Brunch can be indulgent, where mimosas reign and the pleasure of dining unhurriedly is the general rule. But the Black communities of Atlanta, especially Black women and younger generations of chefs and diners, have put their own stamp on brunch, which has as much to do with an electric vibe soundtracked by hip-hop and R&B music, spontaneous dance parties, and endless fashion parades as it does Instagram-worthy food and groups of jubilant people gathered around tables. It’s not just brunch, it’s a celebration.
In downtown College Park today, there is a stretch of Main Street restaurants known locally as the Brunch Mile, including the Corner Grille, Johnny’s World Famous Chicken and Waffles, Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar, Nouveau Bar and Grill, the Real Milk and Honey, and the Breakfast Boys. These are just a few of the Black-owned restaurants bringing brunch crowds to the revitalized corridor in College Park every weekend.
But College Park isn’t the only place in metro Atlanta where Black brunch customers line up for the meal.
Go to Gritz Brunch Bar in Douglasville, a restaurant where shrimp and fried grit cakes and fish and spaghetti are served until closing. In Decatur, Ms. Icey’s Kitchen and Bar packs customers in for weekend brunch featuring Creole, Caribbean, and Gullah Geechee dishes, from blackened shrimp, crawfish and chicken sausage etouffee to fried dark-meat chicken with plantain waffles and brown sugar butter. Near the Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta Breakfast Club has become the spot in downtown Atlanta for peach cobbler French toast topped with shortbread crumble. Then there are recent additions to the Black brunch restaurant scene, like Belle and Lily’s Caribbean Brunch House serving conch fritters and halal jerk chicken and buttermilk pancakes with passionfruit mimosas or Just Brunch Breakfast Bar in Duluth, where culinary cultures mix in dishes like grits with oxtails, buttermilk biscuits topped with chicken and shrimp gumbo, and a waffle plate stacked with Korean-fried chicken and braised collards.
While brunch has always been big business in Atlanta, Black brunch can be an entirely different dining experience.
In the beginning, there was Justin’s
Chef Lorenzo Wyche, who partnered in the Breakfast Boys with Gee and Juan Smalls (Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar), knows all about the success behind Black-owned, brunch-oriented restaurants in Atlanta. He had a hand in opening many of these restaurants, including Breakfast at Barney’s, Gocha’s Breakfast Bar, and Nouveau.
Before becoming one of the godfathers of Atlanta’s Black brunch scene, Wyche worked in some of the city’s most notable restaurants during the late 1990s and early 2000s, places he says helped spark this mini-industry.
“Let’s go back to Justin’s,” Wyche says. “That’s where brunch kind of became a thing in Atlanta, like a sophisticated experience.”
Wyche was the opening chef at Justin’s, a celebrity-filled soul food establishment that opened in 1998 on Peachtree Road in Buckhead and was backed by rapper and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs.
He also recalls the legendarily long lines of people waiting outside for Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles to open every morning, when it debuted in Midtown the following year. But those patrons preferred a more family-oriented experience, whereas Justin’s had the same energy found in Atlanta’s popular day party scene, but with food. And since Georgia’s “brunch bill” had yet to become law and Sunday retail alcohol sales still weren’t legal, restaurants opening at 12:30 p.m. with booze and food cashed in on an untapped market that seemed ripe for the picking.
“What really got people out on Sundays was the day party. People weren’t spontaneously going out on Sundays; everything was dead,” Wyche says.
The Sunday brunch buffet, at $35 per person, arrived around 2002, and immediately packed Justin’s dining room on weekends. People waited hours to enjoy waffles, pancakes, fried chicken and grits, and stations serving fruit, salad, and carved turkey paired with bottomless mimosas. Along with Justin’s food, the possibility of dining alongside Black celebrities like Mike Tyson, actress Elise Neal, and Diddy himself also attracted diners to the restaurant. Justin’s closed in 2012 after 14 years in Atlanta.
Wyche went on to open his own restaurant lounges after departing Justin’s, including Rare Soul Tapas on Piedmont Avenue, Harlem Bar on Edgewood Avenue (now the BQE), and the Social House at Howell Mill Road, which opened in 2009 as one of Atlanta’s first Black-owned breakfast restaurants that catered to a mixed clientele. All three are closed now, but while running these spots, Wyche noticed a connection between the lounge crowd and weekend breakfast fans. A trend was emerging. Other Atlanta chefs like Sammy Davis also recognized the trend and leaned into the growing popularity and the culture surrounding the city’s new Black brunch experience.
“He’s actually the one who created the movement,” Wyche says of Davis, the chef who co-founded locally famous (and famously dramatic in ownership changes and name disputes) the Real Milk and Honey. The restaurant first opened in 2006 on Huff Road, now home to Souper Jenny in Blandtown. Another location opened later on Cascade Road.
By the time Wyche opened Social House, Davis was already drawing big crowds clamoring for his extravagant brunches filled with dishes like cognac French toast.
“When I opened the Social House, Sammy was already doing these big, over-the-top brunches. Cognac French toast and all of that. He’s patient zero,” says Wyche. “The food was crazy, the crowd was there; he just didn’t have all the pieces together yet. But he’s the one that built the [Black] brunch audience.”
And there were others, too, helping further the success of the Black brunch boom, like chef Anthony Sanders, co-owner of Atlanta Breakfast Club, and Barney Lee “Pancho” Berry, co-owner of Breakfast at Barney’s.
