New York is, unfortunately, a brunch town. People get out of bed and wait in lines for overcooked eggs and hair of the dog to stave off a hangover when they really could grab a bagel on the go, get on with their day, and look forward to a far better Sunday meal, a feast that begins in the late afternoon: the glorious Sunday roast.
Of all the things that Americans shed for independence from Britain, why did we leave the Sunday roast behind? It’s fine that the monarchy, snooker, and jellied eel remain a pond’s length away; but there’s reason to resent that we got stuck with brunch while they kept the roast.
Leave it to London import Hawksmoor to assuage any FOMO by recently introducing its Sunday roast to Gramercy: All you have to do is let your server know if you like it “pink” or “done,” and a heaping plate arrives of tender, rosy slices of beef; crispy potatoes cooked in drippings of said beef; sweet roasted carrots; buttery shreds of cabbage; soft, pungent, roasted garlic; lightly charred shallot; and a perfectly puffy Yorkshire pudding with English mustard, horseradish and “indecent amounts of gravy” on the side.
Though roasts are traditionally about the beef — there’s a reason the French once referred to the Brits as “les rosbifs”— Hawksmoor also offers a vegetarian option in the form of roasted celeriac with farro, mushroom and parmesan trimmings. For $45, either will fill you up for the day.
If that doesn’t convince you of a roast is better, there’s the history. The Brits apparently invented brunch: The practice, and the portmanteau term, has been attributed to English writer, Guy Beringer, who in an 1895 article for Hunter’s Weekly, “Brunch: A Plea,” suggests a “light” post-church or post-hunt Sunday meal, “to sweep away the worries and cobwebs of the week.” Sounds pleasant enough, though “worries and cobwebs” were surely code for hangovers, as he added: “By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers.” The British never really appreciated this humanitarian effort. though it took some time, Americans heard Beringer’s entreaty. Brunch came to U.S. shores in the 1930s, landing as a somewhat formal affair. Under our guardianship, we transformed it from a sophisticated hangover helper to a bottomless binge, accompanied by, more often than not, lousy food.
Meanwhile, well before brunch encroached on our weekends, Sunday roast originated in the 15th century during the reign of King Henry VII, whose personal guards were even known as “beefeaters.” Though the “early history is sort of murky,” says British food historian Dr. Polly Russell, “the Sunday roast really settled into British history well into the 19th century, when people started to go to church regularly on Sundays. They would put a joint of meat in the oven that would cook for hours and be ready when they returned home.”
The routine has grown into “a warm hug of a weekly institution that all walks of life grow up with in the UK,” says Hawksmoor founder Huw Gott. “It’s about everyone gathering together on a day of rest and eating something special,” Russell adds. In other words, it’s like a holiday every week, Blighty’s own shabbat, so to speak. Brunch, somehow, never feels like a holiday, save Mother’s Day…maybe. People eat breakfast or lunch — or both — every single day.
Culinary icon, Baroness Ruth Rogers, proprietor of London’s famed River Cafe, enjoys it, “because it is more traditional [than brunch]. I am from New York, but I like the idea of tradition,” she says. And indeed, the roast was first, predating brunch by hundreds of years. Look at it this way: Roast is the heir, while brunch is the spare.
For the British, the roast is more than just a meal. “I think everyone in Britain has a memory of a Sunday roast, what it means to them, and the memories attached,” Rogers says. “It’s got this really important kind of emotional and cultural significance,” Russell explains. “It’s a national point of pride, a symbol of national identity.” As an American, I can’t picture brunch as ever being a point of patriotism. Are we supposed to fly the flag behind eggs Benedict? Avocado toast?? A mimosa?!?
Another important difference between Sunday roast and Sunday brunch: A Sunday roast takes time. It is a feast made with care. As opposed to brunch, there is “the gentle sense of occasion. The planning, the prepping, the cooking — it requires some attention which is returned as you lazily, at hour three, dig into the cheese course before flopping into a warm dessert,” says Jess Shadbolt, London native, chef and partner of King and Jupiter in NYC.
Sunday roasts are also available at a few other NYC restaurants, such as Tea & Sympathy, which offers chicken, beef, lamb, or vegetable versions; Jones Wood Foundry, which diplomatically serves brunch and Sunday roast; and Gus’s Chophouse, which includes a pork shoulder option.
The best reason to get behind a roast? It’s the iconic Yorkshire pudding: The exquisite puffy, crusty popover doubles as a gravy mop and is as comforting as a roaring hearth on a snowy day.