Okay, so New Yorkers didn’t invent the concept of brunch. That honor goes to an English writer in 1895, who argued that this combo meal would encourage good cheer and ease Sunday hangovers.
But when brunch crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the Depression, city residents with money to spare quickly popularized the meal as a festive way to cap off the weekend.
“Brunch did not become a New York City culinary experience until the early 1930s, when chef Werner Haechler offered it in the dining room at the Hotel Lombardy, on East 56th Street in Manhattan,” explains Andrew F. Smith in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.
Also referred to as the bracer breakfast, the tally-ho lunch, or the hunt lunch, brunch at the Lombardy (see photo above and at left) consisted of a buffet from noon until 4 p.m. and cost $1.25.
What was on the menu at New York’s original brunch haunt? Sauteed veal and kidneys, according to this 1939 New York Times article (headline below) on the new brunch phenomenon.
Other restaurants soon began whipping up their own brunch, serving buckwheat cakes with sausages and scrambled eggs with bacon, reported the Times.
Fried fillet of flounder, codfish cakes, chicken hash in cream, and Boston baked beans also made their way onto various menus.
As for the alcohol, New York’s liquor laws meant that brunch-goers who wanted to drink had to arrive after 1 p.m. A whiskey sour was a popular starter, along with a “‘velvet,’ a concoction of port and champagne” stated the Times.
Sunday (and soon Saturday) brunch became even more popular in the postwar years, when incomes rose and church attendance fell.
Menus changed; bloody marys and mimosas became brunch staples in the 1950s. Brunch is arguably more popular than ever—but one thing has changed, besides the price.
The Lombardy Hotel, still going strong after close to a century in business, no longer serves it. Countless other restaurants do, of course, like the late, great Yaffa Cafe and a place called Mark’s, as seen in these early-1980s ads.
[Top image: Lombardy Hotel via the New York Post; second image: Lombardy Hotel in 1940s, MCNY; third image: New York Times headline 1939; fourth image: Soho News, March 1982; fifth image: East Village Eye June 1984]