Brunch is the only meal that can bludgeon an entire day through seemingly innocuous plates of breakfast fare. Servers deliver omelets large enough to swaddle a child. Bacon and flapjacks compete for the tall stack. Maple syrup drizzles savory meats and rich gravy sauces biscuits. Whipped cream dollops piles of fruit.
Brunch also incorporates cocktails no one in their right mind would drink any other day of the week. Yet on Sundays, dainty mimosas bait with sweetness while brawny bloody marys inspire lust, garnished with olives, dilly beans and celery stalks.
After this raft of indulgence, a nap beckons. Forget errands, home or self-improvement. Five thousand calories followed by a food coma and a hangover and Sunday is done.
With origins in the 1930s, brunch caught on when Hollywood stars taking the train across the country stopped in Chicago for a late-morning repast. The custom became established in New York City in the 1980s, thanks partly to Jews on the Upper West Side who went to Barney Greengrass for bagels and lox instead of church, wrote Bryan Curtis on "The Birth of Brunch" on Slate.
Jesse Rhodes, writing in Smithsonian Magazine's Food and Think blog, corroborates this social angle. "It was a meal championed by hotels since most restaurants were closed on Sundays, and, with church attendance flagging after World War II, people were looking for a new social outlet that also let them sleep in a bit."
Chefs, however, often loathe brunch service.
"Brunch is like that bad relationship where the sex is great but you really don't like the person anymore," said Jared Lordon, partner at Allegheny City Smokehouse on the North Side. After returning to Pittsburgh from Asheville, N.C., Mr. Lordon worked at Casbah in Shadyside, NOLA in Market Square and other places before starting his own business.
"Half the time staff calls out because they are still loaded from the night before. And spanning from before 9 a.m. to after 2 p.m., brunch has a longer service time than most day shifts," he said.
"But here's the deal," Mr. Lordon said, reminiscing over braised lamb and eggs at Casbah. "When it's done right, brunch is a beautiful thing."
Its increasing popularity is a testament. Like the sidewalks outside velvet-roped clubs, the entrances to the most popular brunch places collect parties awaiting affordable luxury, a languorous meal and catharsis from the week's responsibilities.
But there's a reason to embrace brunch that trumps all others: For mothers, grandmothers, lovers or friends, brunch is the meal for paying homage to the people we cherish.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Eleven (1150 Smallman St., Strip District, 412-201-5656). Oversized banquettes line the upstairs runway, ideal for lounging and maintaining privacy. House-made breads are a highlight, including flaky, buttery croissants and mini muffins. Sweet Fishers Island oysters arrive with house-made hot sauce, mignonette and lemon.
A sticky bun plates as an architectural model; wedges show off cinnamon brioche with a swirl of butterscotch and bacon. A pastrami hash is brightened by mustard seeds and garnished with poached egg. Chicken and waffles display humble flavor through refined presentation, as one petite round doused in gravy wears a slab of pork belly, while the other collects maple syrup and yolk from a sunny-side-up egg.
Polished service, including napkins re-folded when diners return to the table, proper silver placement between courses and a fleet of servers who arrive on cue to deliver plates, makes for a pampering experience. The $25 prix-fixe for a cocktail, appetizer and entree is an excellent deal.
Bar Marco (2216 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-471-1900) offers a cocktail-fueled, buzzy brunch, whether it's a pirate's dream of rum, grapefruit juice, falernum and maraschino, or coffee with amaretto-whipped cream.
On a menu divided by sweet, savory, eggs and sides, whiskey-cured salmon on toasted pumpernickel pairs with fennel salad. Strips of crispy pig ears fan butter lettuce nestled with blue cheese. Broiled grapefruit centers a plate of ricotta and honey. This two-for-one arrives with incentive to make a greyhound with the shot of Boyd & Blair vodka that comes with the dish.
For terrific people watching during Saturday and Sunday brunch, go to Meat & Potatoes (649 Penn Ave., Downtown, 412-325-7007). On the menu, giant portions of comfort food reign, such as brisket in a Korean-spiced rub with kimchi and eggs. A BLT spin, the PBLT layers bacon and pastrami, arugula, tomato and truffle mayo. A short rib hash issues decadence with poached eggs and horseradish hollandaise.
The Lavender with St. Germain, sparkling wine and Creme de Violette offers a more sophisticated bubbly drink than brunch standards.
Over in Bloomfield, Fukuda (4770 Liberty Ave., 412-377-0916) offers an ascetic's brunch as well as a serene perch for reading the Sunday paper. The bento box sold on Saturdays and Sundays until 2 p.m. provides a fine meal without stuffing oneself silly. Chef Matt Kemp offers three bentos, such as Japanese fried chicken, shiokoji grilled salmon or tofu dengaku as variables. Each protein is flanked by grilled dashi, maki tamago, house-made pickles and a bowl of miso.
Lili Cafe (3138 Dobson St., Polish Hill, 412-682-3600) is an inexpensive $9 brunch that's healthy and often vegan. It's a single-item menu that varies every week, be it waffles and fruit or a vegetable-egg scramble. A quirky space with a turntable's tunes make this an inviting neighborhood nook.
Square Cafe (1137 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square, 412-244-8002) serves breakfast and lunch all day. Try the johnnycakes with raspberry compote and powdered sugar or an array of breakfast sandwiches. Eat those vegetables in the sauteed Brussels sprout hash, a savory favorite paired with leeks and mushrooms, Canadian bacon and an egg over easy. Square Cafe is also a destination for a milkshake, perfectly indulgent Sunday fare.
Another family-friendly brunch spot is Bistro 19 (711 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon, 412-306-1919), a sunny space with a classic brunch to please any palate. Eggs are the highlight, including the strata with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini and feta, or the leek and gouda omelet. French toast and bananas Foster pancakes are the splurge, as well as an array of cocktails and coffee drinks. With Jameson, brown sugar and whipped cream, a traditional Irish coffee done well is a treat.
E² (5904 Bryant St., Highland Park, 412-441-1200) assembles a soulful brunch Saturday and Sunday, although beautiful food and no reservations can make for competitive dining.
Perhaps guests flock here for the doughnut menu: puffs of sugared ginger or caramel dipped rolled in chopped nuts. Toasted coconut decorates chocolate doughnuts. Beignets serve a trail of powered sugar. Savory zeppolis wear black pepper and parmesan, while the most daring doughnuts are stuffed with anchovies. These are delicacies to savor. They are not for sharing.
Past the doughnut celebration, diners choose from entrees that include the unsightly, delicious mush: crispy polenta, a slurry of bacon, sausage and pecans with a buttery maple syrup. Kale stars in hash with white beans, bacon and two fried eggs. The big fat salad is certainly not rabbit food, laden with two eggs, bacon, gorgonzola and pecans.
Diners will overeat here, as they well should.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @MelissaMcCart. First Published March 21, 2013 4:00 AM