Photos by Dan Bishop/Allan-Knox
It’s time for the Sunday brunch bunch to get an image campaign. Maybe a slogan would help – as in “Brunch: It’s not just for Mother’s Day.” The other day a hopelessly out-of-touch person said to me, “Do people really go out to brunch anymore? I mean, except for holidays?” That’s when my new slogan would have come in handy. Some people have the mistaken impression that Sunday brunch is always an invitation to eat like it’s Thanksgiving. And who can eat like that more than once a year?
That’s where the sexed-up brunch comes in. For instance, at Roots Restaurant in Brewer’s Hill, you can order eggs Benedict with seared rare tuna and a wasabi hollandaise sauce. Bayou makes a crawfish and duck étouffée with corn cakes. And if you’re not up for a team of paramedics laying paddles on your chest, you don’t have to do an artery-clogging cheese, sausage and bacon omelet. At the East Side breakfast institution Beans & Barley, you can have whole-wheat pancakes or scrambled tofu. If that’s totally not your idea of brunch, there are still great places to combine quality with quantity and get the mother load of buffets, where afterward you won’t want to eat for another 72 hours.
Some places are making brunch a weekend event by offering it on Saturdays as well. You’ll notice a few of them on this list.
To make the choosing easier, I’ve done all the eating for you, weeding out the heinous from the hot-diggity-dogs. Only the best for you. And here they are…
You order off the menu and never have to leave the table.
Roots Restaurant and Cellar:
Some of the most creative food in town is coming from chef John Raymond’s kitchen. Winter isn’t the most inspiring time of year for seasonal cooking, but you wouldn’t know it by Raymond’s menus. They’re pure energy during a lethargic time of year. It’s pretty tell-ing that the three eggs, cooked any style, is not a hot seller on the Roots menu. What is: the waffle Monte Cristo – smoked turkey, Canadian bacon and Swiss cheese between two waffles. And also: all-spice pancakes with coconut fruits, vanilla ice cream and Nueske’s bacon (nifty, I’ll agree). The Roots Benedict has gone all Japanese, and it works: poached eggs, seared rare tuna, tempura nori (nori is dried seaweed) and wasabi hollandaise sauce. Every week, Roots has a crêpe special and fish of the day. Most dishes in this stylish two-level joint with a marvelous view of Downtown still have a connection to tradition, to what we typically define as a first meal of the day. There’s a classic Benedict, a tofu scrambler, a chorizo and black bean burrito with fried eggs, as well as the option to build your own brunch from 18 ingredients (eggs, crab cakes, grilled tofu, shiitake-daikon radish hash, yucca chips, plain old toast and more). $8-$12. Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. 1818 N. Hubbard St., Brewer’s Hill, 374-8480.
Its placement is divine torture. As you’re escorted to your seat, what jumps out from the margins of your peripheral vision is not the lovely view of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava wing through the east windows, but the chocolate fountain on the dessert table. It’s a three-tier tower of temptation, liquid chocolate running, oozing, dribbling down the sides. A test of wills begins. Should you stuff yourself silly on the first two of three courses included in this meal and need to be carried out on a stretcher, missing the warm chocolate fall? Lord, no. Chew slowly, wear a muumuu, do whatever you must do to make it to the last course. The meal starts with a Sunrise mimosa, raspberry sparkling wine or a Bloody Mary and a popover for everyone at the table. Then the first course appears – the soup du jour, pulled duck with gingered mango dipping sauce or a baby greens salad. Next, entrées – oven-roasted tenderloin, poached egg Oscar, a lobster-asparagus omelet, duck hash, stuffed French toast and a few others. Then, course three: a study in chocolate. The fountain is really just a glorified fondue. Load your plate with marshmallows, fruit and pound cake for dipping. They also have mini desserts – cheesecake, banana bread pudding and flourless chocolate cakes that look like Hostess Ding Dongs. Adults $25; children $10. Sun 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. O’Donnell Park, 931 E. Wisconsin Ave., 727-5555.
The restaurant has to pound out three meals a day every single day. That’s what happens when you’re a hotel restaurant (dripping with art deco charm from the chandeliers down to the restored terrazzo floor). Brunch is a true morphing of the breakfast and lunch menus. You can keep it breakfasty with a crème fraîche-topped oven pancake (I love this), French toast, pancakes, an omelet, huevos rancheros and others. You can give the meal a healthy dose of “afternoon” with a Margherita pizza, cheeseburger, five-spice duck salad, carnitas, orecchiette pasta with porcini mushrooms and prosciutto and then the menu is sounding more and more like dinner. But that’s okay. You can call it “brinner.” $6-$21. Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Ambassador Hotel, 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave., 345-5015.
The youngest restaurant on this list has a loosely defined Cajun-slash-Creole theme. Brunch is not the time for jambalaya or gumbo, but it is the time for eggs with sweet potato biscuits and tasso gravy, a blackened shrimp po’ boy, a cinnamon-orange French toast or crawfish-duck étouffée. I was disappointed to see an empty dining room for most of my visit, although that meant there was nothing to distract from the arboreal view of the Milwaukee River through the windows. There are those who have not discovered the joy of grits. I like the farina-like texture of the subtly cheesy grits, served with the omelets and any of four Benedicts (though a little mushy, overall a very fine blue crab Benedict). For an egg shakeup, try the cream cheese and smoked salmon omelet with mango salsa. $7-$16. Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 2060 N. Humboldt Ave., 431-1511.
