Ten years ago this April, George Weld, then a frustrated writer, started serving breakfast out of his friend's hot dog restaurant in Williamsburg. In the years following, that breakfast-only project, Egg, gained a devoted following, and eventually replaced the hot dog spot entirely. By now it's a neighborhood institution, know for its eggs Rothko, French press coffee, and unwaning brunch crowds.
But a lot has changed in 10 years. For one thing, Egg now serves lunch. Weld also started a farm upstate, which he used to supply the restaurant with much of its produce (though for the moment it's mostly dormant). And in 2012 he opened Parish Hall nearby, where for the first time ever, he and chef Evan Hanczor focused on dinner, not breakfast. In the end, that didn't work out – Parish Hall closed after a two year run – but in the process, Egg got a new home. Now it resides in the much larger space that once housed Parish Hall, while Patti Jackson's critically acclaimed Delaware and Hudson occupies the original, tiny Egg space on North 5th Street.
Just ahead of the 10th anniversary, Weld talked to Eater about his unlikely entrance into the restaurant business, those early days in Williamsburg, the trouble with Parish Hall, and coming to terms with being the guy who does breakfast.
How did Egg start?
Breakfast is definitely a meal where people don't want to make a lot of decisions. George Weld: I had a friend from a dot-com I used to work at, everyone there eventually got laid off. He got laid off a few waves before I did, and he sort of reflected on his life and thought, "What I really want to do is feed people and make people happy." So he had this idea of doing a hot dog place, Sparky's. He ran that for maybe two years. I cooked in high school and college, and had liked it, but I figured I was gonna go do other stuff. I was in grad school for English for a long time, and moved up here thinking I was gonna write. I knocked around, and never felt that happy with anything I was doing, and started thinking about going back into cooking. But it felt like it was gonna be a steep hill to climb, especially then. At the time, if you hadn't started doing it when you were 20, it was really hard to get into a kitchen. But he just said out of the blue one day, "Would you be interested in trying something out in my space in mornings when we're not using it?" I don't think he thought I'd say yes. But I thought I might as well take a shot at it. I won't lose that much money, and at worst, it'll be like going to cooking school or going to business school. If I do it for a year or two, I can probably get a job in a real kitchen. I had that first conversation in December, and opened in April. I had two employees, one of whom is still here.
It just sort of dripped along for a few months, and then we got a writeup in New York Magazine. We got kinda busy, and I was able to hire a cook. And then we got a little bit busier, a little bit busier. And then we got written up in the Times, this amazing review. We got really busy after a while, but we were still splitting the space with the hot dog restaurant, and in theory, closing down at noon so that they could switch over to selling hot dogs. As we got busier, we'd have to stop taking names for our list earlier and earlier in the day. We would tell people that got there at 10 or 11 that they couldn't eat, it had to be a hot dog restaurant. After a year and a half of being in this uncomfortable position, the guy with the hot dog place opened a place in the city, and decided to put all his energy into that. So he offered me the lease, and I took over.
When you first opened, what were you serving?
Pretty close to this actually. In fact, the only things that are different are that we didn't have duck hash, we didn't have lunch, and we had, at the advice of a vegetarian friend of mine, Morningstar vegetarian sausage links, which we kept on there for like a year and a half, until we got so disgusted by them. We've done more in terms of tweaking recipes to get them better. Breakfast is definitely a meal where people don't want to make a lot of decisions. We had a pretty good variety to begin with, and it just felt like not something to mess with too much.
So what happened once you took over?
We very slowly added lunch, and lunch at first was very tiny, and then it got bigger and bigger, and then filled half the menu. It was kind of an amazing time. Stephen Tanner, who would open Pies ‘n' Thighs, came to work here. It felt like we were getting a lot of people who were sick of other restaurant jobs and were really talented. It was nice to work at Egg because the hours were decent, and you get out and go home when it was still light outside, which was a novelty for a lot of people. We did add dinner. We ran it for probably about a year or two, until we got deep into the planning for Parish Hall, but dinner never really worked at Egg. I don't think people really wanted to eat dinner at a place they were used to thinking of for breakfast. Dinner was fun, but it was almost too much for us to do. The walk-in was bursting at the seams constantly.
Do you ever wish that you were less pegged to breakfast?
I think that's a lot of what got us into Parish Hall. There was a part of me that felt like you couldn't really be taken seriously as a restaurant unless you did dinner. I think that was mostly my insecurity. We did dinner at Egg, and we got pretty good reviews for that, but I just still felt like, "It's New York, and until we make it as a dinner place, I'll still feel like a kid doing this." Doing Parish Hall, which was amazing in a lot of ways, I realized I love breakfast. Feeding people breakfast is an incredible privilege. It's a really intimate meal for people. People don't get dressed up to go for breakfast, they're not putting on a show. They come in raw and tired, or with their kids, or with someone they spent the night with for the first time, and you're feeding them something really great, and that means a lot. So I just stopped worrying about it. It was really hard when Parish Hall opened. We were serving food from 7 a.m. to 11:00 at night, and it's not like we had a whole crew of people overseeing. It was me and Evan and a couple of other people. It was exhausting and emotionally draining. Now I can be like, "This is what we wanted to do from the beginning, and I feel confident and happy about it." It was a long way to get to it, though.
Why didn't Parish Hall work?
