If everybody’s working for the weekend, then brunch is our reward. The weekend scene at New Orleans’ eateries suggests that brunch is a meal best served with festive libations and consumed between peals of laughter. It is an indulgent, leisurely meal that tends to lean toward decadence with free-flowing champagne, mimosas, milk punches and Bloody Marys being the signature beverages consumed with rich, flavorful foods – usually by nattily attired participants.
As is the case with so many things that are vaguely naughty, over-the-top, or both (the cocktail, Mardi Gras, jazz and muffulettas just to name a few), New Orleans is the birthplace of the meal we call “brunch,” if not the name itself.
The linguistic combination of breakfast and lunch can be traced back to an 1895 article printed in the British magazine Hunter’s Weekly entitled “Brunch: A Plea.” The author, Guy Beringer, envisioned a new “cheerful, sociable and enticing” meal that would replace the traditional heavy English post-Sunday services breakfast. “It puts you in a good temper,” Beringer wrote. “It makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”
The compound repast became popular in this country during the 1930s when wealthy transcontinental train travelers stopped in Chicago for a hearty late morning feast.
Though the word may have originated someplace else and it may have become popular due to a seed planted in yet another, brunch as we know it originated in pre-Civil War New Orleans around 1854. “Though it was still called ‘breakfast’ what we now think of as ‘brunch’ was first served by Elizabeth Kettenring Dutrey Begue,” says Poppy Tooker, host of NPR’s “Louisiana Eats!” and author of the revised 2012 edition of Madame Begue’s Recipes of Old New Orleans Cookery (Pelican Publishing).
The woman who would become Madame Begue arrived in the city from her native Bavaria in 1854 at the age of 22 to join her brother, a French Market butcher, in his home in the New World. She married one of his friends, Louis Dutrey, the owner of a nameless coffeehouse just across the street from the French Market at the corner of Madison Street.
An accomplished cook and enterprising businesswoman, Elizabeth observed that her brother and his butcher friends were ravenous by midmorning after toiling at the market from predawn. To satisfy them, at 11 a.m. each day she began offering multiple-course, family-style meals in a room upstairs from the coffeehouse.
“In true European fashion, the market workers lingered over what was their biggest meal of the day,” Tooker says. “With inspiration from the bounty of the market just across the street, Elizabeth’s menus always included an egg course, which was unusual for the time period, when eggs were one of the most expensive proteins. Wine accompanied every course. Cheese and fruit with dark, black café noir flamed with cognac concluded the feast.”
When Louis Dutrey died, his feisty widow quickly married Hippolyte Begue, their bartender, eight years her junior. They christened the establishment Begue’s Exchange and elegant, congenial Monsieur Begue charmed guests in the dining room while his clever bride manned the coal-burning stove.
“New Orleans was experiencing its gilded age when the Cotton Exposition opened in 1884,” Tooker says. “Americans flocked to the city in droves and Madame Begue’s breakfast became the number one tourist attraction.” Visitors crowded out the hungry butchers as they wrote months in advance to secure seats at the daily 11 a.m. meals, which Madame still served to just one seating a day. The restaurant’s installation of one of the city’s first telephones heightened the competition for a seat at Madame’s table. So popular a celebrity did she become that her death in 1906 garnered national news. She was America’s first celebrity chef.
Despite Madame’s passing, the culinary tradition she established lived on. Following his wife’s death Hippolyte Begue married her kitchen helper, thus keeping the same familiar dishes flowing from the kitchen. Upon his death in 1917, the property was sold to Tujaque’s, another popular spot known for multi-course meals. It remains there today and is justifiably notable for its own brunch traditions.
It was in the early 1970s that Dick Brennan Sr. was struck with the idea to invite a lively jazz trio to play for the post-church crowd that visited the then-fledgling Commander’s Palace on Sunday mornings. “Us kids in the family were sent to the French Quarter to hand out flyers to tourists advising them that they should take the streetcar to the Garden District for jazz brunch,” says Dickie Brennan Jr. “It was an instant success, I mean we were slammed, and from then on pretty much every kid in the neighborhood was pulled in to work at the restaurant on weekends.”
