By Elana Schor - 05/22/08 05:44 PM EDT
As the spring brings a seemingly endless march of tourists through Washington, locals are starting to confront a familiar problem on weekend mornings. Just when the weather is perfect for brunch, whether with friends or the Sunday paper, every single popular restaurant has become jam-packed with parents in town for graduation, Westerners eyeing the monuments, and other visitors. So it’s time to introduce a new cast of brunches that you may not know about — but should. Never mind the specials on the chalkboard at the bar around the corner; these are the 10 brunches for those looking to avoid the crowds.
10. Hook, 3241 M St. NW, (202) 625-4488
The delectable and eclectic seafood dished out by chef Barton Seaver already has a following at dinnertime. But few Hook fans realize that it offers a New American brunch so inspired that the rich house-made scones with ginger butter manage to become an afterthought. Pork is a welcome theme, appearing in the smoky-sweet ragout that tops the eggs “Benedict Arnold” and the decadent bacon Bloody Mary. Smoked salmon and a refreshing trout with Fuji apples are also on hand, if you prefer fish to fowl on weekend mornings.
9. Tonic, 3155 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, (202) 986-7661
Imagine an ice cream parlor for omelets. That’s what the make-your-own egg menu looks like at this beloved neighborhood spot, which recently opened a sister location in Foggy Bottom. Choose from no fewer than seven fresh cheeses to match your eggs, including a mouth-puckering blue and mellow feta, and top it off with Italian cappicola ham or smoked salmon instead of the usual sausage. Or, if you share my desire to rescue the breakfast sandwich from the sad legacy of the Egg McMuffin, try Tonic’s version, featuring silky fontina cheese and honey butter. On the lighter side, the banana-date granola is made in-house for a yogurt parfait that comes with real fresh fruit, not the saggy honeydew that most restaurants sling out at brunch time.
8. Tacos Pepitos Bakery, 1762 Columbia Road NW, (202) 232-7121.
Most Washington newcomers get taken to Cashion’s Eat Place or Perry’s for brunch within weeks of their arrival — but skipping the hype and long lines there to chow down at this low-key legend is the mark of a city regular. You won’t find adornment or even comfort in this tiny storefront, but you will find fragrant, slow-roasted carne asada burritos with guacamole so fresh that bright chunks of avocado burst in your mouth upon first bite. You won’t find any mimosas here, but you will find passion fruit and tamarind drinks with a more complex fruit flavor and a cinnamon-rice milk blend called horchata that puts the creamiest Frappuccino to shame. For those who prefer a sweet brunch to savory, dig into the flaky, dough-covered pastele pastries and custard-filled muffins.
7. Argonaut Tavern, 1433 H St. NE, (202) 397-1416.
This unassuming pirate-themed bar may be marooned at the end of the H Street corridor, but its newly revamped menu makes it worth the hike over from the Hill. For Sunday brunch, the kitchen keeps it simple with local produce, organic meats and pleasingly low prices. The brioche French toast with brie and lingonberry jam ($8) plays the perfect sweet foil to salty applewood bacon and gooey cheddar grits. For a less traditional feast, try the rush of spicy salsa that surfs in atop tilapia tacos ($10), crisped fresh on the grill and smothered California-style in cooling cabbage.
6. Asylum, 2471 18th St. NW, (202) 319-9353
The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” has never been more apt than at this edgy biker bar, where the dirty floors and bordello-red velvet curtains hide the refined touch of a three-star kitchen. Nothing on the menu exceeds $10, including the juicy half-pound steak with eggs, and the vegan menu is so inventive in its use of tofu that I skipped meat and went for the soy. The meat-free breakfast sandwich is a spicy blend of fluffy scrambled tofu with dense and nutty tempeh, an Indonesian caked soy. Vegan nachos, vegan wings and even a vegan BLT are available. But if you prefer to stick with meat, head straight to the huevos rancheros, with corn tortillas that manage to stay crispy while covering luscious egg and zippy onion-drenched salsa.
