EVERYTHING DELICIOUS has a detractor. If you look, you can find authorities who shudder at the all-American hamburger, who frown on your coffee break, who would have you wracked with guilt at a nibble of caviar (too salty), a slab of foie gras (too fatty), a seafood cocktail (too cholesterol-laden) or the merest sliver of your grandmother's famous chocolate cake (which has the sins of all the above).
Breakfast, though, is not only approved but encouraged. We've all heard it throughout our lives: "Breakfast starts the day right." "Breakfast is good for you." "Breakfast is the one meal you must not skip."
Breakfast is, first, historically significant, given our origin as an English colony. But beyond that, it is profitable.
McDonald's, which is responsible for 25 percent of all breakfast sales in the United States, now serves 2 million breakfasts a day. In coffee shop chains, breakfasts account for a third of total sales. And upscale restaurants are adding breakfast to their agenda as a way of intensifying the use of their facilities and thus increasing sales without adding significantly to costs.
On the consumer's side, business is being done increasingly at breakfast because it takes less time, is less disruptive than a long lunch and can be a less-caloric, nonalcoholic mode of conducting a meeting or interview. Breakfast tends to be quieter, served faster and less expensive than lunch, and it is a time when many people feel their freshest and most alert.
Once you start savoring breakfast, though, there is no stopping the addiction. You will undoubtedly seek bigger breakfasts, newer breakfasts, the best breakfast in the world. Take England, for example, the breakfast center of the world, where you can taste the best, the worst and the most influential breakfasts; then slip over to the continent for -- of course -- a continental breakfast.
But the focus of this guide, of course, is morning Washington. Restaurants have been surveyed and reviewed from early hours to late. The reviews are a sampling of breakfasts and brunches and represent the rich variety -- in taste, size and time -- of breakfast in Washington.
ENGLAND: THE ENGLISH CAN'T EVEN get through a good book without breakfast. First-meal menus are scattered through the works of Charles Dickens, James Boswell and Sir Walter Scott (who referred to cold sheep's head for breakfast).
But the prominent current chronicler of things English and culinary, Jane Grigson, insists, "English breakfasts are actually something of a myth," a myth created for tourists, she complains. Thus the British eat big breakfasts at hotels on holidays, when at home they actually have just coffee and croissants, she says.
True as that may be, the English still seem to have more opportunity for breakfast and breakfastlike food than most people have. The day's first encounter with breakfast in an English inn will probably be wake-up tea, brought to one's room at the first stirring. Then there is the proper breakfast in the dining room -- the menu invariably including bacon, sausage, kippers, finnan haddie, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, toast and croissants, jams, marmalades, juices, fruits, cereals, yogurt -- and all that just the basics without considering in-house specialties. Next is morning coffee -- coffee and biscuits -- which shops, pubs and restaurants advertise with signboards. One could also stop for fish and chips, as those shops open at 8 a.m. Or one could have breakfast -- and who knows what else? -- at a wine bar.
An understanding of the English breakfast could begin by witnessing the full range of breakfast meats available at H. F. Richards meat shop, which has been in Oxford's covered market since 1870. Proprietor Nevil Tiller explained that the English have nine kinds of bacon, given the combinations of cuts and cures. The best cut is back bacon -- the meaty loin. Streaky bacon is more like American bacon -- threaded with fat. Middle is a combination of the two. The three cures are green (salt-cured), sweet-cured and smoked.
The English eat both bacon and sausage (or "bangers," as they are called in England) at a single breakfast -- along with grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, fried bread or toast with drippings. English sausages are stretched with biscuit meal, and most of them are only 75 percent meat (the best ones are 90 percent). Hams have the same variety of cures as bacon, but the "green" ham is coated with yellow bread crumbs after it is cooked, and all hams are served cold at breakfast.
Richards also stocks eggs from chickens, ducks, geese, quails and sea gulls; brawn -- a loaf of boiled pigs' heads, hocks and rinds with nutmeg, to be eaten cold; black pudding made with blood, back fat, barley and onion, eaten hot; white pudding, made with pork, pork fat, barley, leeks and milk, also eaten hot; and fruit pudding, made of raisins, currants, suet and farina, cut a quarter-inch thick and fried.
Harrods food halls in London are virtually a modern English food museum. Enclosed in the acres of marble and tile are every fashionable thing to fill your stomach. You could consume your breakfast on the premises: Harrods Health Food Bar serves a "morning starter" of muesli with yogurt, melon, juice and whole wheat roll; its ice cream parlor serves waffles and a freshly made yogurt with fresh fruit; and its Wine Goblet snack bar serves a range from danish or brioche to kippers. But far more interesting is gathering the makings of breakfast and then taking them home.
This culinary monument also stocks 17 kinds of butter and bacons with such romantic designations as Honeydew Canadian Recipe Smoked Streaky (which is described as "like American").
