If you haven't noticed, brunch in Cleveland is having a moment. What used to be the slowest service of the week — if a restaurant even bothered to unlock its doors, that is — has become the busiest meal in the rotation. Long reserved for the stuffy, spend-y hotel crowd, weekend brunch is damn near essential eating at restaurants these days.
"We started doing it because we thought there was a void in the market for Sunday brunch," says Jason Workman, owner of Tremont Taphouse, which is home to one of the most popular brunches in town. "In some ways, Cleveland is always catching up to other cities."
It might seem like a loathsome chore for a restaurant crew to rise early and prep for Sunday brunch, especially after kicking out its last customers only hours earlier. But many operators surprisingly love the gig because everything from the mood to the food is easy like Sunday morning.
"It's relaxed, it's fun, and people let their hair down," Workman reports. "Customers come in unshowered and unkempt just looking for a Bloody Mary and some food to get the day going. We have regulars who dub it Sunday Funday; the same people come every single Sunday and hang out for three or four hours."
Popular with the service industry crowd, many of whom were on the other end of the stick the night before and don't have to work the following day, Tremont Taphouse has been on the Best Brunch list going on eight years.
Critics often denigrate brunch because it is assumed that it's a task reserved for greenhorns. "Brunch is for the B-team," the old saying goes, the price one pays for inexperience. Not so, says Tim Bando, an experienced chef if ever there was one. Since launching brunch at his Chagrin Falls spot Grove Hill, the business has been on an upward trajectory. He credits that to putting in the time and effort to get it right.
"Brunch is just as much work as dinner," he says. "It's breakfast that costs more than going to the traditional diner. The appeal is that the quality of food is better, the service is better, the atmosphere is more upscale, and most of those places don't serve liquor, so you can't order a mimosa, Bloody Mary or a beer."
It's not as easy as it looks either, adds Bando. The saying, "anybody can cook an egg" might be one of the biggest exaggerations ever uttered in a dining room. When you think about it, brunch is a one-off, a menu, wholly separate and distinct from other menus, that is used for just four hours a week.
"Chefs hate cooking eggs!" Bando moans. "I give a lot of credit to the guys who cook at the diner, cooking over-easy eggs all day. You're stepping out of what you do on a regular basis to do something you don't do a lot. And if someone is coming in and paying $12 for an egg dish they can get around the corner for $8 or $9, it better be good."
Like a high-school mono epidemic, brunch is quickly spreading. Options now extend far afield from the tried-and-true eggs Benedict at the corner bistro, with versions built around live gospel music, moveable brewery tours, floating river cruises, even Monday brunches geared to service industry pros. And, yes, there's even a Mexican restaurant brunch, with tacos stuffed with steak and eggs instead of carnitas.
For proof of just how far brunch has come in Cleveland, just peek into Fire Food and Drink on a Sunday. Chef and owner Doug Katz says that if he got 80 people in on a Sunday 10 years ago, that was considered a success.
"Now we do 250 people every Sunday," he reports, adding that the service requires five cooks on the line to keep pace.
What's more, Katz adds, after years of trying — and failing — Saturday brunch finally is taking off. The notoriously challenging weekend service, if attempted at all, has always been a tough sell for over-scheduled diners. But even that is changing as more and more people are discovering the appeal of laidback mid-morning meals.
If you do manage to secure a reservation for the always-busy Sunday brunch at Fire, you likely will witness a crowd that's very different from the ones seated during the week. That is one of the unintended benefits of doing brunch in the first place, says Katz.
"A lot of times people won't come in for dinner because of the cost," he says. "Brunch gives people a great opportunity to go to restaurants they may not go to on weeknights. I think that's why it has become so popular."
Sure, the margins are slim and the check averages are lower than during dinner service, but that's a price many chefs are willing to pay in return for nontangible gains like staff happiness, diner satisfaction and expanding the customer pool.
"We definitely put more into it than we get out of it, but we love brunch so much," says Katz, whose genuine glee can be observed as he works the Sunday crowd. "It's one of those services you can't quantify how much great marketing and PR you get from it, like a different clientele who might never join you during dinner."