Having brunch in restaurants became popular in the 1960s and 1970s and remains so today. It was not unheard of earlier – a few restaurants offered brunch in the 1930s. The Brown Derby in Los Angeles may have been the first to serve brunch, which was especially popular in Southern California. The meal itself was older but usually eaten at home. The word evidently was coined by British university students in the 1890s, late sleepers who woke at noon and combined their first two meals. Gossip columnists loved to twitter about Hollywood film stars and socialites who threw intimate brunches for their best chums in the 1920s, giving the informal meal a degree of cachet.
As modern as it might seem, brunch shares some aspects in common with the 18th-century Anglo-American tavern spread. Broadly speaking, both feature tables piled with edibles drawn mostly from two major groups: meat/fowl/fish (bacon, sausage, chicken, roast beef, ham, salmon) and pastry. They also share a third essential, the before-noon alcoholic beverage. In the 1770s the drink might be rum or ale, while in the 1970s it would be champagne or mixed drinks such as Mimosas, Ramos Fizzes, and Bloody Marys.
In 1950 a Los Angeles restaurant reviewer observed that most patrons turned down drinks, adding “After all, you got to be pretty far gone to drink before breakfast.” This abstinent attitude seems to have largely vanished by the 1970s. Then champagne, screwdrivers, and mimosas often formed a large part of the advertised brunch attractions. Many restaurants included a drink with the price of the brunch, while others charged extra but poured free refills.
Especially popular on Sundays and holidays, brunch often features food that is — or once was — regarded as “special,” such as Canadian bacon, Hollandaise sauce, and Belgian waffles. Nonetheless, despite brunch’s ice sculptures and lavish food presentations, it has its detractors. Some would agree with the California critic who declared that she felt like Oliver Twist standing in line with plate in hand. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain spared no scorn, characterizing brunch as a restaurant’s “old, nasty odds and ends” prepared by its least talented cooks and way overpriced. Hence the Bloody Marys?
© Jan Whitaker, 2008