Brunch is a divisive issue. There are those whose social handles and hashtags herald the institution, celebrating runny yolks, cross-cut bagel sandwiches and bombastic Bloody Marys. Others decry brunch as an invention of the American leisure class, launching their own digital campaigns and countless think pieces.
Among the anti-brunch crusade’s complaints are that the category is uninventive and overpriced. This isn’t entirely unfounded. Chefs and restaurateurs attest that brunch is a golden opportunity to hawk surplus proteins beneath a poached egg and Hollandaise schmear for anywhere from $12 to $25. Popular morning cocktails are often figuratively and literally watered down, with terms like “bottomless” prioritized over creativity or quality.
Now, critically lauded breakfast-centric restaurants are ascendant nationwide. Chefs are eschewing by-the-numbers Benedicts and high-fructose waffles for dishes that are just as singular and compelling as those offered during lunch or dinner services. Morning meals are available all week long, not just during six to 10 tragically crowded weekend hours.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
Best of all, beverage directors are reinvigorating morning cocktail lists. Signature drinks might encompass amaro-spiked cold brew, shrubs with craft gin and fresh herbs, or clever riffs on throwback Greyhounds or Tequila sunrises.
Indianapolis’s Jonathan Brooks was the first Food & Wine Best New Chef (2015) not to serve dinner. His James Beard-nominated neo-diner, Milktooth, highlights breakfast and lunch delicacies like sorghum-glazed bacon, house-made salmon and cream cheese rillettes, and sweet or savory Dutch baby pancakes seven days a week. Drinks at Milktooth include a French 75 with Cava and Bluecoat gin, Micheladas with house-made mix, and a self-proclaimed “Basic B” Bloody Mary featuring fresh horseradish and Aylesbury Duck vodka.
According to Brooks, since opening Milktooth in 2014, one of his most perennially popular menu items is the Notorious F.I.G. coffee drink. Served in a short rocks glass alongside a shot of milk, it contains iced cold brew sweetened with a house-made amaro-fig elixir. It is barely alcoholic, yet kicky and complex.
Such tipples follow a principle of next-wave day drinking: Theirs is a light buzz. Low-alcohol breakfast cocktails are better suited to weekday imbibing, and allow those partaking to sample multiple menu options without decimating their entire days. As Julie Reiner of New York City cocktail dens Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge explained last fall, “You want to be able to have a couple of cocktails and feel fine.”
Additionally, low-proof drinks complement the dishes coming out of these creative kitchens. Opened late last year, aptly monikered Williamsburg destination Sunday in Brooklyn is devoted to bringing breezy weekend feels all day, every day. The dining room offers avocado toast topped with wheatgrass and preserved tomatoes, seasonal vegetable sides, and show-stopping malted pancakes to a well-coiffed crowd throughout the week.
The healthy-ish ethos extends to the drinks list, which spans cold-pressed juices and boozier creations like Champagne Problems, comprised of beets, bubbles, grapefruit aperitif, and fresh mint. The bar at Sunday in Brooklyn also pours a spirited take on the classic Tequila Sunrise eye-opener, and a gin- or vodka-infused vegetable shrub with mint and sherry. All are a far cry from the saccharine Mimosas or artificially seasoned Bloody Mary mixes that accompany prefab weekend brunches.
West Egg Cafe, a buzzy, breakfast-only restaurant in Atlanta’s Westside, serves traditional and new-wave Southern fare until 4 or 5 p.m. daily. As at Milktooth, there is no dinner service. Weekday regulars and weekend throngs queue for biscuit sandwiches featuring country ham or vegetarian sausages, small-batch Atlanta Fresh yogurt with granola and seasonal fruit, and a fried green tomato BLT on challah from local bakery TGM Bread.
Breakfast cocktails similarly blend contemporary and classic tastes. The Bloody Mary menu pairs house-made mix with Espolon tequila or Charleston Distilling Co.’s Dixie peppered vodka. Mimosas feature Cava with fresh grapefruit juice and sage.
With the rise of mobile economies and fluid workweeks, the ways we eat, drink and socialize are evolving. High-quality, low-alcohol breakfast cocktails suit the farm-to-tablet, athleisure era. For many modern drinkers, opportunities to indulge can arise at any hour and on any day of the week. Free time is precious, and food and beverage choices are paramount.
Ultimately, bottomless Mimosas at a blowout weekend brunch might soon seem as outdated as Folgers Crystals and fax machines. Nothing is more satisfying than progress.