Americans like their bacon thin and crisp, Harrods food staff explains; the English like it thicker and less crisp, and nowadays prefer to grill it so the fat drains off. But bacon is a mere start: Harrod's stocks three kinds of black pudding as well as spicy Cumberland sausage in long, thick ropes, seasoned with sage and thyme; small sausages (chipolatas), pure pork sausages bound with eggs and milk rather than breading, and beef sausages. The breads range from brioches to scones with raisins or whole meal to three kinds of tea buns -- our english muffins -- plain, oatmeal and cheese. And here is the classroom for kippers, from Manx kippers to Loch Fyne to Melik. The smaller the kipper, the sweeter, the fish counter staff will explain, and they will tell you that these strong smoked fish are either poached or grilled, but are not to be served with eggs as the finnan haddock, smoked mackerel, trout, eel, cod, bloaters or salmon would be. And if Harrods sales are an indication, the English are increasingly having smoked fish for breakfast.
That's breakfast on the shelf. For the consummate London breakfast on the table, one goes to a hotel, preferably one of the grand and traditional ones: the Connaught, the Savoy or the Ritz.
The Connaught would prefer, of course, that you stayed the night, before breakfast. In fact, it discourages "outsiders" and takes no reservations. Expensive as it is by English standards (about $10, depending on the exchange rate) breakfast is a bargain here. Consider: the fruit display at the entrance in summer showed an abundance of blackberries, raspberries, fraises du bois and apricots as well as more mundane but no less delicious grapefruit. The menu includes anything the English ever dreamed of eating at breakfast -- fillet of plaice, herring, cold chicken wing, Weetabix. And all the lavishness is on the plate; the Connaught does not show off with masses of flowers or a flashy interior. Everything looks well worn, from the silver coffeepot to the ma.itre d'h.otel. And the maple syrup arrives in its original plastic bottle. As for the cooking, the scrambled eggs were hard and dry, perched on burned toast; and the thick french toast tasted deep-fried. But, after all, this scene was made not for such mundane stuff; this is the site to eat something to evoke the British Empire: kedgeree, the creamy casserole of smoked haddock and rice, topped with grated egg, huge, filling and solid with tradition.
At Savoy, 50 percent of the breakfasts are eaten by "outsiders" rather than hotel guests, and 90 percent of those Savoy breakfasts are hot. The Savoy's multicourse English breakfast consists of "freshly pressed" orange or grapefruit juice, fruits, porridge, eggs with everything from sausages to kippers, a choice of teas and breads. And in proper English style, the menu includes mixed grill, cold roast beef and lamb kidneys. The fruit compote is a dreamy still life of fresh figs, lychees, raspberries and is only one reason to breakfast at the Savoy; the other is the marble columns and salmon-mousse walls, the view, the waiters in tails, the silver bread basket and saltcellars. The coffee is excellent, but the morning staples of danish, croissants, eggs and sausages leave you with an intact image of drab English cooking.
Breakfast at the Ritz is formal, with waiters in tails, heavy silver servings on the tables and mirrors and gilt in the baroque dining room. The croissants are airy and flaky, buttery and tender. The Ritz buys good Cumberland sausages -- mild and herbed -- and serves Lancashire black pudding grilled in slices like scrapple. It's a straightforward English menu with kedgeree, kippers, cold ham with fresh pineapple, mushrooms with kidneys and a basket of breads on each table. Since this is probably one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the world, one might not mind that nonhotel guests are charged two pounds cover, or that the coffee is bitter, the grapefruit juice insipid, the service absent-minded.
Breakfast is at breakfast time in this traditional city; only the Hilton International Hotel is known to serve breakfast 24 hours a day. But if it is breakfast all day rather than all night that tempts you, and a side of London a world away from the Ritz, struggle to the far end of the basement at the purely punk Kensington Market, to the Temptation Caf,e. The market is a three-table cave where the telly is tuned to rock video and beans on toast costs 55 pence. Omelets, chips, ice cream cones, quarter-pounders and a choice of instant or perked coffee: the menu isn't exactly traditional -- and the surroundings aren't exactly clean. But that's not the point. Bacon and eggs amid green leopard-skin tank tops, multicolored hair standing in spikes 10 inches high, studded leather belts -- this, too, is London.
The yuppie London is at Justin de Blank's Duke Street cafeteria, where some of the nicest morning food can be eaten on soft leather cushions of high-back benches. The sausages are prize winners, herbed and meaty. The menu is short -- eggs are boiled only -- but the scones, croissants and brioches are well made, the coffee is good enough to be French, and the cream is good enough to be English.
OUTSIDE LONDON: IT IS SAID that every prime minister who went to Oxford has eaten breakfast in the wee hours at George's Cafe (pronounced Kayf), in that city's Covered Market. George's is decorated like college hangouts throughout the world: walls are covered with posters of campus-shaking events. Numb- looking youths in T-shirts sit in well-scarred chairs, mesmerized over a mug of instant coffee and a cigarette. This is bare bones: "dripping toast" (toast with bacon drippings) costs about 20 cents, and you can't find a napkin. But fashion is not totally ignored; the scrambled eggs are garnished with alfalfa sprouts. It is also the site of the World's Worst Breakfast, or as close as I ever want to come to it: pale buttered white toast with a gray cindery egg fried on an unclean grill, topped by two burned little sausages that taste like hot dogs stretched with flour, two limp undercooked bacon slices and, over that, watery, soppy sweet canned baked beans.