5. Le Pain Quotidien, 2815 M St. NW, (202) 315-5420
The notion of superior brunch at a chain restaurant seems somehow sacrilegious when so many unique startup kitchens are trying to make their mark on the city. But it would be criminal to ignore the sumptuous parade of breads at this Belgian import, which opened its first Washington location earlier this year. Not even Bread Line or Bread and Chocolate, two well-established local cafés, can work magic with flour and water like “LPQ” (as its fans know it). Take a seat at the convivial communal table, where couples knock knees next to grandmothers reading the morning paper, and start with a basket of walnut-raisin bread flutes, fruity muffins, and other organic delights. Alongside the basket is a decadent hazelnut-praline spread with the sugary buzz of a dressed-up Nutella. If your stomach has any room left after that carbo-loaded beginning, the salmon-goat cheese omelet and black bean hummus tartine, an open-faced sandwich on dark French wheat bread, will leave you mistaking Georgetown for Paris.
4. Ardeo, 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-6750
Yes, Cleveland Park is likely a long way from where most Hill denizens wake up on weekend mornings. But a short Metro ride will reward you at this upscale bistro, where the outdoor patio floats spring breezes onto weary heads and the $25 prix-fixe brunch soothes every breed of foodie. That amount includes unlimited glasses of refreshingly lemony Pehu-Simonet champagne and two courses. Start with the hypnotically smoky paprika broth that carries jewels of spicy chorizo and tender mussels or a feather-light beet salad in a delicate pomegranate dressing. Just make sure to finish with the pumpkin challah French toast, a symphony of dough and spice stuffed with bananas and accompanied by crispy, velvety home fries. After it’s all over, you can walk home.
3. Poste, 555 8th St. NW, (202) 783-6060
Three words are the secret to morning nirvana: Chocolate ganache doughnuts. Served piping hot at this homey boîte in Penn Quarter’s Hotel Monaco, they are small enough not to ruin your brunch appetite but so memorable that you may not want another dish. In addition to the house-fried sugary stunners, also filled with lemon curd and sweet potato mousse, Poste delivers a salty ham-and-manchego baguette sandwich that tastes straight out of Barcelona’s tapas bars. The eggs Hussarde seduces you with textures, layering crunchy potato skins atop creamy poached eggs. But the best thing about brunching here is the sunlight that floods the high-ceilinged room. Or maybe it’s the cushy, roomy booths, which no server will herd you out of to make way for new customers.
2. Crème Café, 1322 U St. NW, (202) 234-1884
The lofty prices and ho-hum dishes at this neo-soul spot — six out of 12 entrees are beef — should rightly send you elsewhere for dinner. But brunch is the kitchen’s time to shine, with inventive combinations and an unabashed love of grease. The Chesapeake, poached eggs served on lump crabmeat with Old Bay-laced hollandaise sauce, tastes like a perfect Maryland crabcake, while “green eggs and ham” earn their name from a tongue-tickling smattering of green chiles. But the true repast of urban brunch kings is Crème’s chicken and waffles, with a pillowy bed of dough bearing enough crispy fried meat to feed you for the entire day. Skip the maple syrup and go straight for the butter.
1. The Liberty Tavern, 3195 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 465-9360.
The brunch buffet is often talked about but rarely perfected outside of Las Vegas, the capital of over-consumption. After all, rotating as many as 15 dishes at a time while hungry hordes knock biscuits onto the floor presents a challenge to servers as well as to chefs. But forget about the overpriced Georgia Brown’s “jazz brunch,” where the buffet runs $30, and pay $17 for the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord at this wood-paneled Clarendon bistro. Caramelized country ham with airy homemade biscuits and rich gravy will please the Virginia locals, while warm slabs of brioche French toast and buttery chocolate bread pudding will soothe any sweet tooth. Pizza for brunch will start making sense after you try Liberty’s pear-and-gorgonzola concoction on oven-fired sourdough, and the bloody marys come with a bonus chaser of Stella Artois.