Lake Park Bistro:
Saturday is the biggest night of the week for a lot of restaurants, high end or not. That’s why some places are closed on Sundays. Not Lake Park, the bustling French restaurant with a timeless Euro charm. After turning tables a dizzying number of times the night before, staff members wipe the sleep out of their eyes and do it all over again. For brunch, you choose each of your three courses, but you pay only for the entrée: salade niçoise ($27), prime rib ($29), eggs Benedict ($22), plus seven other options. You’ve got another nine choices for appetizers – some are familiar from the dinner menu (soupe à l’oignon, a charcuterie plate, poached oysters). Dessert is fruit sorbet or crêpes suzette, banana bread pudding or a Valrhona chocolate mousse with saffron anglaise and fresh mint ice cream. And I mustn’t forget the beverage –
Champagne, mimosa or orange juice. Brunch is a rich, rich meal here. $20-$31. Sun 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Lake Park Pavilion, 3133 E. Newberry Blvd., 962-6300.
Beans & Barley:
For its weekend brunch – a mix of young families, aging hippies and pretty much everyone in between – “Beans” offers the weekday breakfast menu in toto. You’ve got your pancakes, quiche, egg or tofu burritos, yogurt parfaits and biscuits with vegetarian sausage and gravy – and a few extras. That would be frittatas, a Beans version of huevos rancheros (with poached eggs, salsa and cheese) and two kinds of eggs Benedict. Beans is a classic – reliable for a simple quiche with parsley shallot potatoes or the tofu scrambler, which combines the word “appealing” and “tofu” in the same sentence. That’s a feat. $4.75-$7.50. Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-2 p.m. 1901 E. North Ave., 278-7878.
I smell warm raisin toast, and warm raisin toast reminds me of being a kid and that hard-working toaster aroma that envelops an entire kitchen. A good brunch will give you pause to remember. And breakfast, for me at least, is a nostalgic meal. If only Tess had 1970s linoleum and an avocado-colored refrigerator. But no, it’s a classy place. The tables are white and glowy (nothing like midday candle-light). The weekend winding to a close, on a Sunday morning there’s a calm to this intimate red dining room with adjacent bar. You sense it in the server, the bartender (who pours a trio of Bloodys – Mary, Maria, and Bull) and finally yourself. The six appetizers (in-cluding steamed mussels and French onion tart) smack of a later time of day. Turn the menu over and you’re reminded it’s still early. There’s mango and sour cream pancakes; French toast stuffed with apricots and cream cheese; a shrimp po’ boy; steak and eggs; a bacon, basil and tomato panini. Which to choose? I’d say the delectable crab cake Benedict, French toast or a Swiss chard-feta omelet sprinkled with roasted pine nuts. Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. $9-$15. 2499 N. Bartlett Ave., 964-8377.
The Wicked Hop/Jackalope Lounj:
It may be an old wives’ tale, but I’ve heard if you’ve been on the sauce the night before, you should have some booze with brunch. It’s supposed to keep all the inner juices balanced. I’m mostly a teetotaler at brunch, but it’s not like I don’t make exceptions. Worcester-shire and Tabasco wake up the Hop’s Bloody Mary, garnished with celery, a beef jerky stick, a blue cheese-stuffed Portobello mush-room, a peeled shrimp and a mozzarella whip. There are those who’d define that as a meal. But I vote for some solid food. And if you want to witness true nostalgia, sit in the Jackalope Lounj, where co-owner Miles O’Neil likes to show classic cartoons (“Tom and Jerry”) on the wide screen. The portions are hefty and may inspire heavy-duty afternoon activities like wood chopping. Pick your man: the Dick Bacon brunch burrito (eggs, bacon, sausage and cheese), Matt Foley’s Motivational 6-ounce steak and eggs or the Courtship of Miles Standish, a three-egg scrambler (I’d call it a frittata) with turkey, Swiss cheese and mushrooms. $6-$11.95. Sun 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. 345 N. Broadway, 223-0345.
You want a lot of food, and you want it now.
Pandl’s in Bayside:
If there’s any place writing the book on buffet brunches, it’s Pandl’s. But size is only half of it. Substance is supreme. The 38-year-old North Shore institution has one of the busiest brunches on the planet – popular with seniors, the post-church crowd and extended families. (Don’t risk coming in without a reservation.) The brunch includes a great salad bar with fresh greens and toppings, charcuterie and cheese board, smoked fish and peeled shrimp, fresh fruit, pasta salad, dips, bagels and cream cheese. On another table are several cheeses, a few vegetarian items, as well as bacon and sausage, eggs Benedict and waffles. Two cooks man two wildly different tables. One claims the ever-popular omelets; the other makes stir-fries at the Asian station (which also includes fresh sushi and nori rolls). Desserts are thrown into the mix – from peach cobbler to banana pudding. And at your table, there’s a basket of muffins and sweet rolls. (You can order a “bottomless” glass of Champagne for $4.95.) Still hungry? Amazingly, you can also order an entrée from the kitchen (like roast pork loin with stuffing and honey-lime glaze). Adults $25.95; children 7 to 12 $12.95; children 3 to 6 $6.95; toddlers $1.95. Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. 8825 N. Lake Dr., 352-7300.
