This leads to a philosophical dilemma: is the full English breakfast a dish or a meal? Really, it is an institution, and it incorporates two other important British cultural tropes: tea and the free press. Tea, alongside beer, is an indispensable part of British culture and while it has been over taken by coffee as the nations preferred hot beverage it is still an important part of the breakfast ritual. So too is reading the newspaper at table, something that is not acceptable during any other meal.
Before delving deeper, let’s get a little diplomacy out of the way. While the English can rightfully claim to have created the full breakfast, the notion of the full Irish, Scottish, or Welsh breakfast is just as appropriate, and helps distinguish the regional variations. The origins of the meal lie in the Victorian age. While the contemporary morning fry-up is perhaps most closely associated with working class diners in greasy spoons, it was initially strictly the purview of the upper classes. The full English breakfast was born at the height of the country's industrialization and empire building. Suddenly, food stuffs from across the world became as immediately available as those from across the British Isles.
The breakfast the landed gentry of the Victorian era ate was far less standardized than the full English of today.
The breakfast the landed gentry of the Victorian era ate was far less standardized than the full English of today. Rather than an expression of uniformity, it was one of splendid diversity, of wealth and the curiosity afforded by a global empire. All manner of items might be served at these breakfasts – including game meat, smoked fish, trifle, and other sweets – and these meals might go on for hour upon hour, emphasizing the diners' membership in the leisure class. Prior to such wanton lavishness, breakfast in Britain was far more spartan, revolving mostly around beef, bread, and ale. But what started as a purely upper class affair soon traveled down the social ladder and became widely adopted. By the mid 20th Century, the full English breakfast was being eaten by a majority of British citizens. The set breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, mushroom, beans, and toast was largely a result of marketing efforts by the hotel industry in the post WWII era, attempting to boost business for bed and breakfasts. It largely succeeded, providing a foundation upon which each region could incorporate its own traditions. In the Scotland and the North for example, black pudding is ubiquitous. In Wales we find cockles and laverbread, and in the Republic of Ireland white pudding is prevalent.
Fried eggs are far and away the most common preparation on a full English, although scrambled and even poached are also an option.
Sausage is one of the main staples of the full breakfast, and also one of the Britain's most enduring culinary legacies. While England is known as the land of beef and John Bull, breakfast sausage is almost invariably made from pork – the one exception being the Scottish Lorne square sausage, which contains both beef and pork, and is supposedly named after Glaswegian comedian Tommy Lorne. While the term "bangers" is probably familiar to Americans from the dish bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes), there are hundreds of varieties of sausage in Britain, and no single one is a banger. Almost any of these sausages might end up on a breakfast plate. In NYC, the most common variety is probably the chipolata-style sausage, sometimes called Irish breakfast sausage in city’s supermarkets and butcher shops. The origin of the chipolata sausage is actually French (although the name is thought to be derived from Italian), but it has become a staple of the UK diet. Chipolatas are a mild, spiced pork sausage that are slightly narrower in diameter and shorter than an average hot dog. Larger, more flavorful varieties, such as the Cumberland and the Lincolnshire sausage, are also quite common.
The most drastic difference between American and British breakfast is the definition of bacon. In both cases the product is smoked pork, but the belly bacon we enjoy here is referred to as streaky bacon in Britain. The bacon served on most full breakfasts is loin back bacon, the same cut as a center cut pork chop. It is closer to Canadian bacon, being a single muscle cut rather than the striations of fat and meat found on the belly. At its best, loin back bacon can combine the meatiness of a chop with the smoky, salty punch of belly bacon. But more often than not in NYC, the bacon is underdone and lacks saltiness. The best breakfasts in this survey — The Breslin and Balthazar — eschew it entirely in favor of streaky bacon.
The most perplexing ingredient to many Americans is the inclusion of baked navy beans in the full breakfast. In much the same way that Heinz has cornered the ketchup market in the US, the company dominates the baked bean market in the UK. Heinz beans are stewed in a sweet tomato sauce, and are what you find on most full breakfasts both in the UK and in NYC. They have become ubiquitous enough to be acceptable in almost any breakfast, although beans made in-house can easily surpass them.
Black and White Puddings
Blood sausage is popular in Scotland and the North of England, where it is euphemistically called black pudding. Black pudding is a pork sausage with suet (kidney fat), oatmeal, and pigs blood. White pudding, a staple of breakfast in the Republic of Ireland, is similar to black pudding, but the recipe omits the pigs blood.
Sautéed or roasted mushrooms are another common component. While an average cafe might pop open a can (or tin in English parlance) of mushrooms, the better places will cook from fresh. The same goes in NYC.
The roasted or grilled (technically griddled) tomato is also a ubiquitous feature of the full breakfast, and adds a touch of color to the presentation. In NYC this can either be an inspired addition or an insipid after thought.
Potatoes are not nearly as ubiquitous in Britain as they are in an American egg breakfast, and are more often than not an optional addition on a set breakfast. Chips (french fries to an American) remain the most common potato option, but weirdly there has also been a rise in popularity of American-style frozen hash browns (think McDonald’s, not your local diner) in British cafes in the last few years. Bubble and squeak, a griddle cake of potato and vegetables, is also sometimes an option. Often shortened simply to bubble, the dish was traditionally made from the leftovers of a Sunday roast dinner, and derives its name from the sound it makes when cooking.
Toast (lavishly buttered, of course) or fried bread (which is exactly what it sounds like) are the most common forms of starch served with a full breakfast. But there are a number of other regional specialties found on breakfast plates around the British Isles. In the North, grilled oatcakes are popular. In Northern Ireland, the Ulster fry features potato bread and soda bread. The latter is common in Irish breakfasts both in the Republic of Ireland and in NYC as well, such as at the aforementioned Molly’s Sheeban. In Scotland a potato or "tattie" scone is a staple, represented rather poorly in NYC by St. Andrews in Times Square. In Wales laverbread, made from boiled seaweed and oats, is served alongside the more common ingredients. Unfortunately no one in the city is currently offering a Welsh breakfast. A few places serve fried bread, and some that do not will oblige the order if you ask nicely.
The Full Monty in NYC
In New York, with its large proliferation of Irish pubs, the full English breakfast is more often than not referred to as a full Irish. Indeed some of the longest running versions of the meal are found in places like Molly’s Shebeen in Gramercy, and Donovan’s Pub in Woodside, Queens, which have been open for decades. Even in newer Irish pubs, such as Central Bar and The Dead Rabbit, the full Irish breakfast is a mainstay of the weekend menu. But the meal has found higher expression in recent years in hands of chefs like April Bloomfield at The Breslin, and at restaurants like Balthazar and Tea & Sympathy. The latter may not confirm quite as strictly to the ingredients list as the old school places, but they better embody the original spirit of the meal, and taste better doing it.
Here are 14 full breakfasts available in NYC: