The birthday cake was the first bad sign. Bringing your own food technically wasn’t allowed at the Arlington restaurant where Lorraine McNamara was working the bottomless-brunch shift, but she let it slide. She was already serving the entire patio by herself. Plus, the kitchen was backed up. The birthday group was pounding mimosas on empty stomachs.
“They’re already a loud crowd. They’re already very demanding. Then, of course, one of them gets sick and throws up all over the flowerpots,” McNamara says. She went over to help but instead ran into another twentysomething in the party trying to make her way to the bathroom. She threw up, too—all over McNamara’s black Puma sneakers.
“Meanwhile, I still have the whole rest of the patio. I go to the bathroom and try to clean up best I can,” McNamara says. “I’m just trying to get to the end of the shift with them, thinking at least at the end of this I’ll get something good in the gratuity.”
Instead, as the group departed, one of the girls’ boyfriends offered her something in lieu of a tip: the remaining birthday cake.
Welcome to the world of bottomless brunch, the meal that industry veterans often describe as a war zone with cheap all-you-can-drink bubbly. “We used to joke after shifts that we blacked out during brunch service, because you just have to go on autopilot,” says Delaney Walsh, who worked the unlimited-mimosa trenches at Logan Circle’s Commissary for two years. “I know a lot of people I worked with that will never go to brunches. They’re just scarred.”
More than at any other meal, the line between fun and unhinged is a thin one. Walsh recalls how she would fill up someone’s glass and they’d chug the whole thing while she was still topping off the rest of the table: “I’m like, ‘Can you just please act like a human being?’ ” Meanwhile, servers were fighting over pitchers just to keep up with the unquenchable crowds. “You’d walk up to the bar with the empty carafe and the bartender would shoot you a death glare.”
“We used to joke after shifts that we’d black out during brunch service, because you have to go on autopilot.”
Between the monotonous refills and the fact that everyone was sitting down to (theoretically) eat, Walsh says it was often hard to gauge just how drunk most people were—until they got up to leave. “Girls would come in minidresses and heels like they’re going to the club, and they’d be staggering out.”
Brunch was never as lucrative for Walsh as weekend evenings. She says drunk brunchers are not generally great tippers: “They often forgot to tip or would take their signed check. That means they tipped nothing, basically. We did not get a lot of drunk over-tippers.”
Anthony Bourdain famously called brunch “a horrible, cynical way of unloading leftovers and charging three times as much as you ordinarily charge for breakfast.” Bartender Jeff Litterst has seen plenty of shortcuts aimed at making the bottomless deals economical. At one restaurant where he used to work, the bottomless-brunch entrées were portioned smaller than usual. “They’re really relying on the cheap mimosa pour instead of the usually more expensive food cost,” he says.
It’s no secret that the bubbly for bottomless mimosas is the cheap stuff, but it may be even cheaper than the orange juice. “If you’re doing bottomless drinking, you’re not terribly discerning about the alcohol,” says Litterst. “The thing that people care how it tastes is the orange juice. If you get the watered-down Walmart OJ, people will start to be like, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ ”
As for Bloody Marys? Don’t be fooled by the “house” mix. It’s probably still a bottled mixer like Zing Zang with some extra cracked pepper thrown in, Litterst says. And don’t be shocked if your Bloody Marys taste totally different on each visit. Bartender Greg Robinson says most brunch spots he’s worked at didn’t have a set recipe. Often, it was the bartender who closed the night before who batched it up. One time, a fellow bartender whipped up a mix so spicy that Robinson had to run to the kitchen and chug milk. He’d already served it to one customer who, thankfully, loved it.
Bloodies might not be the only thing the staff is sampling, either. “The truth of it is we’re all hungover, too,” Robinson says. “So if you see us drinking out of a coffee mug, it’s probably not just coffee.”
Illustration by Connie Zheng.
This article appears in the October 2023 issue of Washingtonian.