Sunday lunch versus Sunday brunch: the difference is only a few letters, but the two are opposite approaches to the midday meal. Brunch, a North American invention, was initially about time—not quite breakfast, not quite lunch—but has evolved into a loud, fast-paced antidote to a hangover in which friends down cocktails and dine on dishes like deep-fried French toast. Sunday lunch, a European tradition, is a slow and sumptuous feast that involves family, many courses of finely crafted dishes, some wine and time for dessert. And though brunch dominates in Canada, at least one Toronto restaurant is trying to make Sunday lunch an occasion.
“Brunch is about business, it’s not about joy,” says Tobey Nemeth, who runs the small bistro Edulis with her husband, chef Michael Caballo. After a few years spent cooking around the world, they took over the space earlier this year. “Sunday lunch was one of the first things we set out to do,” Caballo says.
The $40 set menu encourages lingering over dishes that range from fish mousse to braised rabbit, garlicky potatoes and rich pies. There is only one seating, so the table is yours from noon to 3 p.m. Dishes are family-style, which means shared platters of food. To slow things down, wine by the bottle is half-price.
The inspiration came in part from Caballo’s childhood in Edmonton where, every Sunday after church, the community hall would be packed with a couple hundred hungry diners. “It was a sit-down lunch of probably seven courses with mostly Italian families, affordable and very delicious,” he says. Time spent abroad, particularly in Italy and Spain, sparked the idea to offer the menu at Edulis. “I’ve never seen brunch offered in Italy,” says Caballo. “It’s not part of their culture.” Years of working the brunch grind, an experience he sums up as “brutal,” was also motivation.
Still, some high-end chefs are attracted to the frenetic pace of brunch and the freedom it offers from the strictures of dinner service. In Toronto, chef Victor Barry, known for his exacting standards at Splendido restaurant, started brunch—his first—last year at his casual eatery The County General. With just 27 seats, they sometimes sell as many as 180 meals in a few hours. “Sunday brunch is absolutely bats–t crazy,” says Barry. “I love it.” He also cooks for the crowds who expect standard fare. “Torontonians love their eggs with brunch and they’re easy to please. We keep Springsteen blasting and everyone’s happy.”
Sinclair Philip, co-owner of Vancouver Island’s Sooke Harbour House, about 40 km west of Victoria, has steered clear of brunch for more than 30 years. A cornerstone of the midday weekend meal is the calibre of dishes, he explains. At Sooke, there might be one egg-related dish such as quiche, but the focus is on soups, seasonal salads and mains with fresh fish and seafood. Desserts are popular, as they are at Edulis, where parties of six or more are often served their own cake.
Initially, Sunday lunch proved a hard sell at Edulis. “We stuck it out those first months,” says Caballo, recalling a room half-full at best. Since a rave review earlier this fall, they now book tables a week or two in advance. “At first, people didn’t really get the set menu,” says Nemeth. “In Europe it’s standard, but here it’s hard for people to accept they’re not in charge.” The number of requests for substitutions has dropped off significantly. “The list of allergies and requests can be encyclopedic at dinner, but with lunch we get very, very few. There’s something about yielding to us.”
Barry says that though Sunday brunch is a lot of fun, “Most people look at it as something that fulfills a need.” Sunday lunch, on the other hand, inspires nostalgia in diners such as Josh Josephson, a well-travelled gourmand and owner of The Cookbook Store in Toronto. “Enjoying some good wine during this meal on a leisurely, sunny Sunday afternoon was like a weekend holiday in some ways,” he says of dining at Edulis. At Sooke Harbour House, Philip feels the same. “A lot of Italians go to the countryside and have lunch on Sundays with friends and family. Here, it’s the same thing. People get out of town and just relax.”