Letter From New York

The Birth of Brunch

Why and how we eat at midday.

“It started right here. This is the beginning of the brunch.” This is Gary Greengrass, the owner of the Upper West Side delicatessen Barney Greengrass, known as”The Sturgeon King.” A large, bald man who has run his grandfather’s deli since 1983, Greengrass is sitting at a Formica table, his eyes trained on the customers coming through the door. At my behest, he is speculating that New York brunch as we know it began here on Amsterdam Avenue at 86th Street, amid pickled herring, whitefish salad, and salmon with eggs and onions. “It sort of evolutionized from here,” he says.

Six blocks south, at Sarabeth’s at 80th Street, another New York restaurateur was laying down her claim. “I was the original brunch girl,” says Sarabeth Levine. “I reactivated the eating of breakfast.” Whereas Greengrass specializes in Jewish delicacies, Levine, who opened the first of her five New York locations in 1981, has a menu that tends toward porridges, vegetable and Gruyère frittatas, and pumpkin waffles with sour cream, raisins, pumpkin seeds, and honey. “Before me, you had the local Greek diner or the corner bodega thing,” Levine says. “But you didn’t have a place to sit down and get hot cereal unless you went to the country.”

Sunday brunch is so omnipresent in New York—extending uptown and downtown, upscale and downscale, and, these days, across all days and hours of the week—that its origins are necessarily hazy. Dozens of Manhattan restaurants can lay claim to inventing some part of brunch: You can trace the mythic origins of eggs Benedict, for example, to Delmonico’s, a downtown steakhouse, and the Waldorf, in Midtown. But Sunday brunch’s formative cauldron may be this otherwise unremarkable six-block stretch of Amsterdam on the Upper West Side. It is here that Sunday brunch acquired its defining characteristics, its casual manners.

Why Sunday? While it’s tempting to see brunch as a secular ritual—a slow start for those coming to after nocturnal prowlings—there’s an argument that it owes a great deal to American Jewry. Brunch, Gary Greengrass acknowledges, was a kind of Jewish alternative to church. Jewish families, with nothing much to do on Sunday mornings, would take a long, leisurely meal, with traditional foods like bagels, lox, and blintzes. Occasionally, they would take that meal out. (New York blue laws used to prohibit restaurants from being open on Sundays; Greengrass’ grandfather, Barney, would gladly pay the fine.) These days, Barney Greengrass hosts its share of Jewish machers: Jerry Seinfeld, David Geffen, Richard Dreyfuss, and novelist Philip Roth, who, according to Gary Greengrass, is a brunch guy but not a Sunday brunch guy.

Barney Greengrass has been serving the same fare since it opened it 1908, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that brunch culture began to develop in New York. At that moment, Amsterdam above 79th Street wasn’t an especially ripe piece of real estate. “It was terrible,” says Sarabeth Levine. “My husband used to walk me to the bakery at 4:30 in the morning. There was a whole subculture of rats—whole families!” With money still transferring over from the Upper East Side, Amsterdam was a pre-gentrification mix of Columbia professors, artists, and bohemians—the sort of slackery Sunday-morning regulars who frequent brunch now.

It’s easy to see brunch as a battle of wills: the restaurateurs, who want to keep the turnstiles moving, vs. the customers, who would have the meal take all afternoon. Brunch parties tend to arrive in increments, dressed like refugees, occasionally hungover, usually after increasingly irate calls from other patrons. (“Are you still in bed? Is someone there with you? Well, bring her, what do I care?”) When the party finally coalesces on the sidewalk, they are informed by the host that they will have to wait for a table—both Barney Greengrass and Sarabeth’s tend to have endless lines on Sundays. As Nora Ephron, a longtime Upper West Side resident, put it in e-mail the other day, “As far as I can tell, the essential quality of an Upper West Side brunch seems to consist of milling in a large group outside of a restaurant for over an hour.”

Perhaps because of this extended preamble, diners feel entitled to a lethargic meal, kibitzing and peeling through the thick Sunday New York Times. To combat this, Barney Greengrass waiters are trained to be as warm as the restaurant’s Formica tabletops, adhering to a policy of “get ‘em in, get ‘em down, get ‘em well fed, and get ‘em out.” (You get your check whether you ask for it or not.) Sarabeth Levine says, “Do I want people in here for two hours? I don’t think so! Breakfast isn’t this big expensive thing. It’s not like going out for dinner, where you sit for two hours, order wine, and run up a $250 bill. We don’t want people nursing a muffin for two hours.”

Other New York brunch traditions vary depending on taste. Brunch may be alcoholic or nonalcoholic. A general rule holds that if the previous night was well-oiled, a Bloody Mary or mimosa will be necessary. (Whereas if you were sober, you might wish to keep it that way.) Brunch often has a distinctly post-coital vibe. Either one is brunching with one’s romantic partner from the previous evening, in which case a louche afterglow hangs in the air, or one is brunching with friends, in which case one is wondering aloud why a louche afterglow isn’t hanging in the air.

The other thing about Sunday brunch is that it tends to be generational. In your 20s—mandatory, often twice a weekend. In your 30s and 40s—less so, unless you want to lug around a stroller. Fifties and beyond—again frequent, though starting at an earlier hour. It might as well be breakfast.