Bette's Oceanview Diner. Saturday morning. Eleven o'clock. The early birds may already have fueled up on muesli and green tea, hiked a couple of miles, and mopped the entire house, but the rest of humanity is waiting outside the popular Fourth Street brunch spot for a few delirious moments with an apple pancake and three strips of bacon. Yuppies slouch around Bette's doorway, slurping their Peet's and furtively eyeing the competition as they calculate their place in the food chain.
Meanwhile, across the street at Eccolo, my friends and I are waving off the onslaught of waiterly attention as we sip fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and peruse the menu. Two-thirds of the tables are empty. We can hear ourselves talk.
Waiting for brunch seems to be the Bay Area's favorite weekend morning ritual. It must be more important than the meal itself, because the longer the line, the more we talk up the food. Truth be told, an hour spent eavesdropping on your neighbors can yield a meal's worth of conversational topics, and sometimes you hit the jackpot and spot a friend trying to slither out of last night's scandal. But on those mornings when you just can't cope with the crowds, a number of the East Bay's highest-end bistros do a near-secret weekend brunch. You may not be able to get waffles poached in syrup and whipped cream, and you'll pay a few bucks more, but you can make a reservation.
Eccolo, Christopher Lee and Janet Hankinson's North Italian bistro, offers a weekend brunch-lunch. The room is really decorated for candlelight and four courses, but on a sunny day it's fully lit -- the skylights let in the rays and the bank of windows up front offers schadenfreude-tinted views of the Bette's lurkers. Though the menu lists a couple of egg dishes, it skews lunchward: mostly sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts, even a few cured meats.
Instead of scrambled eggs, we tucked into a sublime wild-nettle quiche, with a pastry shell as fragile as my ego, eggs barely firmer than a custard, and here and there the unexpected tang of fresh goat cheese. Instead of a side of sausage, we pulled apart a ham terrine and dipped soft chunks of ham coated with its own gelatin, fresh garlic, and handfuls of chopped parsley into a sharp Dijon-style mustard.
Breaking away from breakfast dishes, we shared a steelhead trout salad with blood oranges, beets, potatoes, and winter greens that wasn't as impressive by comparison. Although the cooks were generous with the trout, they stinted on the seasoning. The flavor of the fish got lost, or maybe just hidden under the berry-sweetness of the blood-orange vinaigrette. No one made the same mistake with the skirt-steak sandwich. Between slices of whole-grain bread slathered in olive oil and grilled to a crisp, the cooks piled on thick ribbons of medium-rare beef, sweet-tart caramelized red onions, and enough aioli to make a Big Mac sigh with envy. Instead of fries, the cooks spooned a salad of fregola (Sardinian pearl-sized toasted couscous), roasted onions, and aged ricotta on the side.
Of course, class comes with a price. Not an economic one, actually -- Eccolo's brunch items range from $10 to $13.50. Instead of some salon-bleached social climber trying to scratch our names off the waitlist, we had to fend off bored servers in pressed black shirts and clean white aprons swarming the understaffed room. Our principal waiter hit all of his marks, and then some, complimenting every choice we made so fulsomely we began to suspect he wasn't being quite sincere.
Saturday, noon, one week later. Same situation, different neighborhood. The crowd milling outside the Rockridge Cafe spilled onto College Avenue, and nervous drivers braked hard as they passed to avoid running into a lawsuit. But at tony Citron, no more than four tables were filled. Which seemed ridiculous once the food arrived.
Citron has developed its brunch menu more fully than Eccolo, with eggs Benedict, pancakes, and omelets, plus half of a lunch menu. The waiter even dropped off an amuse-bouche with the coffee: ping-pong-ball-sized donuts dusted in sugar. You can also order coffee cakes and pastries "from the baker's oven," and the menu isn't lying: The goods come to your table still warm.
The portions weren't big but they were sure pretty, and no one ended up needing a carbo-nap. Frilly microgreens and big white plates made a homey choice like the red flannel hash, one of Citron's signature brunch dishes, look elegant. We broke into the poached eggs, letting the yolks and the thick hollandaise sauce napped overtop (don't ask how much butter it contains) coat big wedges of roasted beets sautéed with caramelized onions and bacon. Thick and airy pancakes, puffed up with ricotta, were displayed like a winning poker hand on a narrow rectangular plate. A tiny cruet dispensed blackberries cooked down in maple syrup. The pork sausage tasted rustic but was patted into silver-dollar-sized rounds. Must've been James Hatherworth Dean III brand.
The only disappointment was another signature dish, the smoked salmon Benedict with spinach. Everything about it was done right: the poached eggs' creamy cores, the fragrant Meyer lemon zest of the hollandaise. But when they put it all together, the cooks practiced too much restraint -- the blander flavors of the eggs and steamed greens won out over the salmon and lemony sauce.
On weekends Citron also offers part of its regular lunch menu such as a boudin blanc with braised sauerkraut and a thick, buttery croque madame oozing with good Gruyère and topped with a single fried egg.
With no competition for tables, my friends and I were able to chat for an hour after we cleaned our plates, without feeling we were depriving someone else of nourishment. Our waiter had time to speak in full sentences and refill the goblets with ice water before the ice melted. Total price, with coffees and tip: $19 a person -- maybe five bucks more than a big meal a door or two down.
If you're not allergic to the whiff of luxury, sunny weekends at high-end bistros like Eccolo and Citron offer almost instant gratification. The problem, of course, is that you may not feel comfortable rolling into either place sporting last week's jeans and toxic morning breath. The room may be a little too refined -- and quiet -- for you to launch into your best "what I did last night" story. And you can't rely on the crunch and jostle of a normal diner in the egg-frying hours to provide cover for your squirmy kids.
Then again, what's an hour of your time worth? Ten bucks? A hundred? In the wake of a five-cocktail night, maybe much, much more.