25th February 2010
Whilst living in Greenwich Village last year, I would get my weekly brunch either from the local diner, where their $3 French toast was to die for, or high-end Sex And The City style restaurants, where the poached eggs and smoked salmon were exceptional. These experiences highlighted the difference between American and British eating habits – their devotion to brunch and our lack thereof.
While I do frequent some of London’s best brunch restaurants, such options are generally less available, more expensive and seen as a special occasion dining experience. To understand English attitudes towards brunch, one needs to learn about its origins, current trends and future prospects.
There seems to be confusion as to where brunch originated. Some claim the term itself was first used in English magazine Punch in 1896. But Guy Beringer, writing in Hunters Weekly, believed it started in the 1900’s as a heavy meal practiced by the elite after hunting.
But why has England not progressed as much as America in adopting this eating habit? Could it simply be that we are more traditional and do not easily embrace change to our dining options? Or is it that our lifestyle allows for a big evening meal given that we’re entrenched in a “sandwich at lunch” rut? Most New Yorkers I know are at their desks by 7am, eating breakfast even earlier, so are ready for a meal mid-morning. Brunch fits their lifestyle, while English tradition embraces rituals such as afternoon tea, still exclusive to places such as The Ritz and Claridges, which has all but died out as a common daily practice. Sunday roasts are still firmly embedded in British tradition too but, so far, brunch has not quite integrated with British culture.
When asking friends for opinions, most said they “love brunch” but identified it as only available in upmarket restaurants, deeming it a weekend activity with friends. Eating out is a special occurrence here; it’s not considered something you would do for each meal, unlike, say, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where home cooking is rare.
In an attempt to bring American brunch culture to our shores the Sanctum Soho Hotel’s exclusive members only club, has a “New York style weekend brunch in the heart of Soho”. Their menu consists of:
Steak sandwich | Granola with yoghurt | Omelette | French toast with bacon and maple syrup | Sanctum cheeseburger with fries | Eggs Royale
I know what you are thinking… yum! None of the above costs over £12.00 but people still have to be willing to spend over £10.00 for an omelette or £11.00 for Eggs Royale.
Online restaurant guide Square Meal also recommends some of the best brunch restaurants in London. Out of 14 recommendations, the cheapest meal for a couple is £35.00. These aren’t exactly your average restaurants, as evidenced by Chelsea’s legendary Bluebird being one of those featured. In New York, the meals are certainly more affordable.
However, brunch must be profitable, if some of the top restaurants in London are serving it. I wonder how these options have fared during the recession since there’s no doubt that brunch can be a wide and unique selling point for the future.
Many hotel chains, such as Jumeirah Lowndes and Master Innholder, have adopted brunch as a way of diversifying from the competition in the recession. The Jumeirah in Belgravia’s general manager even introduced a “chocolate – themed brunch” (something I would be more than happy to try!).
A study by hospitality researchers Mintel (2007) also identified that 20% of single respondents would go out for breakfast more in American style diners as opposed to sitting at a large table on their own. If marketers and restaurateurs can grow to understand consumer behaviour and improve serving formats, then maybe brunch can become more widespread.
There are places in London that serve good quality brunch but I believe there are opportunities for restaurants, hotels and marketers to explore. It has been a difficult couple of years for the hospitality industry and, in many cases, diversifying has given organisations a competitive advantage.
I believe that we Brits are more traditional than we realise in our everyday eating habits. I am not suggesting we still have afternoon tea every day (I wish), but that we are simply unwilling to drastically change our eating patterns. Our dining habits are important to us, whether going out with friends to pubs that are hundreds of years old or eating roast beef with all the trimmings on Sunday.
Brunch is not just about the menu. It is a special, occasional, gastronomical and sociable experience. If it can become more accessible and affordable, one day it will rival our Sunday roasts!