How to Serve Breakfast for Dinner—And Dinner for Breakfast

Naomi Tomky

On the streets of Saigon, Seattle chef Eric Banh explains, dishes are tied to specific times of day. The duck leg soup—mì vit tiêm—he serves at the three branches of Ba Bar, his Seattle Vietnamese café, is a traditional late-night dish. But since his restaurants are open from morning until well into the evening, Banh knew that he needed to make changes for his audience in the United States. “We sell [the duck leg soup] in the afternoon,” especially on weekends, Banh explains, “because that’s when people who grew up in Vietnam come in.”

As all-day cafés grow in popularity, chefs like Banh take inspiration from all hours and places to serve entrées across multiple mealtimes, using traditional dinner dishes, ingredients and components to cut costs and increase intrigue in their daytime menus. 

“The word in Vietnamese is quán—café,” says Banh, describing Ba Bar’s menu of street food from his Vietnam childhood, adapted through the lens of his decade-plus of cooking higher-end Vietnamese cuisine at Seattle’s Monsoon. “In Saigon, in the morning, people eat something light in flavor and texture. Even the congee there is lighter than the Chinese or Malaysian versions.” Banh is careful to point out that when he plans a menu, he doesn’t create anything. “Small bowls of pho, or op la, which is egg and baguette…It’s been around our country, region, culture for the last thousand years.” His challenge at Ba Bar is to make it in a way that keeps it affordable while tasting good and staying true to the spirit of the dish, as with his grilled Asian eggplant with soy chao vinaigrette ($7.50, recipe).

The difference, though, is that in Saigon, “the food is cheap because the health department isn’t breathing down their neck. Entrepreneurs can specialize in just one or two items, and spend generations perfecting it”—and there’s the population density, even at midnight, to support it. Here, to keep costs down so he can serve the same foods even at reasonable brunch and lunch prices, he’s stopped selling so much beef. While people might pay the high prices for beef he’d have to charge at dinner, at lunch budgets are geared more toward poultry. “In the last five years, the price of chicken hasn’t changed more than five percent,” he notes, while beef prices fluctuate. But he also keeps many of the dishes on the menu the whole 16 hours a day he’s open, reducing prep-labor and waste costs. Banh gets some pushback on his movement away from traditional techniques and mealtimes, but his response is to ask, “Does it taste good?” 

It’s the same question that Laila Ghambari, the co-owner of Cherry Street Public House, also in Seattle, found herself asking when she and her chef worked to make a gluten-free version of their popular avocado toast. They set out to make it in response to requests from customers, but found the answer was mostly no; they couldn’t find gluten-free bread worth using. Instead, they adapted the popular dish so that they could reach a wider audience, using the naturally gluten-free concept of a salad from later in the day, adding egg and bacon, and turning it into a breakfast dish ($9, recipe). While the motivation came from adapting to diners’ dietary restrictions, it resulted in a dish, like avocado toast, that crossed mealtimes. And it works well operationally, too; they use the excess fruit from the grab-and-go case and the sous-vide eggs they were already pre-poaching to turn salad—usually seen later in the day—into a staple of their breakfast menu.

Mornings are nothing new to Ghambari, who runs the 10-unit Cherry Street Coffee House group with her father. When the sprawling, park-front space for the Public House came available, she took the opportunity to follow her own desire to do something more restaurant-like. “The all-day café is a fairly new concept around here, but it’s not new in France and Italy,” she says, adding that the dearth here gave her more freedom to play with the concept, bringing together high-end coffee, a full restaurant menu and even adding a few dishes that incorporate her own Persian heritage.

“When you open a coffee shop, there’s a norm you follow,” Ghambari explains, but she points out that with the café, they could pick their own path, which they communicate to the customer in two ways: through the space and through the menu. “We didn’t want to have signs or turn off the Wi-Fi. We didn’t want to restrict anyone; we just wanted them to perceive,” she says of setting up the long room, which offers a coffee shop-like front area, a dining space with marble rounds, and a laptop bar. In the evening, the dining area shifts to table service. “Our goal with breakfast was fresh and easy,” she explains. The space doesn’t have a hood, so doing sausage or frying eggs wasn’t an option. “Lunch is crazy. We do one-third of our day’s business in a single hour.” But the price points and the styles are really what dictate the atmosphere: nothing costs more than $10 in the morning, but in the evening higher-end foods can reach beyond $15.

While breakfast and lunch tend to skew simpler, many ingredients—like the avocados in the breakfast salad—easily cross between mealtimes and menus. “In the evening, we incorporate seafood,” she says, with the salads more likely topped with ahi tuna than bacon, and if they have extra, they throw it on as a lunch special, something they’ve found to have an added benefit, given how many of their customers work in the area and leave by late afternoon. “It calls attention to our dinner service, that we have it, and offers a sneak peek at what we do in the evening.”

At Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, Marshall Paulsen also blurs the lines between breakfast and dinner, with savory waffles: a quinoa waffle with asparagus and Cheddar ($14, recipe), and a sweet corn wheat berry waffle ($14, recipe).

The waffle was inspired by the one his mom used to make him with bacon and eggs. “This is the grown-up version of that,” he explains, adding that the combination of sweet and savory flavors spans mealtimes. “It has all the components of an excellent meal,” he says. “Carbs, protein and produce.”

Joshua Lewin and his partner Katrina Jazayeri also use dinner ingredients to set breakfast apart at Juliet, their Somerville, Mass., café. Much like Ghambari, the pair fell into the all-day café concept when they found their space—a former coffee shop. Coming from a hotel restaurant, Lewin liked the idea of being open throughout the day, though the daytime and dinner restaurants are two separate concepts. 

“I fell in love with the idea of always being open for the guest in some way,” says Lewin, “and as neighbors, we didn’t want to simply create a tasting-menu restaurant in a coffee shop people missed.” But with just 1,000 square feet total and no walk-in, gas range or even an oven big enough for a full sheet tray, they have to prep and purchase in a way that doesn’t require tons of extra storage and staff.

I fell in love with the idea of always being open for the guest in some way, and as neighbors, we didn’t want to simply create a tasting-menu restaurant in a coffee shop people missed.
Joshua Lewin, Juliet

At Juliet, the evening tasting menu changes seasonally, but they quickly realized people wanted consistency when it came to breakfast. “There’s always an omelet, scrambled eggs, yogurt with fruit…something you can count on,” Lewin says, noting that the various condiments and fillings come from whatever is on the dinner menu. 

Upon Juliet’s opening, its breakfast sandwich got press for one of its components, what Lewin calls “the green condiment” (a pesto-like sauce of greens, cumin, preserved lemon, garlic, olive oil and vegetables), which was made daily by cooks prepping for the higher-end tasting-menu dinner, and repurposed for breakfast. “There’s no extra cost for something we’re making four cups of instead of two,” he says. The outcome—once slathered on the breakfast sandwich—gave an unexpected style to a morning-menu staple.

But when the tasting menu changed, the green condiment was gone. Meanwhile, Lewin had read a column by Tejal Rao in The New York Times about eggs Kejriwal. He fell in love with the story about fancy toast and was inspired to combine it with a few things already on the menu—chutney and chicken livers, among them. It turned into a play on the croque-madame, ironically a staple of just the kind of all-day café that France has long had—and the United States has long lacked ($9, recipe).

“Based on whatever we’re serving for dinner, we’re able to create these interesting dishes for breakfast, brunch and lunch, without having to do extra prep,” he says. That kind of thinking is what makes the menus at all-day cafés interesting, and keeps the restaurants successful.

Naomi Tomky considers noodles as breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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