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The Enduring Popularity of Brunch, Explained

The Enduring Popularity of Brunch, Explained

  • Burpple
  • Food
Top image: Creamy Mushroom Toast with Scrambled Eggs from Atlas Coffeehouse. Image credit: Burppler Melissa Chee

The story of brunch begins with a hangover.

In 1895, Guy Beringer, an Englishman, wrote an essay for Hunter’s Weekly advocating for a new kind of meal. In his view, the arguments for it were “incontestable”.

“In the first place,” wrote Beringer, “it renders early rising not only unnecessary but ridiculous … You are, therefore, able to prolong your Saturday nights, heedless of…[t]he fear of the next morning’s reaction.” In other words, such a meal offered a realistic compromise for the impulse to get wasted and sleep in.

Enter his solution: the playful love-child of breakfast and lunch.

A century on from Beringer’s manifesto, brunch has become a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon and staple of the weekend dining scene. We are, it seems, still completely in love with it. The question is: why?

Scrambled eggs on toast with add-ons from Ronin. Image credit: Burppler Vanessa Kou
Before we can explore the rise of brunch, we must first understand what this ritual entails.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, let me, as a Basic Bitch who Brunches, say this: brunch is no mere meal. It is a ritual, and like every ritual, it has steps that must be followed.

First, preliminaries. Brunch needs to be organised around 1-2 weeks in advance. This is to give the chat group the requisite period of festering in silence, while everyone procrastinates on deciding where to eat.

Two nights before, someone will realise no progress has been made. The Burpple Guide to The Best Cafes in Singapore is hastily consulted, and a cafe settled on. Everyone agrees to meet at 11:00 AM in the tacit understanding that half the group will be late anyway.

The morning of, crack an eye open 20 minutes before you have to leave the house. Scramble to get dressed and to the cafe, praying that your one responsible friend shows up early enough to secure a table.

When everyone eventually tumbles into their seats, spend the first 10 minutes catching up. When the staff come to take your orders, grin sheepishly and ask for a few more minutes so you can actually look at your menus.

Then the real fun starts.

Butterscotch Banana Pancakes from Atlas Coffeehouse. Image credit: Burppler SG Munchies
No matter how many times you’ve seen a brunch menu, looking at one sparks a crisis of indecision. However firmly you think you’re in Team Sweet or Team Savoury, your resolve will be tested. Do I get the butterscotch banana pancakes? The creamy mushrooms on sourdough toast? A flat white or a mint mocha?

How do you feel today, you ask your stomach.

I don’t know, replies Stomach. I want everything.

Ask your friends what they’re ordering, in the hope of a) getting inspiration, or b) that someone is looking at one of your top two choices, so that you can share. (This is the civilised, coordinated version. Alternatively, just steal bites from them anyway.)

Marvel at how the words ‘candied bacon’ are the two most beautiful in the English language.

Marvel at how you, sucker that you are, might actually be willing to shell out $6 for those two measly strips of glory. Again.

Savoury French Toast from Ronin. Image credit: Burppler Vanessa Kou
Continue to languish in the throes of indecision. When the waitress returns, throw the friend seated furthest from you under the bus by suggesting they order first. Make up your mind in the last 5 seconds before the waitress turns to you.

When the food arrives, start snapping photos like you’ve never seen Eggs Benedict in your life. Get your friends to take a photo of you with your food. Take a photo of your friends taking photos of their food.

Finally relax into conversation as everyone tucks in. This gradually dies down as the plates empty and people slump back into their seats, giving their food babies a satisfied pat.

Eventually haul yourselves out of your seats, get the bill, hug goodbye, go home, and pass out.

Repeat from the top two months later.

Mentaiko Royale at Five Oars Coffee Roasters. Image credit: Burppler Alfred Tan
If this sounds all too familiar to you, it’s because you were probably a member of the Basic Brunch Club, which hit peak membership around 2014/15.

Back then, if you threw a coin around Tanjong Pagar or Clarke Quay, you’d hit someone standing in line at one of the innumerable cafes in the area. No menu was complete without some mention of ‘brioche’, ‘truffled’, or ‘sriracha’, and half the population under 35 was suffering from a mild case of scrambled egg fatigue.

We were slightly bored and more than slightly broke. Brunch, it seemed, was starting to lose its sparkle; cafes began to shut as quickly as they opened, forced out by stiff competition and high operating costs.

Yet here we are now, in 2019, and while the honeymoon has ended, it’s clear the party hasn’t stopped.

