For many New Orleanians, Sunday brunch is the big socio-culinary event of the week. The free-flowing bubbly wine (it might well be French, but it’s almost never real Champagne), the music, the surfeits of food, and the lack of concern for the clock all contribute to the pleasure.
The meal’s name doesn’t need explanation. It’s the hybridization of breakfast and lunch. Or, as a restaurateur friend once described it, “lunch with a few egg dishes added to the menu.”
That wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary to Europeans, who see nothing wrong with having eggs as an entree at lunch or even at dinner. It wasn’t long ago that Antoine’s featured eight egg entrees on its dinner menu.
Brunch as we know it in New Orleans was created at Brennan’s at the suggestion of Lucius Beebe, a hyper-literate writer on the good life who very much liked New Orleans and the Brennans. The 1940s, the book Dinner At Antoine’s by New Orleans resident Frances Parkinson Keyes was the talk of the town. Beebe told Owen Brennan that he ought to do a take on Keyes’s book by starting Breakfast at Brennan’s.
Although the Breakfast at Brennan’s menu has always made a big fuss over how the rich surfeit of food was how the old Creoles began their days. In fact, the whole idea, the menu, and the recipes were all created from whole cloth, mostly from the mind of Brennan’s first chef, Paul Blange. A classically trained French-Belgian, he knew of many egg dishes that could be passed off as the centerpiece of even a big deal, expensive meal.
The ensemble was so convincing, and Breakfast at Brennan’s became so popular, that it was among the most highly regarded meals it was possible to have in New Orleans. Since eggs are laughably inexpensive, this strategy made Brennan’s the most profitable restaurant in the world in its heyday (1950s until around 2000).
After the 1973 break in the Brennan family and the decampment of the older Brennans to Commander’s Palace, brunch underwent a makeover. The inspiration came from Dick Brennan Sr. (Recently passed away, he was on the front line of Brennan’s and then Commander’s Palace’s management for decades.) He was standing around in the lobby of a grand hotel in London, waiting with his family to check out. He saw brunch being served in the dining room. Naturally, he stuck his head in the door to see how brunch was done there. The room was quiet, even though it was filled with people eating their eggs and fruit.
Then he heard a Dixieland jazz trio playing on the other side of the lobby. (New Orleans jazz always has been much liked by Europeans.) A bell rang in his head. He went back up to his hotel room and called his sister Ella back in New Orleans. “Ella!” he said. “Listen to this! Jazz brunch!”
“Dick! It’s three o’clock in the morning! How much have you been drinking?”
When he returned home, Dick fleshed out the idea. It would have small, portable combos playing traditional jazz at an intimate volume while wandering around the dining rooms. They hired the musicians and did a little publicity, to see if this had as much appeal as Dick knew it would. It didn’t take long. Commander’s Palace filled up, and everybody loved the music. That was the first jazz brunch anywhere. Now it’s everywhere.
Since that time, brunch—either with or without jazz—has grown in its extent around town. At this writing, we have an all-time record number of brunch restaurants around town at 63. At the same time, the nature of brunch has changed. Before Katrina, one had a big choice to make while considering brunch: would you go to a buffet, or to a menu serving brunch dishes from a menu.
Buffets are immensely popular. “All you can eat!” are the sweetest words imaginable to the average diner. You don’t have to be a gourmet to know what they mean. At their peak in the 1980s, brunch buffets—particularly those in hotels—would serve as many as a thousand people in a noontime.
Two kinds of people disliked buffets, though. First are the gourmets who know that given a choice between a plate of the best food in the world and the opportunity to fill many plates with just-okay food, most people will go for the quantity. Because of that, the restaurants had no incentive to cook great food. It will all get cold and dry on the buffet, and yet people will keep going back for another load.
The other people who hate buffets are restaurateurs. The cost of maintaining even a mediocre buffet is a much higher percentage of the price than it would be for a la carte dining. All the buffets had an excuse to shut down in the aftermath of Katrina. Few of them ever came back. Even the most venerable buffets—the ones at the Hilton, the Marriott, and the longest-running buffet of them all at the Royal Sonesta—went into the Extinct Restaurant category. Only a handful survived, none of them especially good.
Perhaps it was because the big buffets went away, but in the post-K years we have seen that most newly-opened restaurants serve brunch on Sundays, Saturdays or both. It makes sense. Mama isn’t baking a chicken for Sunday dinner like she used to when we were kids. And Millennials and their contiguous generations live under the assumption that when you’re hungry, you go to a restaurant. It’s the normal thing to do, not a big occasion. Except, perhaps at brunch. Especially if there’s music.