I don't know. I had a lot of theories over the years. I think the space was too big for what we were trying to do. We were really committed to doing vegetable-oriented food, to doing food that wasn't already too familiar. We tried to make sure that everything we did didn't fit too neatly into any other category, which is a fun intellectual project, but it's hard from a customer satisfaction point of view. A lot people, even adventurous eaters, often want to go out and eat something familiar, and we just kept not providing it. That would have been doable at a smaller restaurant. If it was more intimate, like a special project you were participating in, I think it would have put people in a more experimental frame of mind. Also, I have a very spartan aesthetic, which works okay for breakfast because people aren't expecting a whole lot of luxury, but at dinner it was a much more challenging sell. I had always imagined the ideal place to eat would be in an art gallery that was empty. I love the feeling of the air all around you, and the space all around you, and the light, and that's enough. I don't think that works for a lot of people, and I get that now.
In a lot of ways, Parish Hall was great. A lot of people really loved it. We got some really nice reviews. We built an amazing crew that's gone on to do incredible stuff and work in amazing restaurants. I feel like there wasn't a failure, so much as we made a really good effort. We did a really good job, it just didn't click. Directors put out movies and one just doesn't make it's money back or whatever, and that's all it is really. Not every book is a bestseller. Egg was a ton of work, but because it was in a lot of ways a surprise, it felt kind of effortless. For Parish Hall, that was a hard standard to have to compare to. I'm glad that we didn't keep struggling and compromise our vision for it. The ideals behind it, I still believe in. You see it a lot now. There's a lot of that kind of vegetable-focused foods happening everywhere.
Do you ever think you would ever try to go in that direction again? Would you ever try to do a smaller thing?
If this is all I ever did, I wouldn't be sad.I have no desire to get back into dinner, but we're gonna relaunch Hash Bar, which is our Smorgasburg stand, this year. That's a baby step back into experimenting with other ideas. I love all the food that we do, I eat it every day, but I like to experiment in the kitchen, Evan likes to experiment. He's doing specials all the time, and we'll do event dinners. At some point, I'm sure we'll think of some other little side project to do. But I love doing this. My heart is definitely still in this place. If this is all I ever did, I wouldn't be sad.
Obviously Williamsburg has completely changed in many ways. From your perspective, what was it like when you first opened?
We just went to Fritzl's Lunch Box [in Bushwick] for lunch today – it felt like that a little bit. For one thing, the whole waterfront was still in a cage. It was fenced off, the city had a tow pound there, and there were neck-high grasses in what's now East River State Park. When we moved into this neighborhood in 2003, a couple years before Egg opened, we couldn't get cable, we couldn't get phone service, it was like living in a bizarre neighborhood. North 6th Street where I live was all meat packing. My block was Galapagos before it moved out, and North 6th before it turned into Williamsburg Music Hall, so sometimes you'd see people passed out on the sidewalks from that, and then the next block was all meat packing. There was not that much going on, and it felt like Egg was the only thing open. There was a deli or two open. I guess it felt, not desolate, but a little lonely. And it was always like, "Where are these pretty people coming from?" They would come to eat, and it was like, "What do all these people do all day? Like, how are they here? What allows them to live in this neighborhood and come out to eat at 11 in the morning?" It was an interesting bunch of people. There were a lot of musicians, a lot of young families, restaurateurs. It just felt like a different world in a lot of ways. And the city was different then too. I remember, we had some electrical work done or something, and the guy was like, "listen, you give me an envelope of some bills, and I'll keep an eye on you." That stuff doesn't happen anymore. It's still fun, but it just felt like much more like anything goes.
What are your thoughts on the neighborhood now?
I still live in it, I love it. It's very hard to objective about a neighborhood when your living depends on it. There are more people here, that's great for us, for business. I know people complain about Williamsburg incessantly, but we still have customers who've been coming here since we first opened, who still live in the neighborhood. We've watched kids grow up. It still feels really intimate to me. There are a lot more tourists, so yeah that's a pain, but it's great for business. We have a lot more stable successful businesses here now, and a lot of those people live here, and that's exciting. Maybe they look like a symbol of absurd Williamsburg in some ways, but also it's awesome that they worked, and that those people who invested care about the neighborhood and live here, are making it work.
What has given Egg its staying power?
Honestly, I think the simplicity of it has been really critical. I always thought that the food should be food that my grandmother would recognize, so it had a very down the middle attitude towards food. The goal was not to make things weird, but to cook everything perfectly. Maintaining that simplicity has made it really accessible for all kinds of people. We definitely benefited from luck and timing. And I think the fact that we really committed to breakfast was critical. Almost everybody who does it does it as an afterthought, so in a way there are not that many options still. I hope we're better than just the only place around, and now there are more options in this neighborhood, but I think what we do is pretty unusual, even though it feels familiar.
What do you hope for the future of Egg?
I'm not totally sure. I love this place, I love doing this. One of the downsides of the neighborhood changing is that at some point, staying in it will...who knows? Like, if Danny Meyer can't keep Union Square Cafe in one place, we have that to think about that. I think about ways to prepare for that eventuality, whether that's opening another Egg, or thinking about breakfast in different ways. I think people are definitely more open now than they were even two years ago to lots of different things for breakfast.
We're still trying to do the things that keep us excited: getting other people's small farms functioning, trying to get the economies around them working better. We are trying to get even more involved with the school food program through Wellness in the Schools. They've started toying with the idea of doing a breakfast program, and I think that would be fun to help with. Breakfast is good for you. Everyone jokes about how when you work in a restaurant, and you're out until four in the morning every night, and everybody's drinking all the time, you can't live that way for the rest of your life. When you do this, you can, and you can keep figuring out ways to evolve it and make it more exciting. It feels like there are a lot of things we could do, and we kind of follow our noses.