The World's Sweetest Breakfast is to be had in one of England's tea shops. Take, for instance, Mawney's Kitchen in Woodstock, just a suburb away from Oxford. In a building half 17th century, half 18th century, you are given a choice from homemade cakes on the sideboard: "tray bakes" (so named because they are baked in trays), cream cakes, whole-meal scones and extraordinary crusty bread pudding, still warm and made from leftovers of the whole- meal bread.
Scattered throughout England are the country house inns -- grand houses, mansions, castles and estates that are being restored and opened to guests. And breakfast is part of the treasure of a stay. At Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon, for instance, there are home-preserved prunes sparked with orange rind and butter that is good enough to eat with a knife and fork all by itself. But then you would miss the homemade marmalade -- the Gidleigh Park kitchen made 600 pounds of it last year. The croissants are superb enough to make a Frenchman consider learning English. Once he does, he should ask for clotted cream with them, and ask specifically for the cream from Mrs. Hurdle's cow.
At Mallory Court, outside of Leamington Spa, breakfast is in a glass-walled sun room overlooking the gardens. The coffee is served in big flowered cups, and while the croissants can't match Gidleigh's, they are accompanied by butter curls, local honey and cherry preserves. The waiters are in morning coats, and the tables are every bit as formally dressed, with floor-length flowered cloths. Most important, though, is that the breakfast is impeccably cooked, its perfect omelets accompanied by a mixed grill of green back bacon, the country's best herbed Cumberland sausages and tomatoes cut into fluted halves before being grilled. Fat juicy kippers with crisp skin for tradition, segmented grapefruits for convenience and two kinds of toast, including whole wheat, for your particular taste -- if a breakfast could be unforgettable, Mallory Court's would be it.
In the Cotswolds, to the west, one finds Buckland Manor, where the whole-berry currant jam is second only to the chunky tart apricot jam from that very kitchen. The juices are not squeezed that morning, but the night before, explained the proprietor, because the noise of the juicer might disturb sleeping guests. And if the sausages taste like hot dogs and the bacon steamed and soggy, at least the eggs are local and the coffee selection includes brewed decaf.
But maybe you'd prefer breakfast outdoors, as at Hambleton Hall, in Oakham -- one of the best country house inns. The terrace overlooks the hillside and reservoir, and you are asked whether you prefer your bacon "regular or crispy." The local sausages are coarse and meaty, some of the best in the country.
At The Feathers, a tiny antique of a hotel in Woodstock, coffee and newspapers are delivered to your room to give you strength to get to the dining room. There garden flowers greet you and your butter balls are garnished with parsley sprigs -- it is superlative butter, worthy of being garnished. The Feathers' breakfast starts with juice and fruit, progresses to muesli, smoked haddock and eggs. Then it's time for a stroll around the block before morning coffee at Mawney's down the street.
PARIS: MUCH AS TEA and cheerfulness are English, coffee and churlishness are what I found at French breakfasts. At $30 for two, breakfast in Paris' acclaimed Crillon Hotel cost about $1 a minute. Most of that half-hour was spent watching the staff reset tables. After a while someone asked if we wanted coffee. He was obviously merely curious, for no coffee came. Finally we hailed a waiter and asked for coffee. "Coffee?" He looked puzzled, as if such a request were unique and he had assumed we were only there to gaze at the dining room -- which, with its marble inlays, murals of cupids and miles of gilt was worth a gaze. The buffet displayed highly perfumed Agen melons and fresh pineapple, creamy scrambled eggs to serve yourself somehow without a spoon and plenty of sausages -- but only an empty platter for bacon. If we had been served a half-hour sooner, I would have been far more ready to admit that the croissants and brioches were models of their art and the coffee excellent. AMERICA:
"BREAKFAST becomes a strategic meal," announced Nation's Restaurant News last summer. McDonald's began testing Maple McCrisp, Sausage McMuffins and biscuits made on the premises. Burger King began what was dubbed a "Battle of the Breakfasts" ad campaign against McDonald's. Arby's added its own croissant breakfasts and Roy Rogers settled into a two-pronged breakfast program of weekend buffet and weekday crescent roll sandwiches, raising breakfast to 15 percent of its sales. Le Peep spread from Denver to Minneapolis to Atlanta with its local fresh eggs cooked 50 different ways, stretching the breakfast hour to 2 p.m. and the profit margin with 30 percent food costs and 23 percent labor costs. And Domino's began testing what has to be a culinary first: home-delivered breakfast pizzas.
This spring's dining guide focuses on The Washington Breakfast -- fast breakfast, slow breakfast, the power breakfast and the get-away- from-it-all breakfast, the bargain breakfast and the break-the-bank breakfast.
On the following pages is a sample of Washington's breakfasts and brunches, a variety that will make you want to get up in the morning.