Here’s my list as of May 13, 2015. I define brunch for the purposes of this selection as a sit-down restaurant with a full menu that includes not only dishes associated with breakfast, but also dishes familiar from lunch and dinner service. I do not include restaurants that surface with brunch only on the major brunching holidays (Mother’s Day, Christmas, Easter, and the like).
Brennan’sFrench Quarter: 417 Royal St. 504-525-9711.
After closing for a year and a half, a restoration costing well into eight figures, and a new (but still Brennan) management, Brennan’s is more beautiful than ever, with most of its groundbreaking brunch dishes along with at least as many new dishes. You can get the grandest brunch in town any day but Monday.
Arnaud’sFrench Quarter: 813 Bienville St. 504-523-5433.
Not only does Arnaud’s match the menu riches and antique genuineness of the premises that Brennan’s offers, it is less well known for brunch and so easier to get a great table in. Live strolling jazzmen complete the pleasures.
Commander’s PalaceGarden District: 1403 Washington Ave. 504-899-8221.
The only reason that Commander’s ranks below the two above is that its brunch isn’t as good as either lunch or dinner. But the enjoyability of the beautiful premises and its strong kitchen can’t be denied. Live jazz. Brunch on both Saturday and Sunday.
Mr. B’s BistroFrench Quarter: 201 Royal St. 504-523-2078.
Nobody does the classic New Orleans restaurant dishes better than Mr. B’s, and their Brennan bona-fides bring the great egg dishes. Live music at the street end of the longest bar in New Orleans.
La ProvenceLacombe: 25020 US 190. 985-626-7662.
A great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, in a French-style country inn 11 miles from the end of the Causeway. The food has never been better, and the relaxation is total. My favorite time to go there is late afternoon. Piano genius and regular customer Ronnie Kole usually noodles away on the keyboard in the bar after his dinner.
Broussard’sFrench Quarter: 819 Conti St. 504-581-3866.
Broussard’s had a rough year under its new management, but that seems to be resolving itself. Meanwhile, the brunch has been solid since day one. The bottomless mimosas may have something to do with that.
AtchafalayaUptown: 901 Louisiana Ave. 504-891-9626.
Chef Christopher Lynch and the management have taken a brilliant approach to brunch: they serve it every day but Monday, with surprising polish for a restaurant whose environment and prices are those of a neighborhood cafe.
Cafe AdelaideCBD: 300 Poydras St. 504-595-3305.
Hotels have always been the first places to look for breakfast or brunch beyond routine. Cafe Adelaide is run by the Brennan’s of Commander’s Palace, which tells the rest of the story. Free valet parking. Women wearing hats at brunch get free cocktails.
Antoine’sFrench Quarter: 713 St Louis St. 504-581-4422.
It could be said that Antoine’s invented fancy eggs dishes in New Orleans. But it didn’t start serving brunch until after the hurricane, when it embraced the idea totally. A jazz trio alternates between the front room (which is preferred, because of its big windows) and the big red room in the rear.
RedemptionMid-City: 3835 Iberville St. 504-309-3570.
Chef Greg Piccolo created an array of brunch dishes during his years at the extinct Bistro at the Maison de Ville. After four years here in the converted, century-old-this-year church that was Christian’s, he’s brought them out of hiding. What a perfect place to be on a Sunday.
Court of Two SistersFrench Quarter: 613 Royal St. 504-522-7273.
The Court serves brunch every day, from a buffet that evolves from breakfast fare at nine to decidedly lunch-like at two. It is not as touristy as many believe it is. Best Sazerac in town for the eye-opener.
Crystal RoomCBD: Le Pavillon Hotel, 901 Poydras St. 504-581-3111.
One of the last brunch buffets worth talking about, the restaurant of Le Pavillon Hotel is less expensive and less ambitious than most buffets, but it’s still there. Easy walking distance from the Superdome.
Cafe DegasMid-City: 3127 Esplanade Ave. 504-945-5635.
The surroundings of this little French bistro is immensely appealing, particularly on days when it’s comfortable weather outside. Nobody makes better egg dishes than a French chef.
PatoisUptown: 6078 Laurel St. 504-895-9441.
A fascinating blend of old-time French-Creole dishes, in a restaurant which for most of its history was a neighborhood joint.
Restaurant des FamillesMarrero: 7163 Barataria Blvd. 504-689-7834.
Here’s the brunch for when you have friends in from out of town. The restaurant’s large windows give onto a primordial bayou that may well bring an alligator to view.