Before I actually moved to DC I must admit that I didn’t get the Americans’ obsession with breakfast food. I’ve never wanted breakfast for dinner (brinner), and although I’ve enjoyed going out for a good fry up or imitation American pancakes, I certainly didn’t make a habit of it in London – partly because it could be financially ruinous. Now though, after six weekends in DC, I understand.
The first Saturday we were here, we thought we should join in with the city’s (and the country’s) tradition, and go out for brunch. We returned to the Diner on 18th Street, as we’d seen good things on the menu and recommendations online. Taking a proper look at the menu, we were amazed by the variety of brunch items on offer, the combinations and the large amount of alcohol recommended to wash it all down. Here’s a taste: omelettes and fritatas with all manner of cheese and meat fillings, including Cajun shrimp and Andouille sausage; pancakes either on their own – with blueberries or chocolate chips, maple syrup, fruit compote and/or fruit salad – or as part of an American fry up of bacon, turkey link sausages, eggs done any way you want them, home fries or grits – in fact anything on the menu at diner can come with home fries, grits, or fruit salad, as well as a choice of toast; a variety of Benedicts and scrambles; French toast; and then there’s the Tex-mex influence – if you please you can have your eggs with tortillas, jalapenos, salsa and guacamole. And at Diner the portion sizes are generous, the prices reasonable, and the service pretty quick. Sometimes you have to wait a little for a table, but when the weather’s nice and you get a table up front by the open windows, it’s totally worth it.
Our first brunch set a high bar for other brunch spots to meet. Some have succeeded – notably the Diner’s sister restaurant Open City in Woodley Park – while others have fallen short. I’ll deal with the disappointments first:
1. Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe. I know criticising this DC institution is heresy, but we did feel a bit ripped off. After the good value of the Diner the admittedly very pretty breakfast here was a bit of a shock to our wallets. If you want pancakes, you have to pay for the $17.75 pancake combo and, while it comes with nice little cakes and bits of fruit, the pancakes are small and the maple syrup comes in a tiny plastic cup – we had to ask for more.
2. Cafe Bonaparte in Georgetown. This features in both lists, as there were good and bad parts to this brunch – and to be fair, their crepes looked very good. But if the chef is going to feature Benedicts as a speciality he really should learn how to poach an egg.
But that’s really it for negatives… Onto the list of our favourite places so far:
1. The Diner. This place could really fill two spots, first for the omelettes and home fries, second for their pancakes. The very opposite of Kramerbooks, we received a stack of four large, warm, spongy blueberry pancakes and doused them liberally from the full jug of syrup that was placed on our table. Heaven – for less than $7 (about £4).
2. Open City. Like the Diner, this place has a frontage that opens out onto a terrace and we were lucky enough to sit right by one of these windows in the sunshine. The feel of this place is very family, a little bit rustic, and just very comfortable. The standout breakfast item for us here were the hash browns – far from the little Birdseye triangles of dried out potato, these were plump, beautifully brown bricks of potato and onion served either on the side of Rich’s tasty breakfast burrito or actually inside my wonderfully savoury cheese and bacon omelette.
3. Cafe Bonaparte in Georgetown. They make a really good omelette, but the real star was their Bloody Mary. Far spicier than I’d dared to hope, this was the first time we’d indulged in the alcoholic side of the brunch experience and we just had to order a second.
4. Tonic. This was pretty much on the campus of George Washington University, which felt rather strange, but the service was lovely out on the sunny patio and the pancakes were almost as good as at the Diner – and I do love the combination of sweet maple syrup and salty American bacon. Apparently the breakfast burrito was pretty good too.
As you can see, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what DC has to offer in the form of brunch delights. One thing on our list to try is the bottomless Bloody Mary brunch at Cashion’s Eat Place, and I still need to bite the bullet and try the spicier Mexican style breakfasts. And I might just get so addicted that one of these days I’ll just have to have breakfast for dinner.