Brunch Talk

The Truth about Brunch, from the Restaurant Workers Who Make It Happen

Toki chefs, a Broder owner, and other veterans of the most trying restaurant service talk all-day eggs and hair of the dog.

By Matt Trueherz Illustrations by Chris Danger June 16, 2022 Published in the June 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

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n Portland, it’s nearly impossible to take a weekend stroll without stumbling upon brunch. Passers-by cast longing glances at spherical Scandinavian pancakes served up at sidewalk cafés; bike riders wend past block-long lines for chicken and waffles. But for the people in charge of cooking and serving it, brunch can be as tricky as it is ubiquitous.

Rules fly out the window at brunch. It’s sweet and savory, there are cocktails and coffee, and chaos and weekend relaxation meld together. To understand what’s really going on while you chow down on your eggs benny, we talked to folks with more experience than you: restaurant workers slinging cheeseburger baos and æbleskivers. 

Toki chefs Scotty Iijima and Aubrey Phelps, veteran Portland bartender Michelle Ruocco (who’s worked at Han Oak, Jackie’s, Reel M Inn, the Woodsman Tavern, and more), Sweedeedee’s wine buyer and service manager Gabriella Casabianca, XLB part-owner Linh Tran, and Broder partner Joe Conklin weigh in on what to eat and drink for Portland’s most celebrated meal—and how to get on your server’s good side.

Bloody Mary, mimosa, or something else?

“I usually go for a mimosa that’s light on the orange juice. Death in the Afternoon is an absinthe-laced cocktail: best hair of the dog you can get. Or a Corpse Reviver no. 2. Anything involving juice: greyhounds, palomas, tequila sunrises.” —Ruocco

“Wines that don’t take themselves too seriously are the best way to start the day. I like to serve prosecco and light red wines with lower tannins at brunch like gamay, blaufränkisch, and grenache.” —Casabianca

How is brunch different from dinner or lunch?

“At brunch, people want what they want and they want it now. Maybe they haven’t had their coffee. They can be hangry; they can be hungover. That’s why our sign over there says ‘please be kind.’” —Conklin

“A really cool brunch atmosphere is when it’s super packed and chaotic and you know things are moving. We serve about 200 people during brunch, versus 70 or 80 for dinner.” —Iijima

How do you navigate two-hour lines? 

“I’ll always get a pastry when I put a name down. That’s my trick to not starving when you have to wait.” —Tran

“I leave the house with like three options in mind, then drive by and see what looks the least busy.” —Iijima

What’s up with people and their eggs?

“I compare it to making a martini: everybody likes it different. You have to ask all these questions to get the order for this one little thing just right.” —Ruocco

“It’s important to crank out all this stuff, but also to stay keen on details. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered an omelet and it’s like brown on the outside and super hard ... not what I want to see.” —Iijima

What’s outside of the world of eggs Benedict?

“Pho is a breakfast thing that most people don’t know about. Hà VL and Pho Oregon—those are my places.” —Tran

“At Toki, we do steak and eggs, but we do it our way—with rice, like bibimbap. Also, dim sum. People who haven’t had dim sum need to go have dim sum.” —Phelps

What about brunch outfits?

“It’s kind of like flying: there’s always that one person wearing their pajamas and socks and sandals ... and there’s a guy in a suit.” —Ruocco

“Just remember your pants, and be nice to restaurant staff.” —Casabianca

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