Boerner Botanical Gardens:
Though you won’t see it in the dictionary, one of the words related to “buffet” is “family.” But seldom is any part of the buffet targeted specifically at children. Sure, pancakes are kids’ food. But Bartolotta Catering Company, which runs the brunch here, is more kid-friendly than the norm. The brunch, held in the visitors’ center at Boerner Hall, jazzes up one table with kid cuisine – cheesy scrambled eggs, French toast sticks, fruit kabobs, mini muffins, et cetera. The grown-up tables cover everything else – cheeses, pâtés and smoked fish; carved turkey and prime rib; omelet and waffle stations; potatoes, sausage and bacon; and a sweets table (pastries, bars, cakes) that most people will unbelt their pants for. Bonus: Once the weather is nice, you can stroll through the gardens and burn off some of your brunch. Adults $19.95; children 12 and under $8.95. Sun 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. 9400 Boerner Dr., Hales Corners, 525-5635.
Hubbard Park Lodge:
The walk from the parking lot to the Depression-era cabin is part of the reason the lodge has my vote for best ambiance. From the lot, you go through a short tunnel and take a path you might share with a runner, biker or birdwatcher. The Milwaukee River comes into view, its smooth surface a playground for ducks. The path turns and there’s your lodge, once built for the Boy Scouts, now open twice a week to the public – for Friday fish fry and Sunday brunch. Inside, it’s (mostly) two- and four-tops dressed with pretty china, a stone fireplace (a warm and cheerful sight in the winter) and a long buffet table. The menu gives you two choices – order one of three options (like eggs Benedict or quiche du jour, $10-$16) from the kitchen, or go nuts with the buffet. And you can easily go nuts. Fruits, cheeses, shrimp and crab legs, smoked salmon, caprese salad, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. Silver chafing dishes warm the roast Cornish game hens, potato-crusted cod with caviar and dill crème fraîche, barbecued ribs, mashed potatoes, green beans in Parmesan cream sauce. The made-to-order stations do omelets and pastas or crêpes. The desserts are on a raised surface in the middle of the table –
two-bite cheesecakes, brownies, petits fours, éclairs. My one complaint: There’s a lot of protein and not enough vegetables. Adults $27; children 5-12 half-price; children 4 and under free. Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. 3565 N. Morris Blvd., 332-4207.
This setting inside the Pfister Hotel oozes class. A pianist plays the theme to Casablanca under the crystal chandeliers. Two servers attend to your beverage needs –
orange juice, Freixenet sparkling wine and coffee. The attire of diners tends to be less denim, more silk crepe. Elegance hangs over the buffet as well. The layout is divided into the chef-manned stations (for the obligatory made-to-order omelets and pastas, plus prime rib and lamb chops), as well as a few rows of chafing dishes that hold the prepared hot items and an area for salads and desserts. It’s a diverse spread, though a little thin on desserts, fresh fruit and cheese. With the chafing dishes, it’s always encouraging to see a staff member standing nearby, eager to help with the tongs or replenish an empty serving dish. It’s inevitable that most everything in those heated metal containers will not be undercooked. That’s less of a problem with a salmon filet in beurre blanc than eggs Benedict (whose texture can change in a blink). Adults $28.95; kids 6-12 $14.95; kids 5 and under free. Sun 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., 273-8222.
The Copper Dock:
Everybody’s been to a place like the three-year-old Copper Dock (which has the same supper club feel of its predecessor Anderson’s, its expansive windows overlooking peaceful Friess Lake). The waitresses have a coffee pot attached to each hip, and well-worn tables are pushed together to seat large groups of kin. Four-year-olds hang onto their moms’ hems in the buffet line. Here you can easily get your money’s worth of old-style breakfast and lunch foods. The salad station is a landing pad for the raw and crunchy – grab some fresh fruit and make up a spinach salad with hot bacon dressing. At the end of the table are your little uniform glasses of juice – apple, orange and cranberry. When there are hungry folks in the hot buffet station line, you might not see what’s waiting beyond the chafing dishes – a waitress under a bright, heat-radiating light carving up thick hunks of ham, beef and lamb. And behind her, a young cook flips omelets and watches kids douse their Belgian waffles in whipped cream and strawberries. Scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, a fish like salmon or baked cod and a pasta or two are also waiting to be had. On the dessert table, layer cakes (carrot), tortes, trifle and old-fashioned pies – tart lemon with a billowy meringue – merely wait for someone brave enough to attack them with a spatula. Adults $16.95; children ages 4-10 $8.50; ages 3-4 $4.95; 2 and under free. Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. 1474 E. Friess Lake Dr., Hubertus, 262-628-3718.
Ann Christenson is Milwaukee Magazine’s dining critic.