Miami’s brunch scene evolves from chafing dishes to culinary delights

Before he became a globetrotting food personality, Anthony Bourdain was a brunch-hater.

Brunch is an excuse for B-team cooks to cut corners and to lazily ladle stale hollandaise sauce while nursing a raging hangover, Bourdain told us in his cutting memoir, Kitchen Confidential.

“Cooks hate brunch,” he wrote. “Brunch is punishment.”

Perhaps that was true in the late 1990s, when Bourdain was penning his breakout book and the Sunday-morning mashup of breakfast and lunch in Miami rarely meant more than uninspired eggs and limp bacon languishing in chafing dishes.

Not so much anymore.

Miami has seriously stepped up its brunch game in recent years, with restaurants putting new, inventive twists on the old meal almost every week.

Bottomless bloody marys? That’s a thing. Kimchee benedict? Yep. “Italian-style” dim sum? We have it. Coconut-sesame pancakes and sweet-savory duck waffles? Sure.

The shift from brunch as a formal, pricey affair reserved for holidays and special occasions to a boozy, bourgeoisie Sunday ritual with creative cooking happened gradually.

Miami institutions like the Biltmore, Rusty Pelican and 94th Aero Squadron have been Sunday brunch stalwarts for nearly 40 years. In November, Tropical Chinese will celebrate its 30th anniversary of pushing traditional dim-sum carts through its dining room on weekends.

Former Hotel Astor owner Karim Masri pointed to the Astor’s Sunday Gospel Brunches with local singer Maryel Epps in the mid-’90s as a turning point in Miami’s brunch culture. Besides tableside singing, patrons were treated to novel dishes like mushroom pancakes from chef Johnny Vinczencz.

“The gospel brunch was truly one of those classic South Beach moments, a promotion that turned into an institution,” Masri said. “At that time, plenty of spots on South Beach served breakfast, but brunch wasn’t a thing the way it is now. Astor’s Sunday brunch helped change that.”

Soon after, Coconut Grove’s GreenStreet Cafe, another Miami mainstay, struck success with its brunch. Served daily, the offerings include 10 kinds of pancakes (the cinnamon roll and red velvet versions are not to be missed) and several bloody mary iterations, like the tequila-laced Maria.

Bourdain’s book that railed against brunch was going to press right as Miami Beach’s Icebox Cafe began serving the meal in 2000. Brunch service is now the restaurant’s biggest moneymaker, even more so than its cakes that Oprah put on the national map. The irony isn’t lost on owner Robert Siegmann, a former New Yorker whose budget didn’t allow him to start brunching until he came to Miami.

“When I first moved to New York, I didn’t have money to enjoy brunch,” he said.

There are other signs that Miami’s brunch scene is beginning to rival the Big Apple’s.

Take Bagatelle, a modern French bistro with a celebrated brunch at its locations in New York, Los Angeles, Dubai and beyond. Its next opening? In Miami Beach this fall, under the direction of former DB Bistro chef Matthieu Godard.

Or look to the fact that global beverage behemoth Gruppo Campari came to Miami this summer in search of a “Chief Brunch Officer” to eat and drink their way through the city’s best weekend meals. Miami made a short list of CBO cities, along with brunch-heavy New York and San Francisco.

Both new and established restaurants are riding Miami’s brunch wave.

Khong River House had its debut brunch on Father’s Day, featuring Thai bloody marys and crispy duck with waffles.

David Bracha’s River Seafood & Oyster Bar, which began serving brunch in January, delivers a literal smorgasbord of charcuterie, cheeses and fire-roasted oysters — to each table.

And Giorgio Rapicavoli, whose Eating House in Coral Gables hosts the wildly popular Wakin-n-Bacon Sunday brunch, is taking a tapas-style approach to brunch at his new Taperia Raca, complete with Cuban-style French toast soaked in coffee from local roaster Panther.

These days, chefs know they have to do more than put an egg on things to be considered a legit brunch contender.

In the past six months, BlackBrick, R House, Bulla, Mondrian, Hyde Beach, Orange Blossom, Macchialina and Verde at the Pérez Art Museum have all started brunch service. Macchialina’s dim sum-style event includes miniature Italian creations like squid ink raviolini stuffed with mortadella.

And make no mistake: Brunch beverages do not end with coffee and Champagne.

The Local House infuses its brunch martinis with oysters, and, for the health-conscious (kinda), bartenders at 660 at the Angler’s, Social Club and Area 31 are shaking brunch cocktails with cold-pressed local fruits and vegetables. The Mondrian’s serve-yourself bloody mary bar is a playground for amateur mixologists.

OTC, The Federal and Tongue & Cheek helped usher in the all-you-can-drink concept, serving bottomless mimosas, bellinis and bloodys at brunch for $20-$25. (Tongue & Cheek pours free coffee for brunch patrons, presumably as an incentive to get them to pony up for unlimited booze.)

When American Social opens its Miami River location in the coming weeks, it will serve a buffet-style brunch with crab legs, prime rib and Belgian-style waffles for $23 a person. Add unlimited drinks for $10, and that has the makings of being Miami’s most affordable brunch.

Even Bourdain, it seems, would be humbled by how far Miami’s brunch culture has come.

It certainly impresses John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs Inc., the restaurant group behind Khong, Yardbird and Swine, all of which pack in brunch customers. Before he opened those restaurants, Kunkel was brewing coffee and baking muffins at his first venture, Taste Bakery on Alton Road.

“Strangely enough,” he said, “I guess I’ve come full circle, because brunch was also our busiest meal period [at Taste].”