In bringing together the New Orleans trifecta – booze, food and music – Dick Brennan effectively created a new genre in New Orleans dining where it was perfectly acceptable to party hardy on Sunday morning à la Saturday night then return home for a nap. His winning formula has been replicated by many and evolved by others even as the Commander’s Palace original continues to thrive on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Chef John Folse of Restaurant R’evolution speculates that the Catholicism that dominated the Creole areas of the city in the early days produced citizens who followed the tradition of fasting before Mass, and then “emerged from church Sunday morning too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, but ravenous nonetheless.” Being the tradition-bound creatures that we are among both the devout and the not-so, the historic appeal of a hearty midmorning Sunday meal persists. Chef Folse stands at the ready to greet guests on Sunday mornings at R’evolution alongside a serenade from the Don Vappie Jazz Trio with interpretations of New Orleans classics such as gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp and grits and beignets, but also with new creations that utilize ingredients from what he refers to as “the swamp floor pantry” of Louisiana.
New Orleans brunch spots are diverse in their appeal, but most deliver their pick-me-up first and foremost through their food, whether it’s reinterpreting classics, highlighting regional standards, celebrating an ethnic cuisine or simply churning out delectable comfort foods. But atmosphere counts, too.
At Broussard’s that means Sunday mornings at white-clothed tables either within or overlooking the restaurant’s verdant tropical courtyard to the strains of a strolling jazz trio. Diners satisfy cravings for Poached Eggs with Barbecue Smoked Duck or Redfish Bonaparte with a sweet ending of flaming Bananas Foster prepared tableside via gueridon, the drama of which can make you feel like a child at a hibachi restaurant.
At Arnaud’s, chef Tommy DiGiovanni limits the prix fixe four-course brunch to Sundays when he serves up an assortment of elegant egg dishes and Creole-inspired specialties. “Guests may choose from over 37 menu items while enjoying the Dixieland Jazz of Jerry Embree’s Gumbo Trio,” says restaurateur Katy Casbarian. “Favorites include Creole Cream Cheese Evangeline, Eggs Fauteux – poached eggs and house-smoked Gulf pompano on English muffins with dill-infused Hollandaise Sauce – Eggs Sardou, Crabmeat Cheesecake, Oysters en Brochette and Shrimp Clemenceau … and of course Bananas Foster and Crepes Suzette, my personal favorite.”
A few blocks away, Antoine’s keeps its Sunday morning jazz brunch in strictly traditional French Creole-style with fare such as Gulf Fish Amandine and Grillades and Grits. Always thrilling and impressive, Baked Alaska is on the menu, too.
Mizado’s Tamale Ranchero
While brunch is a natural fit for the city’s elegant, old-line eateries, many casual restaurants enjoy a thriving brunch patronage as well. At Mizado Cocina, the recently opened colorful Latin American eatery at the foot of Pontchartrain Boulevard, the Sunday morning vibe is decidedly sexy. Music is provided via a pulsing sound system and refreshing fare, such as the Venera Ceviche of fresh scallops marinated in tomato, pomegranate and grapefruit juices and kicked up with minced habanera pepper, pomegranate seeds, avocado, melon and cilantro on the plate. The hip, youthful vibe extends to the friendly wait staff, all of whom qualify for membership in the “Beautiful People Club.” Sunday brunch at Cafe B means endless Mimosas for $12, endless Champagne for $10 and a seated meal with Southern specialties like fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits or creamy mascarpone grits served with barbecue shrimp or debris and gravy.
Audubon Clubhouse’s Oysters on the Half Shell
At the Audubon Golf Clubhouse, Sunday morning brunch is served to a background soundtrack of singing birds in the canopy of oak trees within the park. Complete with a carving station, salad bar and an array of New Orleans-style Sunday dinner items, the brunch buffet is a family favorite, as children can run about in the park a bit while adults supervise from the deep, breezy wrap-around porch over Bloody Marys or Mimosas.
There are far worse – and few finer – ways to usher in a new week.
Antoine’s: 713 St. Louis St., 581-4422, Antoines.com
Arnaud’s: 813 Bienville St., 523-5433, ArnaudsRestaurant.com
Audubon Golf Clubhouse: 6500 Magazine St. (in Audubon Park), 212-5285, AudubonInstitute.org/visit/clubhouse-cafe
Broussard’s: 819 Rue Conti, 581-3866, Broussards.com
Café B: 2700 Metairie Road, 934-4700, CafeB.com
Commander’s Palace: 1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221, CommandersPalace.com
Mizado Cucina: 5080 Pontchartrain Blvd., 885-5555, MizadoCocina.com
R’evolution: 777 Bienville St., 553-2277, RevolutionNola.com
The Court of the Two Sisters: 613 Royal St., 522-7261, CourtOfTwoSisters.com