Madhouse in a Boathouse

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It’s a nice thought: eating Sunday brunch in Central Park’s boathouse, overlooking a peaceful lake, watching the yellow and red leaves fall from the soon-to-be-naked branches. Certainly, it’s not an original idea; certainly, lots of tourists will be there. But can’t it still be enjoyable? How crazy can it get?

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That picture doesn’t do the experience justice. See the man in the tie? I don’t envy him at all; when I arrived with my parents (who I was meeting for brunch there), he was getting screamed at by various parties who demanded to know how much longer they’d have to wait. On our way out, another woman was screaming at him: “I called and you said 45 minutes and now you’re saying it’s an hour and a half? That’s bullshit!”

Lucky for us, my parents’ hotel made a reservation for us so we didn’t have to scream and shout to get his attention. Though we still had to wait five minutes: they gave us one of those chintzy electronic beepers that lights up red and vibrates when your table’s ready.

Eventually it beeped and lit up red and they brought us to our table–a nice one, overlooking the lake.

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Despite the lovely view, we quickly realized that this wasn’t a Sunday brunch: this was a factory. We were on a conveyor belt, about to be moved along through the various trials of eating brunch at a New York brunch institution.

Trial one: find your waiter.

It took about 10 minutes–my mom had to go ask someone if we even had a waiter–but, eventually, he came and took our order. That was the last we saw of him. I’d ordered coffee, which I quickly imbibed, but when it came to getting the coffee refilled, I had a better chance of being named King of Central Park.

Trial two: tolerate the food.

Here was the plate of Eggs Benedict I ordered:

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First the good: the hollandaise sauce was bright and zingy, lemony and creamy and good.

Now the bad: the eggs were way overcooked, completely solid in the middle (a big no-no for Eggs Benedict). Worse, though, were the potatoes: probably the worst brunch potatoes I’d ever been served. They tasted likes squares of sauteed Styrofoam. My guess is they fry the potatoes directly in the pan without boiling them first (something, I’ve learned, which makes a big difference) and then keep them warm in the oven.

To be fair, I find most brunch potatoes unsatisfactory. I think it’s because most brunch places have to serve so many people, they obviously can’t make the potatoes to order, so they have to devise a way of frying the potatoes ahead and keeping them crispy. The solution usually involves drying them out for hours in a low oven. This makes them taste terrible, but certainly preserves their crunch.

You might think that my Boathouse experience filled me with contempt, but it didn’t. When you look around that room and see the hundreds of people eating there, and the hundreds of people waiting to get a table, it’s a hugely impressive feat: they come for the view, but they’re not rioting over the food. Most of these people are content to eat stale potatoes and watch the leaves fall. And to feed that many people successfully, and so regularly, is something to, if not admire, at least consider seriously.

It’s like breakfast cereal: you might hate the fact that Kellogg’s fills its cereals with processed chemicals, but when you think about how many people they feed around the country–the world even–with what they produce, its certainly something to marvel at. Is it a good thing? Probably not, but it’s nonetheless impressive.

And such is The Boathouse. Would I go back for brunch? Probably not. But do I hate it? No, I don’t. I respect it for feeding so many, so efficiently and consistently. It’s not a great restaurant, but it’s a great machine–and there’s something to admire about great machinery.

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