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America Sits Down to Breakfast

Monitor writers report from four cities, coast-to-coast, about the meal that weekend diners love to linger over

ON any given Sunday morning, people can be seen lined up outside this modest-looking building on Second Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Above them, a sign reads, "Pancakes make people happy."

The success of this restaurant, called the Royal Canadian Pancake House, is testimony to a popular practice in this city: eating breakfast out on the weekend.

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From hometown diners and dude ranches to pancake houses and trendy cafes, breakfast serves as a welcome wake-up call. "Breakfast is my favorite meal," many say, and they indulge themselves on eggs, bacon, home fries, sausage, toast, bagels, muffins, flapjacks, grits, and more.

Although specific weekend breakfast figures are difficult to pin down, the National Restaurant Association reports that on the whole, people are ordering more breakfast food in this country. Breakfast entrees represented 11 percent of all restaurant meals in 1991, up from 7 percent in 1990. Among midscale restaurants, such as Denny's, breakfast-type entrees represented 28 percent of all meals, up from 16 percent in 1991.

"Brunch is back," says Clark Wolff, a food-industry consultant based in New York. "We really do want homey and comfortable, but we're too exhausted [to cook at home]." Several trends are making brunch a choice meal, notes Mr. Wolff. For one, the quality of bread in the United States has come a long way in recent years. But perhaps even more important, breakfast or weekend brunch offers much more variety than ever before.

The thriving Shoney's breakfast bar is an example. Ever since its inception 10 years ago, it has been growing in size and popularity, according to Mary Ellen Price, spokeswoman for the family-style restaurant chain which has 900 restaurants in 31 states.

In the San Francisco area, Marion Cunningham, author of "The Breakfast Book" (Alfred Knopf, 1987) reports that brunches are "being done all over the place."

For many folks, it's recreation, Ms. Cunningham notes. In the back-to-basics '90s, comfortable is "in" and formality is "out."

Also, people perceive a certain economic value in breakfast. "It's virtually impossible to spend a lot of money on breakfast unless you're in a big hotel or something," notes Michael Stern, co-author of "Road Food," (HarperCollins, 1992) "An egg's an egg," he says.

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Mr. Stern observes that the meal draws more families today than, say, in the '70s. Back then, "it was a romantic thing to do," he says, a mostly "couples only" activity.

"I think the weekend breakfast has become an occasion for the whole family to go out and eat and for kids to ramble around the restaurant," Stern says.

"It's a very familial meal, but the family doesn't have to be your own," Wolff says.

"We go once every weekend," Liann Schottenstein says as she waits in line to get into the pancake house with two friends.

Her reason is simple: "We love brunch. It's leisurely."

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