Madhouse in a Boathouse

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?


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.


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:


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.

13 thoughts on “Madhouse in a Boathouse”

  1. Asheville is a brunch town – and all the decent brunch places have given up on making their potatoes crisp, and just make them tasty and tender, as an alternative to crisp and disgusting.

    I just get grits.

  2. How refreshing, a food blog entry that takes a realistic and sympathetic view of a questionable restaurant experience. You aren’t simply telling the foodie masses what they want to hear, full of superlatives about how the dining public deserves perfection and dismissing any establishment that isn’t keeping up with the latest trends in culinary culture. Please continue to wear the title of Amateur with pride, Adam, and never lose your voice.

    I offer as a contrast (not a criticism, since I love the guy’s blog and much of his philosophy on food) Michael Ruhlman’s recent entry on our Nation of Cultural Sissies. His points are valid, and he has undoubtedly done his research. But his dismissive attitude, his apparent anger at people who deviate from his ideal, and his assumption that his readers are with him on this issue made me cringe. If that was the first time reading him I might have dismissed him as the Fox News of food blogs.

  3. It’s funny because city guidebooks always suggest to eat at the places that are busy. I guess they mean busy with locals. Or at least places where people are lingering.

    I found that steaming potatoes before frying them up for breakfast potatoes is a great alternative as well. I’ll let the Boathouse know.

  4. I spent a lovely May afternoon there with a group of friends…drinks and pickies and before the after-work crowd. It takes a lot out of place when it’s too crowded for them to tend to you and your food properly. But, agreed, I’d go back.

  5. I spent a lovely May afternoon there with a group of friends…drinks and pickies and before the after-work crowd. It takes a lot out of place when it’s too crowded for them to tend to you and your food properly. But, agreed, I’d go back.

  6. I spent a lovely May afternoon there with a group of friends…drinks and pickies and before the after-work crowd. It takes a lot out of place when it’s too crowded for them to tend to you and your food properly. But, agreed, I’d go back.

  7. Great analogy to Kellogg’s…the critics and Food TV pundits always say consistency is one of the important things for restaurants, so you’re right, that’s certainly not nothing. And what a fabulous view.

  8. I love reading “stuff” like this, because it makes me feel so . . . what? . . . GOOD . . . LUCKY!

    Do you folks in NYC expose yourselves to this kind of experience (treatment) by choice, or is there some mysterious force that drives you to do it?

    Inquiring minds (outside the center of the universe – NYC) want to know.

  9. Same deal with Tavern on the Green. Locals might feel a bit out of place (tourists abound), and the food and service was just okay. Shame, the setting is so nice.

  10. I am surprised that you (and specifically your parents), who always appear to enjoy great food, nice settings, and wonderful service, would tolerate this restaurant. I would have walked in, and walked out, within seconds. New York City, Sunday brunch, in my thoughts, is a local deli syle restaurant, with hot coffee, lifetime waiters, bagels and eggs (with all the fixings), etc…… an atmosphere to glance at sections of the Sunday paper and chill out. Sunday brunch sould not be a “stress scene.”

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