Battle of the Brunch Empires
Chicago loves brunch. The ritual has long since usurped church as the quintessential weekend retreat. With such obsessive brunch habits, it's no wonder Chicago has sprouted a handful of brunch restaurants that have amassed veritable empires throughout the city. There's Bongo Room in Wicker Park, South Loop, and Andersonville; there's Yolk in the South Loop, River North, West Loop, Lakeview, and Streeterville (there's also one in Dallas, Texas, oddly); there's Waffles in the South Loop, Streeterville, and Lakeview; there's Toast in Bucktown and Lincoln Park; and there's Kanela Breakfast Club in Lakeview, Old Town, Wicker Park, and as of now, Streeterville. Each spot offers its own merits and strengths, as well as their own crippling downsides. Let's break them down.
Bongo Room is the oldest and most established of Chicago's brunch empires. Originated in Wicker Park in 1993, long before either brunch or Wicker Park were hip, Bongo Room quickly developed cultish renown, celebrity fans, and consistent weekend queues. Their signature items are supremely decadent, as Bongo Room's bread and butter are of the "chocolate tower French toast" variety, or elaborate, dense heaps of pancakes in flavors like red velvet and carrot cake.
Pros: While intense and borderline heinous, the pancakes and French toast dishes at Bongo Room are novelties worth ordering at least once. They are to brunch as deep-dish is to Chicago pizza, at once unruly and undeniably delicious in an embarrassment of riches sort of way.
Cons: Especially at the Wicker Park location, wait times can be grueling. The South Loop and Andersonville are a little bit better, but not by much. If you don't like brunch to be cloyingly sweet and gut-busting, this is not the spot for you.
One of the quickest brunch empires to develop and catch fire is Yolk, a sunny spot that opened in the South Loop in 2006 before exploding all over the city with spin-off locations. The formula here is simple: go big. The menu is herculean, guaranteeing there's something for everyone, with a special obvious focus on egg dishes.
Pros: Although Yolk can crowd up on weekends, it does the best job of maintaining a sense of comfort and ease. That probably has a lot to do with the ample space each Yolk secures, as well as the yellow and bright blue color patterns that serve to enliven the dining rooms and make wait times sting a little less. Also, the aforementioned menu is the size of a phone book.
Cons: Depending how you look at it, the phone book-sized menu can also be a detriment. Yolk seems to lack focus occasionally, stretching itself thin by attempting to cover each and every possible brunch food from the U.S. and beyond. Also, it's constantly perplexing that Benedict dishes come with a pile of sliced fruit, as if having hollandaise sauce ooze onto fruit is an appetizing thing.
The name says it all. Go to Waffles if your brunch cravings are very particular, yet you also appreciate a sense of whimsy and creativity. Waffles took shape in the South Loop a few years ago, housed in a soaring industrial space with sleek, chef-y plates of red velvet waffles, green tea waffles, and savory waffles laden with Chihuahua cheese and meatballs. The brand has since broadened its repertoire to include an offshoot location in Lakeview and a smaller cafe in Streeterville, which made national headlines with its "Wonuts," aka waffle donuts.
Pros: For waffle-lovers, this is heaven. The restaurant does a nice job getting clever and crafty with the classic waffle template, offering both liege-style waffles and Belgian waffles. The former is denser, chewier, and sweeter, thanks to the inclusion of pearl sugar speckled throughout the batter. The latter, meanwhile, looks more like the classic breakfast waffle, with crisp, even edges and deep pockets for maximum syrup saturation. Presentation is also impressive here; the kitchen manages to slice, sauce, and serve waffles in a fresh new way without seeming overkill and obnoxious.
Cons: They may look good, but they don't necessarily taste as great. Some of Waffles' creations can be inconsistent, stale, and bland. This has also been an argument against the feverishly popular Wonuts. The rest of the menu, filled with non-waffle items, seems like a throwaway filled with uninspired supplements.
Since 1995, Toast has been peddling quirky, cutesy brunch dishes from its cozy confines in Lincoln Park. The bustling, familial spot specializes in reimagined American comfort foods that tend to tread the middle road between excess and restraint. It's a nice place for a brunch restaurant to be, especially when stuffed French toast this thick can go very wrong if prepared too heavy-handedly. Kudos to Toast for also being the most risque of Chicago's brunch options, being so bold as to list "pancake orgies" and "French toast orgies" as menu items.
Pros: Thoughtful, restrained menu of contemporary American brunch dishes. French toast orgies.
Cons: Large crowds, long waits, cramped space, and French toast orgies.
Kanela Breakfast Club
The most recent contender for Chicago's brunch crown is Kanela Breakfast Club, a restaurant that infuses a refreshing dose of ethnicity into its menu stylings. The original is in Lakeview, near Wrigleyville, followed swiftly by outposts in Old Town and Wicker Park. The latest location just opened in Streeterville. Kanela definitely takes some risks in the kitchen, boldly going where most American brunch spots dare not. And by that I mean loukoumades and chia seed pudding.
Pros: Kanela deserves major props for appeasing the two major sectors of brunch-goers: the classic brunchers who prefer egg scrambles, waffles, sandwiches, and French toast, and the more adventurous diners who look for something unique in their experience, like Greek doughnuts, bacon-infused waffles, and monkey bread.
Cons: Some of the non-Greek items seem a bit out of place and forced. Black bean wraps, tuna sandwiches, burgers, and biscuits & gravy are random and probably unnecessary, and you can find much better versions around town at restaurants that specialize in more all-American fare.
- Matt Kirouac