The story goes that one of Raleigh’s longest-serving restaurants may be responsible for bringing brunch to the city.
“I do know that, according to Arthur, Irregardless is the first place in Raleigh to do brunch,” co-owner Lee Robinson said of former Irregardless co-founder Arthur Gordon. “When you’re the first place to do it, 30 years later if you’re not doing it well, something’s wrong.”
Voters in the The News & Observer’s Triangle Brunch Bracket have declared Raleigh dining icon Irregardless Cafe as the best local brunch service. The pioneering cafe bested 21 other popular brunch spots and collected 65 percent of the final vote to take the crown.
Irregardless was opened in 1975 by Gordon and co-founder Andy Arnold in its longtime spot at 901 W. Morgan St. near downtown Raleigh. Launched as the city’s first vegetarian restaurant, Irregardless helped established a new standard in the Triangle for seasonal, plant-based eating.
And since nearly the beginning, Irregardless has been big on brunch, serving at times a two page menu of favorite dishes and basic classic cocktails.
At the beginning of 2020, Gordon sold the restaurant to Trophy Brewing co-owener David Meeker and Raleigh restaurant veteran Lee Robinson who operates the cafe. Brunch continues to be the restaurant’s most popular meal.
“Brunch is breakfast food and a cocktail,” Robinson said. “It’s the best thing in the world.”
Irregardless does as much brunch business as it can possibly do every single Sunday, Robinson said, roughly 500 meals from the morning to the afternoon as longtime musicians Larry Hutcherson and Gene O’Neill alternate weekends, filling the dining room with music.
Through the last couple years of the pandemic, Robinson said brunch may have been the meal that kept Irregardless afloat.
“Honestly if it wasn’t for our brunch, I don’t know if we would have made it,” Robinson said. “It’s been a life preserver.”
When Robinson and Meeker took over Irregardless, stepping into one of the city’s storied dining rooms, brunch was one of the meals that got tweaked. Robinson cut the menu in half and moved the restaurant’s solid cocktail list up front, so diners could consider the vegan Bloody Mary at the outset. Favorites include a gluten-free waffle that Robinson says doesn’t taste gluten-free, and a house-cured smoked salmon Benedict.
“Our approach was keeping the menu as seasonal as possible, keeping as many favorites as possible while introducing new stuff,” Robinson said.
Brunch is partially defined by the company, Robinson said, marked by friends venturing out and coming together over a meal. It’s an eating experience that exists best in a dining room, Robinson said, kicking off a leisurely afternoon.
“Brunch is really more about coming here for the people, it’s a place to hang,” Robinson said. “Brunch has a younger demographic, it’s a much more communal experience and who you’re with.”
Runner-Up: Beasley’s Chicken + Honey
If a restaurant like Beasley’s can be edged into second place, the Triangle’s brunch scene is fierce.
While Irregardless has a few decades on this beloved fried chicken spot from chef Ashley Christensen, brunch at Beasley’s is equally bustling on the weekends, with lines often forming at the door on Wilmington Street. Since the closing of Chuck’s, Beasley’s brunch service has expanded into that space to make more room.
To Christensen, brunch takes the pleasures of breakfast to new heights.
“I think it’s a little more indulgent, versus the kinds of dishes you’re eating for breakfast,” Christensen said. “You might not be having biscuits and gravy if you have something to do that day. So it’s a little more indulgent, has a few more elements than breakfast. Someone having brunch is going to take their time.”
Brunch at Beasley’s goes from a jam-packed 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., serving a few special dishes like rich biscuits and gravy, a perfect chicken biscuit and chicken and waffles.
Christensen’s cross-town pizzeria Poole’side Pies will launch a new brunch service this month, differentiating itself with dishes like a focaccia Benedict with porchetta and aged provolone and a lighter Bloody Mary made from the same tomatoes as the pizza sauce.
Poole’s Diner once served one of the city’s most popular brunches but suspended that menu during the pandemic. Christensen said she’d like to see it return someday, but that the larger, brighter Poole’side might be better suited for the brunch rush.
“For Poole’s the numbers we served there (then) and now, it’s asking a lot out of that little building,” she said.
Christensen said she’s thrilled to see Irregardless successfully pass its torch to a new generation.
“That’s a very important restaurant,” Christensen said. “It lifts my spirits to drive by and see it doing well. I’m very happy those guys have taken it and hit it with some new energy.”
This story was originally published April 28, 2023, 3:44 PM.
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