: Forbes Traveler.com

Do real men do brunch? No! Unless, of course, they’re really hungry. That’s the thing about America’s favorite hybrid meal—it’s the perfect occasion for men, women and children to put aside their petty differences and chow down. A family affair, sometimes: “There are two reasons to have brunch,” says Michael Ruhlman, who’s been a judge on the Food Network’s "The Next Iron Chef" and author of "The Elements of Cooking" (Scribner). “To show a hangover who’s the boss, or because your grandmother’s in town.”

Brunch is often misunderstood, as many delightful things often are. It needn't be a buffet, and it isn't necessarily fancy. But in a strange reverse intellectualization of food culture, even an esteemed chef or New York magazine could make the mistake of maintaining that brunch menus are the same everywhere.

A toothsome incentive to get out and face the world on a Sunday, a higher calling than a workaday lunch, brunch is that weekly culinary grail of the weekday warrior, who unwittingly or not counts down the days from Monday to when she (or he) can trade in a bowl of Cheerios and instant decaf for a purple broccoli frittata with Vermont white cheddar and basil pesto, along with a Bloody Mary or two. British writer Guy Beringer coined the term in 1895; writing in Hunter’s Weekly, he called the meal “cheerful, sociable and inciting ... 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.”

Cheerio to that. But according to Vern Lanegrasse, the New Orleans native known to L.A. radio audiences for years as “The Hollywood Chef,” it was England’s favorite enemy, the French, who brought brunch to New Orleans well before the nineteenth century—even if they didn’t label it as such. “The French had the idea for a larger meal during the day on Sunday instead of fussing over another big dinner,” he says. Something to consider over Eggs Sardou at Brennan’s, the seasoned chef’s Big Easy brunch favorite and a restaurant that channels well the spirit of New Orleans’ high-calorie heritage.

Traditionally brunch is, yes, on Sunday, but there’s no hard and fast rule. Says Ruhlman, “Brunch is a good excuse to eat and drink in the middle of a week day. ... It’s a meal with great potential. Some of the things served at brunch are among my favorite things to eat, like Eggs Benedict, or a perfectly made quiche with bacon and onions, and of course, Bloody Marys. With Eggs Benedict, you’ve got a fatty, salty piece of meat with eggs in an egg-based, fat-laden hollandaise sauce—it’s the start of a good day as far as I’m concerned.”

A restaurant may have a special brunch menu, which tends to be the case on the upscale end of the dining spectrum; or it may serve breakfast late into the day, turning that meal into brunch by default. Then there’s the five-star diner, which aptly describes New York’s Norma’s, where, according to Steven Pipes, GM of the Parker Meridien Hotel of which the restaurant is a part, “from about 11 a.m. on every day, it’s pretty much about brunch.” Norma’s famously fanciful breakfasts—consider a Caramelized Chocolate Banana Waffle Napoleon—are served daily until 3 p.m. On weekends, Norma’s fills up fast with a hip crowd of Manhattanites who never fail to be enticed by chef Emile Castillo’s creations, starting with his ever-changing array of frozen fruit “smoothie shots.”

In Cleveland, chef Doug Katz whets diners’ appetites for smokin’ hot brunches at his restaurant Fire. Think braised pork crepes with crème fraiche, Argentinian pepper relish and fried egg, or housemade pancetta with French brie, poached apricots and baby arugula flatbread, or keep it simple with lemon soufflé pancakes with blueberry compote. This is one of "The Next Iron Chef" judge’s Michael Ruhlman’s top picks. The Midwest is also where you’ll find the scrumptious brunch of Lake Park Bistro, a French restaurant in Milwaukee with a fabulous view of Lake Michigan. The three-course menu offers entrées like peekytoe crab cakes topped with poached eggs, flaky pastry filled with scrambled eggs, spinach, and Basque-style stewed peppers, and beef tenderloin with black truffle scrambled eggs. The chef, Adam Siegel, won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Midwest in 2008, and it’s not hard to taste why.

Jill Davie, chef de cuisine at Santa Monica’s Josie and a former co-host of Fine Living TV Network’s "Shopping with Chefs" and "Next Iron Chef" challenger, is hard-pressed to name just one favorite brunch spot in Los Angeles—but  BLD rates high on her list. She calls it “a neighborhood kind of place that has an amazing braised shortrib sandwich and delicious plates of cheese and charcuterie (assorted cold cuts like cured Italian speck).” For a more luxurious brunch experience in the L.A. area, look no further than the posh Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. If you’re lucky, sit outdoors on the pink patio and dig into your Dutch apple pancake or petit beef tenderloin with caramelized onions and poached eggs.

Delicious as that sounds, no mention of brunch on the West Coast would be complete without something special in San Francisco. For Andrew Knowlton, it’s the Ferry Building Marketplace. “There isn’t a better one-stop spot to assemble the ultimate food-lover’s brunch,” Bon Appetit’s restaurant editor says. “On Saturdays, when the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market is held,” he adds, “you can get scrambled eggs, Hobbs bacon and tomatoes on an Acme baguette.” And on Sundays? “Not to grab an order of the sugar-coated beignets and a cup of hot chocolate at Boulette's Larder would be a crime.”