“Before Barney’s, there really wasn’t an established daytime experience. Gocha’s had it, but it was small and tucked away on Cascade Road. It was a neighborhood thing.”
Wyche gives Breakfast at Barney’s credit for becoming an instant hit with tourists, the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Atlanta, and celebrities. Not long after opening in 2020, lines formed outside the restaurant, with wait times stretching well beyond an hour. There’s often a step-and-repeat backdrop offering fashionable patrons a chance to capture the moment in a photo to post on social media.
Black women are driving the Black brunch scene
As Black brunch gained in popularity, more Black women came not only to eat, but to earn. Celebrity hairstylist Gocha Hawkins opened Gocha’s Breakfast Bar in 2019, just outside the Perimeter in southwest Atlanta. It too was an instant hit. Ebony Austin, a Chicago native whose mother owned a restaurant serving tacos on the city’s West Side, opened Nouveau Bar and Grill that same year along College Park’s Brunch Mile. In 2021, Austin added a Jonesboro location. She credits her corporate background, working in business development for Campbell’s Soup and 1-800-Flowers, with giving her experience in operating food-related businesses. After learning how to create success for other companies, Austin bet on herself. First, she opened a real estate investment company, flipping properties in Chicago and reinvesting the money she earned to purchase more. Austin says it made her a millionaire.
“But what I enjoy most is serving people. And I’m an excellent cook. I watched my mother change lives through her restaurant, and it was just a small to-go restaurant,” Austin says. “I wanted to experience that and put two things I love together: serving people and cooking.”
Teneshia Murray is the owner of Douglasville restaurants Gritz Brunch Bar and Red Velvet Bistro (offering fine dining soul food with weekend brunch), and T’s Brunch Bar in Midtown. A serial entrepreneur, Murray is a licensed hairstylist who owned several Atlanta beauty salons, barbershops, and even a trucking business prior to opening Gritz in 2021 and Red Velvet Bistro eight months later.
“I get so many reservations from parties of women all day, because there are a lot of single ladies [in Atlanta],” Murray says of what keeps her in the brunch business. “We get together and hit every brunch spot, drink our mimosas, wear our hats, talk, eat good and drink good. I did it when I was single and I still do it. It’s that thing for women.”
Wyche estimates around 80 percent of brunch customers at Black-owned restaurants are women, whether families, friends, sorority sisters, or brunch dates.
Many of these restaurants opened a year before the pandemic shutdowns in March 2020. But even months of dining room closures didn’t seem to slow the Black brunch scene in Atlanta. When restaurants were allowed to reopen again in Georgia, Black diners flocked back to brunch in droves.
Witnessing the crowds gathered along Main Street in College Park to get into restaurants serving the mimosa-laden meal, Austin quickly added brunch at Nouveau when the restaurant reopened. Lines now form outside both locations for brunch.
“Brunch is a Black woman’s sport. That’s who dominates brunch culture,” Wyche says.
The future of Black brunch
But the major success of restaurants catering to Black brunch crowds led to market saturation in Atlanta, marked by a lot of imitators looking to cash in quickly. The imitators are often not very good, run out of food, or simply serve formulaic menus filled with gimmicky stunt dishes. It’s all vibe and little substance. With so many established brunch entrepreneurs now searching for more locations to serve the demand, however, some worry Black brunch has become uninspired and disorganized, lacking the excitement it once enjoyed in Atlanta.
Wyche says while people like having a broad range of similar restaurants to choose from and predictability on the menu, the demand for better food and creativity across the board has to come from diners.
“All these places established a marketplace. If you don’t like one, you go to the other. The changeups have to come from demand,” Wyche says. “[Black] people are conscious of how we spend our food dollar, especially women. We had to establish some predictability. It might not be the best, but it’s [the same food] you can get every week. That’s what was missing — the consistency.”
Toast on Lenox, co-owned by chef Virgil Harper and Tamara Young, touts its status as a “proudly Black-owned, woman-owned, community-bolstered restaurant” serving all-day American brunch. Harper and Young are trying to set the Buckhead restaurant apart from its competitors by serving more options like kale Caesar salads, smoked salmon bagels, and acai bowls as well as Instagrammable dishes like a sweet potato waffle topped with lobster and salted caramel praline sauce or Fruity Pebbles French toast.
Wyche is eyeing the Buckhead-adjacent neighborhood of Vinings in Cobb County for a new brunch restaurant. He believes the next generation of Black-owned brunch restaurants in Atlanta will offer more international influences, too, like Miami’s English afternoon tea-style restaurant Little Hen or Morning Glory in San Diego, known for its Japanese souffle pancakes. He predicts future Black-owned brunch restaurants coming onto the scene will welcome more non-Black diners by diversifying food on the menus.
But the dining experiences punctuated by DJs and dancing between tables — that electric, celebratory vibe, the fashion, and the large groups of people singing and laughing together — will always be the key components driving the bottom-line success of these restaurants.
“There’s a lot of money to be made and brunch to eat,” Murray says.
Mike Jordan is an Atlanta-based food and culture journalist and the southeast editor of content at Resy. He’s also a newsletter columnist for the Local Palate, and a frequent contributor at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Atlanta magazine, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Eater Atlanta, where he regularly writes about food, business, entertainment, technology, politics, and more.