Restaurants best known for dinner are now courting the morning crowd, hoping to pull in commuters and a growing workforce that isn’t 9 to 5.
For restaurant enthusiasts, weekend brunch is the great equalizer. Reservations are rarely taken, so most tables are fair game; the prices are lower than at dinner; and lots of people have the day off to enjoy thick-cut bacon with a side of sausage. Stroll past places like Lady Marmalade, Rose and Sons, and Aunties and Uncles on a Saturday morning, and you’ll have to sidestep the line stretching out the door.
“Toronto is definitely a brunch town,” says Scott Vivian, co-owner of Beast at King and Tecumseth. And brunch is good business for restaurants: Tables turn over more quickly when people are ordering a plate of eggs benny, rather than staying for a multi-course meal. On a busy weeknight, Beast will seat roughly 60 people for dinner. On a recent Sunday morning, Vivian served double that.
It’s unsurprising, then, that he would want to broaden brunch beyond weekends, so earlier this month, he extended it to Friday and Monday mornings. Beast’s brunch is already celebrated for the gloriously decadent Beastwich: a fried chicken thigh with pimento cheese, a fried egg, and pork-sausage gravy teetering over a buttermilk biscuit. It will be featured on an upcoming episode of Food Network Canada’s You Gotta Eat Here, and Vivian anticipates a bump in business after the show airs. Still, he says, brunch can be a drag for chefs who must plate the same dishes each week. To keep his mind from going on auto-pilot, Vivian will bring back his popular weekly specials, which offered a sandwich inspired by a different city (Chinese sausage for Taiwan, meat stew for Liverpool). He also now has a chef de cuisine to help with dinner service, giving him time to experiment with brunch.
Over on College Street, The Huntsman Tavern has provided brunch seven days a week since it opened last fall. The hours allow chef Eric Hadley, whose nearby namesake restaurant closed a year ago, to showcase a few of his breakfast dishes. At night, the tavern exudes the vibe of a boisterous corner pub, and the cocktails are lit by nothing but candles. During the day, however, sunlight illuminates the dark-navy walls, spilling onto solo diners sharing a quiet meal with a book, or tables of two holding afternoon meetings with papers strewn across the table.
“We live in a society where people work different hours, not just 9 to 5,” says Huntsman co-owner Saeed Mohammed. “We’re finding a lot of people in the creative, retail, and restaurant industries don’t work those hours, so if they’re working on weekends, why shouldn’t they be able to get brunch on a Monday? This is perfect for them.”
One of those people is Veronica Saye, the front-of-house and beverage manager for The County Cocktail, the new Riverside offshoot of West Queen West’s County General. The spot is also open early, serving pastries, smoothies, and lattes through the week to the a.m. crowd, in addition to weekend brunch. “I work every Saturday and Sunday, so I don’t get out for brunch, ever,” she says. The new spate of morning restaurants—including King West’s Bar Buca, on the other side of the city—is “really industry-friendly,” and will allow Saye to finally hit up Beast in her own neighbourhood.
While both the General and the Cocktail serve lunch, Saye says that Riverside has a larger population of commuters and young families. “We wanted to be available to all the people in this neighbourhood, so this was the plan all along.” That way, Saye can also challenge herself to come up with lighter libations. “We can experiment with things that aren’t as booze-forward, so we have a line of house-made sodas that are great for kids,” she says. The County makes its own root beer, cream soda, and that classic of Americana—the egg cream.
There’s a love-hate relationship with brunch in this town—we’ll line up, and then we’ll lament the basic scrambled eggs on offer. But good things happen as brunch gets bigger. Increased competition will drive restaurants to look at the service in new ways: more inventive dishes, expanded hours, different menus catering to kids or vegans or the still-slightly-drunk. With all that innovation, diners get to eat—er, reap—the benefits.
Beast, 96 Tecumseth St. (#KGW), 647-352-6000. Brunch hours F–M, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Huntsman Tavern, 890 College St. (#COL), 416-901-9919. Brunch hours M–F, 12–4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
The County Cocktail, 798 Queen St. E. (#RVS), 416-781-4743. Breakfast hours M–F, 7–11 a.m. Brunch hours Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.