I believe in breakfast. Always have. And though I have no idea whether it’s is the most important meal of the day, it’s questionably the most often neglected. As I wrote in my introduction to the September Sunrise Sandwich Spree, a month-long stunt I undertook to eat a different breakfast sandwich every morning of September, the practicalities and obligations of adulthood can present significant obstacles to a wholesome, pleasurable breakfast. Even when we can afford ourselves the rare luxury of early-day nourishment, we are too often limited in the time we can take, the money we can spend or the distance we can travel. An ideal breakfast is leisurely, indulgent and fulfilling; a more realistic breakfast is quick, cheap and convenient. It was therefore inevitable that the humble sandwich, in virtually limitless variation, would become a ubiquitous staple of the workingman’s breakfast. Or so I thought…
On Diversity (or the Lack Thereof)
I conceptualized the month-long spree with the naive but well-intentioned goal to eat a new and interesting breakfast sandwich every morning. At the time this seemed a modest ambition; surely in any major metropolitan city there are 30 unique breakfast sandwiches from which one could choose on any given day. As anyone who followed my daily updates will know, however, it wasn’t a full two weeks before disillusionment set in.
Whereas to me the term “breakfast sandwiches” describes a distinct class of sandwiches made with the intention of being eaten early in the day, it seems many, if not most purveyors consider there to be a sole, singular breakfast sandwich: scrambled egg, cheese and a choice of meat on a choice of toasted bread, bagel or croissant. I don’t feel it’s an exaggeration to say that somewhere in the ballpark of 75 percent of sandwiches included on breakfast menus in D.C. are some variation of that model. The fact is, there simply isn’t as much variety in breakfast sandwiches as there should be and very easily could be. The egg and avocado bagel I ate at Dupont Market illustrated how an otherwise boring breakfast sandwich can be elevated by just one additional ingredient.
Many of the noteworthy sandwiches I ate in September were illustrative of the gluttonous “more is more” ethos that pervades American food culture. The Ten Thirty-Five at Open City and T.U.B.S. at Ted’s Bulletin are two examples; the former is a quarter-pound burger topped with a fried egg on English muffin, and the latter is bacon and sausage and scrambled egg and fried egg on butter-drenched Texas toast. That my blood pressure was recently measured for the first time in the pre-hypertension category is likely no coincidence. Eggs, fatty meat and cheese are near inescapable components of the breakfast sandwiches of the day.
This is all not to say there weren’t bright spots. The waffle sandwiches at Wicked Waffle, while perhaps lacking in execution, embody the creative spirit that was lacking in most of the other sandwiches I ate in September. Although the shop isn’t actually open before lunchtime, the breakfast sandwiches on offer at SUNdeVICH, not least of all the fantastic Milan, features a bevy of ingredients that you’d be hard pressed to find on other breakfast menus. And at Amorini Panini, a sandwich joint that I was theretofore unacquainted with, the breakfast paninis both sweet and savory are unlike anything I had ever experienced. Thanks to these sandwiches and a few others, I ended the month with reason to be encouraged.
On Availability (or the Lack Thereof)
Washingtonian magazine published its Best in Breakfast and Brunch issue last month (and more recently repurposed the package as an online feature). Of the 50 eateries profiled in the issue, just 17 (by my rough count) are actually open for weekday breakfast. Of those 17, several are located in hotels and are thus more or less obligated to open early. Of those open for weekday breakfast and not located in hotels, just seven are within District limits and are what I would consider realistic breakfast options for a working professional.
In the course of my daily morning commute, which takes me down 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan through Dupont Circle and down 14th Street NW to Thomas Circle, I pass what had always seemed at first blush to be a countless number of breakfast options. Indeed, a map plotting the locations of the restaurants featured in the September Sunrise Sandwich Spree would reveal that the vast majority are situated in the heart of the Northwest quadrant.
Many factors combined to cause this clustering. First of all, I have a job, too. I work downtown, and like anyone else hoping to grab a quick breakfast before clocking in for the day, my opportunities to venture too far from my typical route are extremely limited. Secondly, at least as far as I could gather over the course of the month, the near downtown and midtown residential areas tend to be relatively replete with breakfast spots. I was surprised to find how quiet some otherwise bustling areas of the city are at 8:00 a.m.; Chinatown and Georgetown come to mind as breakfast ghost towns.
Suffice this all to say that while D.C. is unusually enthusiastic about brunch, it is not by any means a breakfast town. High-concentration areas in and around downtown are dominated by chains, and locally-owned (read: better) options there and elsewhere are truly few and far between. At the risk of sounding like a Carrie Bradshaw voiceover and ending this section with a question, I can’t help but wonder: Are the options so sparse because nobody eats breakfast anymore, or does nobody eat breakfast anymore because the options are so sparse?
On Value, Briefly
If nothing else, it’s fair to say that breakfast sandwiches in D.C. are, as they should be, generally a good value. The average price of the 23 sandwiches featured in the September Sunrise Sandwich Spree was $5.45, ranging from $2.79 for the scrapple and egg on toast at Jack’s Fresh to $10.00 for the Milan at SUNdeVICH. In the case of these two sandwiches I got what I paid for, but there are certainly great bargains to be had. The genuinely fantastic proscuitto and egg panini from Amorini Panini is a steal at $2.99. The massive sausage and egg pita from Greek Deli wouldn’t have been overpriced at twice the actual $3.99 I paid for it, and the $5.90 Aramingo Avenue at Taylor Gourmet, recently named the District’s best sandwich shop, can tide over an above average eater until mid-afternoon.
It is easy to say in retrospect that I bit off more than I could chew, and the slightly less sunny of my daily reports, as well as my elevated cholesterol count, would seem to bear that out. But if the September Sunrise Sandwich Spree wrought more questions than answers, it was nevertheless a worthwhile endeavor. I have learned and have, I hope, communicated where some of the city’s best breakfast sandwiches can be found, and I have affirmed my long-held belief that despite its challenges, breakfast can be the most rewarding meal of the day.
Let’s bring breakfast back! As diners, we can expect no more than we demand, so we must demand better. Demonstrate that offering thoughtful, creative breakfast service can be worthwhile for restaurants by making time in your morning routine for a good meal. Commit to breakfast. You’ll be glad you did.