Las Vegas’s dining scene is part derivative, part bleeding-edge opulence with a dash of some exciting up-and-comers. That said, brunch in Las Vegas is an institution more aligned with its function than the photogenic pageantry it is in LA. So it was in that mercifully muted natural lighting of Morels, over an impeccable croque madame and a downright sassy Bloody Mary that it dawned on us: brunch in LA has lost the plot.
The brunch scene in LA offers plenty of unique items, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can find a cornucopia of fancy toasts, shakshuka, foie gras torchons, and hiramasa crudo. You’ll even get breakfast tacos with potato puree standing in for meat and shredded carrots that look like cheese. But LA’s restaurant scene is scrambling so quickly to flee from the adjective "basic" that it’s forgotten the essence of brunch altogether.
The focus of brunch has shifted, and the meal has descended into an Instagram pageant
Sure, brunch has become a full-blown culture, a quasi-culinary event where people dress up like fashion influencers and snap naturally lit photos of gorgeous food. I’m not trying to critique the culture; for that, there’s David Shaftel, who went huevos deep in a 2014 New York Times op-ed entitled "Brunch is for Jerks."
But the focus of brunch has shifted, and the meal has gone right on and descended into an Instagram pageant, with restaurants across the city trying to outdo one another in the "Oh, that looks like it would taste good because it’s brightly lit and shot with a DSLR hovering over the table" sweepstakes.
And with that, it was off to the races. Sliders and bacon started sprouting out of Bloody Marys, pizzas and burgers started popping up on brunch menus.
Perhaps the worst offenders are some of the meat dishes. A full-on dry-aged ribeye steak for two at 11 on a Sunday morning? Lamb chorizo and non-bacon pork belly dishes are just completely unnecessary, but they do communicate to the diner that "Hey, you're never going to guess this, but we're open for lunch and dinner, too."
But trying to increase customer retention with sloppy meal-agnostic menus was never the purpose of brunch. Colorful, photo-friendly iterations of ambiguous breakfast or lunch fare is one of the worst examples of pointless elitism in the industry. Worse yet, brunch has become a marketing slog of a meal, and it needs to be made great again.
Unlike other people who are trying to "Make [Blank] Great Again," I know it’s going to be hard to #MakeBrunchGreatAgain by employing a ham-fisted proposal of addition by subtraction. I promise there are no walls to be built, no discrimination, and — my personal favorite — no accusations that the Pope is in cahoots with Mexico to rip off the United States. Nope, just food and drink here. Here’s what every self-respecting brunch menu in Los Angeles needs to have, even (or especially) if it’s at the expense of more elaborate dishes.
Yes, a worthy rendition of the crispy-edged, fried shaved potato is harder to find in L.A. than free parking. It’s baffling, because the humble hashed brown, that crispy vessel of godless carbohydrate worship, is an absolute brunch staple just about everywhere else in America.
What do most chefs in the city opt to whip up instead? Those lifeless cubes of starchy potato roasted in an oven for ambiguous periods of time. A well-executed plate of hash browns should be on every brunch menu, if only for the reason that you can’t spell "waste of a goddamned potato" without "home fries."
Perhaps it’s topped with Canadian bacon (ding), or it’s topped with a crab cake made from unused meat from the previous night’s service (double-ding), if there’s pizza but no Benedict on the menu, just be advised that you’ve probably been hoodwinked and there’s a good chance you’re eating lunch instead of brunch.
As for the benedict, one of brunch’s greatest pleasures is the inimitable synergy of a dense hollandaise, rich egg yolk, and a properly toasted English muffin.
It’s salty, it’s greasy, it staves off a hangover or provides a solid foundation for continued drinking. The hash is a savory and satisfying mish-mash of unused meat and potatoes that takes on a renewed purpose in the wee hours of 10:30 a.m., a kind of brunch-exclusive influx of temporary guilt. It deserves, at the very least, an attempted take on every brunch menu that serves meat.
A Bloody Mary
Ah, the mimosa. Nothing says "I just turned 21" like drowning a bunch of godawful champagne in orange juice. And though it really gets the youngins kicking to see cheap bottomless mimosas on a menu, what about those of us who don’t like temple-splitting headaches from crappy champagne and orange juice at 3 p.m. in the afternoon?
Well, there’s always the Bloody Mary. No, not the one with bacon coming out of it or a trio of sliders skewered into it. Just a good, solid, straightforward Bloody Mary, with salty tomato-juice marrying a not-so-terrible vodka and a little dash of Tabasco or horseradish to keep the party rolling through the morning.
It’s time to get back to basics in brunch; here’s hoping LA’s restaurants start taking notice that the best food to eat at brunch is, well, brunch food.
Editor: Matthew Kang
Photos: Wonho Frank Lee