On any given weekend, the queue at places like Ronin and Five Oars Coffee Roasters can be formidable. Long-time players Forty Hands opened their second branch last year, while Craftsmen Specialty Coffee now has six outlets around the island (I was at one two weekends ago, and only just grabbed the last free table before the crowd set in). Meanwhile, Burpple’s Best Cafes & Coffee guide is easily its most-viewed page every year, racking up over 500,000 views in all since 2014.

Food fads come and go, but our hunger for brunch shows no signs of abating. Why?

Mentaiko mac and cheese from Five Oars Coffee Roasters. Image credit: Burppler Jianzhong
First, the ever-evolving array of options. Over time, brunch fare has arguably shifted away from its origins as glorified all-day breakfast and into a more complex, sophisticated creature, a mash-up of breakfast food, lunch staples like burgers, and dessert, with a heavy dose of Australian cafe culture and international or fusion elements. As cafes innovate to try and keep customers coming back, we wind up with dishes like mentaiko mac and cheese or breakfast steak tacos.

Second, the sheer, slightly embarrassing, decadence of brunch.

As much as brunch fare has grown increasingly sophisticated, its core staples—the classics that form the backbone of every menu, like scrambled eggs on toast or pancakes—remain things we can essentially make at home. (It also bears mentioning that many of them are Western dishes, which most of us would have grown up eating relatively infrequently—and for whom, as such, remain slightly novel.) But the fact still stands that if you strip out the fancy extras, like soft shell crab or whipped ricotta, most brunch dishes are relatively simple and inexpensive to make yourself.

Everyone knows this. It’s why we’re still horrified at shelling out $14 for what is, strictly speaking, eggs on bread. (Any restauranteur will tell you that brunch foods are amongst the easiest to make a decent profit margin from.)

In other words, brunch feels indulgent precisely because we could make it ourselves, if we really wanted. The premium we pay for this ‘outsourcing’ casts it firmly as one of life’s little luxuries: a more accessible one, perhaps, but a luxury nonetheless. It’s generally not prohibitively expensive, but still costly enough that it can only be enjoyed as an occasional treat. And after all, what is more decadent than paying someone else to make something you could do yourself?

Otah sandwich from Clan Cafe. Image credit: Burppler Nobelle Liew
Which leads me to the last point: brunch is aspirational. It’s about turning the ordinary into something celebratory, even—or especially—when there’s no reason to.

Nobody rushes brunch; it’s not a meal you can wolf down on the go. It’s not a meal you do by yourself. You make an effort to get together with people you love and dress up nicely for the occasion.

The food is often outrageously photogenic, with special attention paid to plating and presentation in the age of the ‘gram. Moreover, the ambience of a cafe is orchestrated to create good vibes: plants, an abundance of natural light, a mix of wood and concrete furniture, and low-key, chilled-out tunes are virtual givens in any cafe, but they’re used so often because they work.

You almost always have a good time, and leave with good memories. With this reliable cocktail of factors, brunch has become a special, cherished space; one where, for two hours, you get to play at being your best self.

Berry ricotta pancakes from Curious Palette. Image credit: Burppler SG Munchies
I don’t remember what I ate the very first time I had ‘proper’ brunch, back at Wild Honey in 2011. In fact, I don’t remember what I ate at most of the brunches I’ve been to.

What I do remember is how that first brunch made me feel: grown-up, put-together, someone closer to the glamorous women of Sex & The City (or so I hoped), rather than the awkward 18-year-old I was.

Of course, the food is key to the experience; it’s not brunch without the thrill of smoked salmon and hollandaise. But at the end of the day, food is never just about what’s on your plate. It’s about the emotional experience we attach to it, and brunch, with its magic sparkle sauce of deliciousness, decadence, company, and conversation, makes for one hell of a dopamine rush.

In this, I leave you with the timeless words of Guy Beringer:

“…Brunch is a hospitable meal; breakfast is not. Eggs and bacon are adapted to solitude; they are consoling, but not exhilarating. They do not stimulate conversation. Brunch, on the contrary, is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow-beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week. The advantages of the suggested innovation are, in short, without number, and I submit it is fully time that the old régime of Sunday breakfast made room for the “new course” of Sunday Brunch.”

This story is part of a new food column on Rice and a collaboration with Burpple, Singapore’s leading dining discovery platform and 1-for-1 dining membership program.

Do you think brunch is #basic? Overrated? Or the best thing since sliced brioche? Write to us at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Sophie Chew Staff Writer