Croissants and coffee — the Eucharist. Pubs and restos — temples. Priests and priestesses — wait staff who bestow benedictions upon you with eggs — er — Benedict. With bloodshot eyes and veins craving a caffeine hit, you’ve probably not thought long and hard about why brunch has caught on as it has, but there are several reasons for its popularity beyond the fact that having someone else make you breakfast after a night of hard drinking rocks.
For many centuries, Sundays saw people queued up to get into churches. Now those same Sunday queues are outside pubs and restaurants, even on the coldest winter days. Brunch is the new religion or at least the new Sunday-morning routine for many — perhaps more people take part in brunch than attend a Sunday-morning church service. And the meal has religious origins.
Brunch is a direct replacement for the midday meal that churchgoers typically ate after a Sunday-morning service. Up until the 19th century throughout the Western world, downtime was on Sunday, since Saturday was for working. (This gradually changed over the next 150 years, in part led by unions in England and North America.) You can imagine how busy Sundays must have been — church took up the morning, so people really had only half a day to do errands and make social visits. This left the afternoon and evening for families to spend quality time with one another, which was especially important given that workdays could be anywhere from 10 to 16 hours. Special occasions such as the Sabbath, the Last Supper, and Lovefeasts (what early Christians called their Eucharist service, which was a meal shared in someone’s home) gave the shared Sunday meal a deeper sense of meaning.
As church attendance wanes, the shared Sunday meal has a new name: brunch. And it’s only growing in popularity.
For a long time, you went to a simple diner for breakfast. But these institutions have been steadily disappearing, replaced by fast-food chains and coffee shops that serve breakfast options. However, the desire to enjoy eggs and toast in a relaxed and inviting atmosphere seems to have left a hole in the culinary landscape. Pub owners saw the opportunity. One of the earliest local pubs to get on the brunch bandwagon remains one of the most popular: The Manx.
On most weekends, and especially on Sundays, a lineup can be seen snaking its way around the corner of Elgin and Frank streets, heading down into the subterranean, grotto-like entranceway that leads to the 65-seat pub. Offering an array of greasy-spoon classics but made from scratch with local ingredients, The Manx averages about 250 plates every Sunday, according to owner Chris Swail.
Their brunch lines didn’t appear overnight, Swail says. The Manx opened in 1993, started brunch in 1994, and by 1997, the lines were steady.
“Brunch is my favourite meal,” says Swail. “It’s a nice traditional meal where everything slows down. It’s also a great thing to do after being out too late the night before or when friends and family are visiting.” One can see how a place like a pub benefits from both the cause and the effect of a night on the town — a drinking establishment can cash in on alcohol sales in the evening, then get you back in the door the next morning for breakfast.
While the markup for breakfast is less and few people order stout with their pancakes, from the restaurateur’s side, there are other benefits to serving brunch. “Word of mouth spills over into other areas,” says Swail. The way he sees it, people start with brunch. If they like it, they’ll come back for lunch or after-work drinks.
While that explains the appeal for pub owners looking to get the most profit out of their space, it doesn’t explain why brunch has become such a hit with the masses. But there are many reasons. For example, the planning factor: dinner out requires a fair amount of preparation — making reservations, organizing safe transportation and possibly a babysitter, and dressing for the location. When it comes to brunch, reservations are rarely taken, the bed-head look is fine, and you can take your kids. In other words, the pressure is off for brunch. It’s a social meal where the main goal is to relax.
On the financial side, you tend to get more bang for your buck: instead of the razzle-dazzle of molecular gastronomy, which tends toward quality over quantity, brunch plates are typically piled high with cheaper, comforting ingredients. Unless you’re ordering steak and eggs, breakfast is typically the most affordable meal you can enjoy at a restaurant, namely because such ingredients as eggs and toast are far less expensive than P.E.I. oysters and Mariposa duck. It’s made even cheaper since many people avoid alcohol. If you’re feeling skint but don’t want to miss out on Ottawa’s burgeoning culinary scene, brunch is a cheaper way to explore some of the city’s best restaurants.
But before we celebrate all that is brunch, a note of caution when it comes to these calculations: that final tab that induces relief, rather than shock, comes at a price. The wait staff deliver a smaller bill and so receive a smaller tip, because most of us tip on the basis of a percentage of the final bill, not how hard the staff worked. And brunch is a ton of work.
Swail calls it “labour-intensive.” Jessie Duffy, a former server who currently manages Arlington 5 Café, adds, “[Brunch] is typically half the financial gain and three times the work.”
She describes the theatre of brunch as a “whirling dervish” of service, where wait staff fly back and forth between tables, refilling coffees, handing out jams and hot sauce, and generally appeasing hung-over patrons (and their cranky kids).
For many, brunch has replaced Sunday-morning church service. But to truly enjoy what Duffy calls the “most democratic of meals,” do consider your brunch experience as one that is shared with those pouring the coffee and frying the eggs.