A Brief History of Brunch + A Few of Our Fave NYC Brunch Restaurants

Eggs Benedict, fresh bread baskets, bottomless mimosas, some gentle jazz standards to set the Sunday mood—these are the ingredients we’ve come to associate with the classic American brunch. What are the origins of this most famous of merged meals? How did brunch culture flourish in New York City in particular? And why is brunch both so loved and loathed? We explore both in this brief history of brunch and highlight some of our favorite NYC brunch restaurants below.

Brunch, Actually

The word is synonymous with Mother’s Day, bridal and baby showers, any weekend occasion that calls for a glass of bubbly (or few). But there was a time, at the dawn of the twentieth century, when brunch was a new addition to the culinary vocabulary. In an 1896 edition of Pennsylvania’s New Oxford newspaper, a new “fad” was introduced—a “repast at 11 o’clock a.m.,” between breakfast and lunch, that was on its way to becoming a weekly post-church ritual across the country. Shouldn’t the Lord’s day of rest include a nap-inducing feast … and one less meal to prepare, after all?

From Ellis Island to Studio 54 to Sex and the City: How New York Became America’s Brunch Capital

And then came a wave of immigration and, with it, a whole new cultural landscape in America’s cities, notably in New York. Today, everybody knows the cliché about how Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas. But what was New York’s increasingly large Jewish population doing back in the day, while the rest of the city’s huddled masses were in church? Looking for places to nosh, of course. (Dim sum in Chinatown is still a weekend favorite.) That is one theory for why brunch became a tradition here. Another is the city’s vibrant nightlife. Tourists, club kids, well-heeled single women seeking a hangover cure after one too many Cosmopolitans — these and other late risers want to have their pancakes and eat them, too! In the so-called City that Never Sleeps, a whole new midday dining experience, from the greasy-spoon to the grand ballroom, was born.

Happy Hour or Hangry Time?

But brunch, like many aspects of New York life, can be complicated. Restaurant owners love serving brunch because it’s big business. Residents dodging the influx of bridge-and-tunnel brunch-seekers? Not so much. “Brunch is for jerks,” claimed one New York Times op-ed writer, only to be taken down in a New York magazine missive entitled “It’s Time to Shut Up About Brunch.” Ranting about the indignities of brunch—it’s expensive and elitist! No stroller parking!—can be an activity in and of itself. No matter which side of the argument you fall on, one thing is for sure: People are passionate about brunch. And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Skip the Lines and Brunch Away with Some of Open Table’s Favorite NYC Spots

Streetside loitering is a rite of passage for New York’s brunchers. What better way to build your appetite than standing for an hour with the Sunday paper (on your smartphone) or at the bar, right? Actually, we suggest you beat the wait by reserving a table ahead of time at some of these best-loved brunch venues in the area!

Cherche Midi
Love the food but want to skip the fracas at Balthazar? Take the flâneur route over to the Bowery and dine on all the best French brunchables — pot du fromage, steak frites, a glass of kir royale to name a few — this chic, energetic bistro has to offer.

NYC Brunch Restaurants

Dirt Candy
Forget the facon: A creative menu filled with meat-free options — the Canadian Cracker alone is worth the cost of admission — elevates this eatery of earthly delights to ‘must-go’ status for vegetarians (vegans, too). Worried what your omnivorous friends will think? Mention the Jealous Mary (made with green tomatoes!) and let their FOMO do the rest.

NYC Brunch restaurants

The Odeon
To call it “storied” is an understatement. So iconic of the ‘80s that it appeared on the book jacket of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, this downtown fixture exudes cool but it is a family-friendly neighborhood joint at heart. The expansive—and not too expensive—menu is one-size-fits-all. Great for solo dining, too. Make a reservation at The Odeon.

NYC Brunch Restaurants

Café Clover
Banquette-style dining, a table setting at the bar, the outdoor terrace — this is West Village charm defined. An emphasis on locally-sourced vegetables is a plus for those with healthy appetites … literally.

NYC Brunch Restaurants

Fonda
Did someone say margaritas—with free refills? Pace yourself, though. You won’t want to miss all the huevos dishes this contemporary Mexican eatery has in store. Make your día de la Madre reservations right away.

NYC Brunch Restaurants

Sarabeth’s
There’s a reason some restaurants never go out of style. For this consistent favorite among tourists and locals alike, it’s all about the homestyle brunch—pancakes, waffles, and French toast, oh my!—served all weekend, all day long. Make a reservation at Sarabeth’s.

NYC Brunch Restaurants

River Cafe
A gem of the Brooklyn waterfront with its menu of classic favorites and breathtaking views of Manhattan just beyond the bridges, this almost 40-year-old establishment belongs on every New Yorker’s Brunch Bucket List. (Pro tip for Father’s Day: Don’t forget your tie.) Make a reservation at River Cafe.

NYC Brunch Restaurants

 

Elizabeth Wildman is the copy director at St. Martin’s Press. A vegetarian mother to two omnivorous young children, she lives in New York.

Photo credit: Emilie Balz (Cherche Midi); Dillon Burke (Cafe Clover).