A wise man from Atlanta once said that 11 o’clock on Sunday is one of the most segregated hours in America. Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. had things of greater import than brunch on his mind when he made that observation in April 1960 during an interview on Meet the Press. He was talking about integration, specifically related to the Christian church—but there’s more than a one-to-one correlation between church and brunch.
If we’re being honest, to borrow a quote from Erykah Badu’s song “The Healer,” brunch in Atlanta might be bigger than religion. Just look at Senate Bill 17, aka the Brunch Bill, which the Georgia General Assembly passed five years ago to allow alcohol sales at restaurants starting at 11 a.m. on Sundays. (Previously diners had to wait till 12:30.) But brunch in Atlanta had been a thing long before that. Many of us attend worship services on weekend mornings. Yet on any given Sunday, it’s probably also true that a similar number of Atlantans can be found faithfully enjoying an 11:05 mimosa or paloma with friends, sorors, cousins, classmates—maybe even someone they met at church last weekend. And you may know and love some deeply religious folks who opposed the 2018 law and still shake their heads at Atlanta’s hugely popular brunch scene. We forgive them, though; it’s likely been too long since they’ve had buttermilk bacon biscuits with a peach Bellini. They know not why they hate.
What they also don’t realize is the power of brunch culture, or its potential to do what we know food does: bring people together. More than breakfast but not quite lunch, and legally disqualified from happening on weekdays—or at least it should be—Atlanta brunch has the potential to inspire a very different form of communion. It’s a weekly birthday party, a squad goal, a celebration of survival and success, a space where one can engage in self-care or occasionally spoil themselves with comfort served by the plate. Socially, there’s safety in numbers when you’re having brunch with a bunch of like-minded diners all sharing the vibes.
But that come-togetherness doesn’t seem to be meeting its moment. All around Atlanta there’s division in dining rooms. When it comes to brunch, it sometimes seems like the choice is Black or white, or perhaps “lit” versus “bougie.” The latter is where you might find a level of decorative grandeur and elegance that draws in people just as much as, if not more than—for instance—the Faroe Islands salmon in chorizo broth with roasted poblano and butternut hash. The former is where you might find 24-karat-gold pancakes drizzled with bourbon apple cider syrup and bedecked with berries and edible flowers, with classic and maybe-slightly-ratchet R&B music inspiring bursts of tableside twerking. We all brunch differently; to each her own.
There are plenty of similarities that bind ATL brunchers: Customers want not just an epicurean experience but a sense of belonging, and a desire to be seen. But it’s become more obvious that we’re separating ourselves at brunchtime, much like religious believers are doing behind the walls of sanctuaries, synagogues, temples, and tabernacles. And regardless of how you like your shrimp and grits, that’s neither sweet nor savory.
The recent flood of Black-owned breakfast restaurants, which began just before the 2020 Covid shutdowns, accelerated Atlanta’s embrace of brunch. Black restaurateurs found turnkey opportunities to take over failed restaurant spaces, and effected big changes to areas like Main Street in downtown College Park. Here a slate of brunch options opened in the last few years—Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar, the Real Milk & Honey, Nouveau Bar & Grill, Johnny’s World Famous Chicken & Waffles, and more—stretching for a mile between the Corner Grille and the Breakfast Boys and replacing a soul food restaurant, a Greek diner, and even a couple of breakfast spots. Clearly, in College Park, the people wanted brunch.
But you have to wonder: Is the fact that the lines along Main Street consist mostly of Black diners the reason we don’t see more white people hitting the strip to taste what the hype is all about? And even though Buckhead has its fair share of Black residents, the farther north you drive on Sunday morning in Atlanta—say, toward the General Muir, Buttermilk Kitchen, or Canoe—the less likely you are to find similar numbers of POCs, both in church and at brunch. Dr. King would probably find that distasteful.
The two crowds sometimes tell a tale of two Atlantas, which unfortunately aren’t mixing as much as they should. According to recent census data, Atlanta continues to be America’s capital of income inequality—which, for inclusion’s sake, means we’re winning for losing when it comes to equality. When you assimilate into a higher class structure, your surroundings tend to become more opulent as your expectations for quality rise. If you’ve been systematically denied the feeling of full citizenship in a capitalist society where money has long meant the ability to buy freedom—particularly for descendants of enslaved Africans—gold pancakes become a way of reclaiming your inner value.
Atlanta’s gotta find ways to meet in the middle, and clearly we can’t wait on MARTA expansion. If our waistlines have to grow in order for our collective responsibility to break bread with each other to follow—both with food and with finance—at least we had a damn good time coming back to the table again and again for another attempt at making those necessary connections. After all, you can be lit and bougie—that might actually be Atlanta’s brand. If Atlanta were ever to become too busy to hate, we’d see the love in our naturally integrated neighborhood brunch restaurants every Sunday, starting right around 11, and continuing until late afternoon to accommodate our churchy friends and family.
As for the question of whether or not Atlanta has too many brunch options, and what the hell some of these chefs are thinking when they put their menus together . . . I leave that to y’all. I personally believe the more effort a brunch restaurant puts into the visual experience, the less likely you are to truly love eating what you order. But critiques aside, it’s hard to tell any Atlanta restaurant that’s not just surviving but thriving from brunch revenue that it should change course. If everybody’s gonna do it, let’s just do it well and make all feel welcome, wherever brunch is served.
We know there’s unity in the church pews. But we also know the effects of French toast, crab cakes, eggs Benedict, and chicken and waffles—especially when paired with a proper Bellini, or maybe something stronger. What’s important, right after we make sure that Sunday brunch recommendation is really worth the money and time, is that we all feel welcome to the bench, booth, or banquette, because ultimately we’re all splitting the bill one way or another.
This article appears in our February 2023 issue.