The first thing I noticed, as my eyes adjusted to the dining room’s low-wattage Edison-bulb lighting, was that I was going to be sitting next to a fedora. At least, I think it was a fedora. It could have been a trilby or a homburg, though definitely not a porkpie. But I was in a multi-story restaurant with faux-aged wooden planks on the floors and walls, buttoned-leather banquettes, broad mirrors, and equally broad screens perma-tuned to ESPN and its subchannels—and, more vitally, I was in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon. So the hat, which for the next two hours did not leave the head of its owner, who was wearing a fancier version of the maroon Adidas tracksuit I sported back in fifth grade, was a goddamn fedora.
Thus began my first ever bottomless brunch, an exploration of the worst possible meal anyone can consume. This is not an opinion. It has achieved the status of objective fact, thanks to Anthony Bourdain, who’s been hating brunch in general at least since 1999 (“The ‘B’ word is dreaded by all dedicated cooks,” he wrote in The New Yorker), and Gawker, which has paid considerable attention to a place called Pranna, which it dubbed “Manhattan’s Notorious Bottomless Brunch Vomitorium.”
The logic behind this hatred is easy to understand. Take brunch—the unimaginative dishes (omg eggs!), the slapdash execution, the crowding and hurrying and absolute unrelaxedness of the experience—and combine it with unlimited alcohol (unlimited, that is, within a certain time frame, usually one-and-a-half to two hours, and usually for an extra charge), and you’ve got a guaranteed shitshow: terrible food served to terrible people. This shitshow, it must be said, is as insanely popular as ever.
Well, “as ever” is a relative term. Until July 2011, bottomless brunch did not exist, if we are to believe Google Trends. Which is not to say no one drank at brunch before then. It was pretty standard for your unexceptional eggs Benedict to come with a complimentary mimosa or bloody Mary—you’d consume it and pay for the next one. Or you’d finish up, then hit a nearby bar and spend the rest of the day drinking there.
But then some evil genius, whose name has been lost to history, realized that brunchers brunched mostly so they could continue the drinking they’d begun the night before, and deftly pulled the bottom out from under brunch. When brunch is bottomless, of course, you never hit rock bottom.
I, however, was going to try! First, I had some requirements: nowhere too gourmet, too nightclubby, or too divey. What I wanted was pure normcore, and Tavern 29 stood out by not standing out at all. Its Yelp! reviews said things like “I come to Tavern 29 for bottomless brunch far more often than I should, but it really is a great spot” and “Drinks were strong and they did not rush us even though we went over the two hours bottomless brunch” and “There is a downstairs and upstairs.” Sold!
As it happens, my friend Erin and I were seated upstairs, very close to the fedora and his six companions, who were of Indian and African-American descent. This was notable for one important reason: Bottomless brunch at Tavern 29 was incredibly white.
There were white girls everywhere, all of them seemingly 24 to 26 years old, with long, straight, dark hair and perfect makeup. Their cheeks! So round, so meticulously blushed (though maybe it was the mimosas), so uniform from face to face to face, as if they’d all taken contouring lessons from the same YouTube channel. They sat in large groups, six or ten to a table, with maybe a guy or two in their midst, or maybe none at all, and they stared at their phones and laughed loudly and freely, and asked servers to take group photos.
Next to them, Erin and I stood out—she blond and wavy-haired, me geriatric—and our neighbors, fedora and all, even more so. But how to interpret this? Were they a sign of the restaurant’s overall diversity, or did their presence merely serve to point up the overwhelming homogeneity? Worth noting, too, is that, peacocking headgear aside, they were dressed exactly as everyone else was, the girls in dark solids, the guys in striped or checked shirts—as basic as it gets, but also precisely what is called for.
The same could be said of what we were all eating here at Tavern 29: various combinations of meat (ham and bacon, especially), starch (biscuits, home fries, french fries), and eggs. There was a lobster Benedict on the menu, and pancakes and French toast, and some kind of Buffalo chicken salad, if that’s your thing. But it’s probably not. If you’re the type to choose salad, even a salad topped with Buffalo chicken, you’re probably not also the type to spend an extra $25 on bottomless drinks.
To look over the menu was, in retrospect, a weird process. Did it matter what we were going to order? The point of eating at all was not to sample a chef’s innovative hollandaise or to consume a healthy balance of nutrients, but to provide a spongelike foundation in our stomachs for the drinking we were about to do. And yet, in the moment, I really did wonder: Would I be happier with the hangover burger (which is topped with a fried egg) or the hangover pizza (topped with two fried eggs)?
In the end, Erin (who had a mild hangover) ordered the burger, while I (who did not) got the pizza. Guess what? They both tasted just fine! Want more detail than that? Then you’re reading the wrong story—because this is a story about drinking.
At Tavern 29, bottomless drinks cost an extra $25. That gets you a full two hours to consume as many mimosas, bloody Marys, and/or beers as you possibly can. They ain’t fancy; the liquor isn’t top-shelf, the orange juice isn’t fresh-squeezed, the beer is Tavern 29’s own anonymous pilsner. What they are is plentiful, and frequently refreshed.
Erin and I began with a carafe of mimosas—or, as our waitress kept calling it, a “craft of mimosas.” This was, on that Sunday, an unusual choice. “Almost everybody’s drinking bloody Marys except for, like, three people!” one of the bartenders sputtered as she hurriedly mixed up a new batch. “You can never predict which way it’s gonna go.”
And so we drank, first the craft of mimosa, then bloody Marys (for Erin) and beer (for me). We drank and we ate, we ate and we drank. We talked about whatever. We ordered more drinks. (But not coffee—no one drinks coffee at bottomless brunch.) I read some texts from my wife, who was taking our daughters for gelato. Every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of bowling or women’s basketball on one of the TVs. Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind” was the only song that played clearly enough for me to hear. I stopped eating my pizza and started stealing Erin’s french fries.
What was this all about again? Why do we feel compelled to hate on bottomless brunch? All around us were groups of friends doing precisely what we were doing, eating and drinking and talking. None of them looked over 30, none seemed to be coupled-up—they were young and single and free, and what you do in New York when you’re in your mid-20s and you have a good (or good enough) job and you want to celebrate being in the exact demographic in the exact neighborhood you’ve always wanted to be in is to go with your friends, the people you want around you forever, and drink and eat as much as you feel like, with no limits. Because at that age you feel unlimited yourself—“There's nothing you can't do / Now you're in New York!”—and if you don’t feel that way, well, for $25 you can cast off those shackles for a couple of hours.
Or maybe even a little bit longer? About two hours into our brunch, our waitress let us know our table had been reserved by another party, and she shifted us to the bar, where she kept pouring us new drinks. At one point, I looked back at the table where our Indian neighbors had sat, only to realize they’d been replaced by an entirely new table of Indians, who were counting down “five, four, three, two, one” as one of their friends chugged a craft of mimosas directly from the craft. I wasn’t sure what to make of the racial dynamics of this anymore, partly because I’d had four or five beers myself, plus half the first craft of mimosas, and it was four in the afternoon and thus time to get out of there.
Except I really didn’t want to. This was the best. How could it be anything but? How could Bourdain and Gawker despise this world? It was silly and juvenile, in only the way that young adults can be juvenile, but it also had a purity about it. This—this eating and drinking and spending time with close friends—was likely the only thing that any of us would be doing that day, and we were all deeply committed, in the tank for bottomless brunch, our alpha and our omega. Why would we ever eat anything else again?
Matt Gross is the former editor of BonAppetit.com and was the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times from 2006 to 2010. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, his daughters, and his collection of hot sauces.