Brunch was first popularized in the U.S. in the 1930s, and ever since then it’s been a favored tradition across age groups and regions. The meal has something for everyone: fruit and egg whites for the health-conscious, carbs and potatoes for the hungover, and cocktails for the people with no afternoon plans.
But as the meal has become even more popular (just check out the nearly 25 million posts tagged with #brunch on Instagram), restaurants have had to continually innovate their offerings to win the coveted daypart. One way that many restaurants are doing this is through fresh twists on classic brunch dishes.
“Overall, people’s ideas of brunch have changed. They aren’t just looking for eggs and bacon anymore,” says Tara Zavagnin, director of operations at Maddon’s Post in Chicago. The restaurant, which serves Polish- and Italian-inspired food, wants to give guests a more interesting take on traditional American brunch. “Being in the Midwest, we obviously had to do a biscuits and gravy.”
In Maddon’s Post’s take on the classic dish, Polish sausage takes the lead in the gravy, served atop house-made biscuits. And while pierogi for breakfast might be surprising to some, Zavagnin loves the brunch version on the Polish favorite, which are stuffed with Nutella or blueberries and mascarpone.
There are endless brunch dishes that are ripe for riffing on. Cucina Enoteca Del Mar in Southern California reimagines the typical bagel and lox: fluffy, browned waffles topped with smoked salmon, a bright fennel slaw, and dill crema.
Both Maddon’s Post and Cucina Enoteca have found that using familiar dishes as a jumping-off point encourages diners to be more adventurous. “I think people are surprised to see familiar faces on the menu in exciting interpretations, but in a really great way,” Zavagnin says. “We are gently pushing the boundaries on brunch, and I think people are into it.”
Another way in which restaurants are capitalizing on our love for the traditionally midday meal is through availability. Late-night and 24-hour breakfast and brunch are becoming increasingly common on menus throughout the country.
“We’ve noticed that people are always looking to enjoy breakfast well into the afternoon,” says Lawrence Main, general manager of Station Hollywood in Los Angeles. “We’ve also seen weekend brunch spilling over into the week. People have been coming in later in the morning and asking for a brunch menu during the week.”
Station Hollywood has responded to the demand by adding several brunch items to its late-night menu, including the perennially popular French toast sticks. The dish is is perfect for sharing and has become a hit with diners.
Twenty-four-hour diners aren’t anything new, but the stereotype of rubbery eggs and burnt coffee persists for a reason. Across its three California locations, classic diner NORMS raises the bar on all-day breakfast. The menu covers the classic pancakes and omelets, but the house specialty are hand-cut steaks prepared in-house every morning. Whether guests want a porterhouse or a T-bone alongside their eggs, NORMS is ready to customize the order.
Some restaurants are also moving in the opposite direction to play with the idea of brunch; instead of serving breakfast food at all hours, they’re bringing dinner into the daylight. At ViewHouse in Denver, the Sunday brunch buffet encompasses any number of dayparts. The waffle bar, omelet station, and piles of pancakes are offered alongside sushi, lobster, pizza, and a chicken-and-rice station.
While brunch has been a staple of American menus for decades, it hasn’t necessarily transcended other cuisines. Recently, though, a diverse group of chefs has been adapting ingredients and techniques to serve it in a whole new way.
“American brunch is based on big, bold, and comforting flavors,” says Michelle Matthews, chef at the Peruvian-Japanese (also called Nikkei) restaurant Kaiyō in San Francisco. “Our menu accentuates familiar flavors where the American palate is challenged but in touch with the flavor combinations.”
The creative combos at Kaiyō include tuna poke with Peruvian purple potatoes that are seasoned with furikake; passion fruit French toast with matcha cream; and braised pork belly with Peruvian potatoes and aji panca paste.
While it’s a fusion that many Americans might not be familiar with, Matthews reports that the response has been enthusiastic. “Our customer base has really been curious and open to exploring what a Nikkei brunch is,” she says.
Despite being one of the more popular cuisines in the U.S., Italian fare is rarely associated with brunch. One exception is Chicago’s Torali, where executive chef Franco Diaz incorporates Italian ingredients into the menu. Balsamic reduction sauce tops French toast, mascarpone and pesto make up the Sicilian omelet, and even Parmigiano-Reggiano is added to hash browns. In a dozen markets across the country, North Italia serves a Nonna Casserole, made with Italian sausage, ciabatta, and marinara.
No matter the cuisine, Diaz says there’s a simple formula for creating a memorable, delicious brunch menu. “The key is to feature a good variety of flavors, textures, and seasonality of products to satisfy hungry guests.”