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January 13, 2006

Enjoy the most important meal of the day at the trendiest spots in town

Chicago is a brunch city. I’ve lived in San Francisco, L.A., New York, London, and Rome, and none of them do brunch like Chicago does. On weekend mornings, rain or shine, freezing or just above freezing, hungry Chicagoans can be seen buzzing around the entrances of the city’s most popular brunch locales. People sit on curbs or amble through neighboring stores, patiently waiting—sometimes for over an hour—for a table at these well-worth-it spots:

Toast

2046 North Damen Avenue

746 West Webster Avenue

The Webster location of Toast, right by the DePaul Lincoln Park campus, is a small affair with tables too close together, yet it manages to be always packed, even mid-morning on a weekday (does nobody work or have class?). I’ve only ever had one thing at Toast: the mascarpone-stuffed French toast. The first time I went, I asked our intimidating waitress how the oatmeal was, trying to be as hip and nonchalant as she was. “Eh, it’s OK,” she replied. OK?! Taken aback by the reply and contemplating how many rules of waitress-diner etiquette she’d just broken, I laughed uncomfortably, quickly losing my edge. “Get the stuffed French toast,” she said. “It’s the best thing on the menu.” She turned to my family, all of whom had already ordered, and none of them the stuffed French toast. “Sorry, it is. Don’t worry, your stuff is alright.” So I ordered the stuffed French toast. She was right: It is quite amazing—especially with lots of syrup and a generous application of salt (I’m not kidding). I tried my family’s meals: crepes, eggs Benedict, non-stuffed French toast. They were alright.

Orange

75 West Harrison Street

3231 North Clark Street

Unlike many a trendy, one-word-name restaurant, Orange’s rhyme actually has some reason: When you walk in the door of the Harrison location (a five minute walk from the #6 CTA stop at Michigan and Congress), there is a huge juicing machine, behind which a hostess stands, taking your name down for the inevitable wait. Orange specializes in juice—and not just orange juice. Craving pear-lime-ginger juice? What about apple-carrot-grape? Orange is your place. I usually pass over the juice, though, for the bottomless cup of orange-infused coffee. Orange has a couple more surprises in store: a “pancake flight” that changes weekly with seasonal ingredients and themes, as well as a delicious combo of flavored rice and fruit known as “fruishi.” Orange is a little too loud, the tables a little too long for conversation, and the service a little too attentive (last time my waitress listed off her three favorite juices and told us the new juice guy’s affinity for ice). But the food is so good it’s hard to complain. I recommend the cinnamon roll pancakes and the green eggs and ham—a delicious pesto concoction. My friend Sarah swears by the chai tea French toast, but it’s a little too soggy for me. To each her own.

The Bongo Room

1152 South Wabash Avenue

1470 North Milwaukee Avenue

I recommend going to the Bongo Room on a weekday if you can. You avoid the brutal wait, and although you miss out on the weekend brunch specialties (like chocolate tower French toast), you can still get the best thing on the menu—the pancakes. Although the pancake choices change seasonally, there are always a couple of fruit-filled pancakes with homemade butter. Last spring there were lemon-blueberry pancakes with brown sugar–ginger butter; right now there are blueberry-buckwheat pancakes with honey-Butterfinger butter and cranberry-corn pancakes with peanut-toffee butter. Pause for drool collection. Now the pancakes themselves are quite good, but the butters are the real draw—they’re outrageous. They are in fact as good as they sound. I’d never been tempted before to get a doggie bag just for a slab of butter. To be fair, I love butter, in all its infinite forms. I used to eat chunks of it whole as a kid (not anymore, I swear). But even my friend Sara (a different one), who avoids butter at all costs, can’t get enough of the stuff. They are so good. You must go. You must try. For those of you who prefer the savory for brunch, the breakfast burrito is excellent. You can also build your own omelet with a plethora of different cheeses, meats, and veggies.

What have we learned? I have lots of friends named Sara(h). I like to salt my French toast. (My pancakes too. Shhh.) It is trendy to have two locations for your breakfast spot—the first listed is the easier location to get to from the U of C. Chicago does brunch well. It is well worth it to venture out of Hyde Park once in awhile for some good breakfast food. Your Kant can wait. I promise. Up next—I’m looking for the best hot chocolate in Chicago.

Have a culinary suggestion for Jane? Send an e-mail to jlopes@uchicago.edu