Sunday brunch is a popular tradition among many North Americans. It is somewhat associated with grandparents for many—I have lots of childhood memories of sitting through an agonizingly long church sermon and then being further bored in a hotel restaurant, watching Grandfather Mingus extending his tongue to meet the approaching food on the fork. I also recall playing with lava stones used as mulch below plastic seventies-style plants while a guy in a tux tapped away on a piano on the patio.
Not that I’m old enough for my turn in this pseudo-stereotype, but Mrs. Mingus and I decided to go for a Sunday brunch last weekend, minus the church bit of course. We searched on line for a place to go—hotels are always a sure thing—and we found that Eesti Restoran (Estonian Restaurant, a uniquely named eatery in the Barclay Hotel) offered an all-you-can-eat buffet for just a hundred kroons or so, and it was available to the public until eleven. We arrived an hour and a half before that, and it was already over.
So we footed it to Entri, under the Hotell London (Hotel London, in English). The food looked alright, but it was a hundred and twenty a head, and they wanted fifty for each of our two kids as well. They might eat a piece of ham, spit part of it out, and then that would be their meal. No price reduction either. We moved on.
Another hotel had a promising spread but the doorman firmly suggested that it was typically reserved for their hotel guest, who apparently wasn’t awake yet. The dining room was empty and they were turning away customers, in this economic climate. None of the other restaurants were open yet, except for Suudlevad Tudengid, which I’ve reviewed before. Their breakfast menu consisted of a plate for forty kroons that—according to the menu—had an egg, a pickle, beans (I saw a customer who’d ordered it, and they were just raw, cold kidney beans, not the normal baked beans you’d expect) and a piece of dry toast.
—A side note on Suudlevad Tudengid, if you will (Kissing Students). Their chef must have changed. Mrs. Mingus has eaten a couple of their lunch specials, which used to be very good. Last week they served her a fish tail and a pile of mayonnaise. She gave it the benefit of the doubt and tried it again the next day. Another fish tail. We’ll not eat there again.—
Eventually, on the way home, we saw that Big Ben Pub on Riia Street, in the Hotell Pallas (Hotel Pallas, in English), offered a buffet, at half-past ten. They charged a hundred kroons about, and I asked how much it would be for the kids. Nothing! The waitress, whose worn name tag said, “Kri tiina,” told us not to worry about it.
Now I wouldn’t expect the overly developed, sumptuous selection of a large, American hotel, but I also wouldn’t settle for the boxed and processed products at a small American motel, either. Big Ben boasted a healthy combination of both. Scrambled eggs with ham mixed in, fried potatoes with ham mixed in, crêpes rolled up with some ham mixed in, and crêpes rolled up with some tuna mixed in. Small sandwich choice, cereals, coffee and juice, wieners and frozen meatballs for kids, and ketchup.
It wasn’t the best I’d had, but it was far from the other end of the spectrum. Just the fact that they didn’t charge for the kids makes me think very positively about it. But the food was relatively good, despite the abundance of pork. There was also a lot of fish, not just the tuna crêpes. That’s pretty typical of Estonia, just to prepare any bacon-hunting Canadians or Americans.
I like the place itself—the décor, I mean. It’s a theme pub, fashioned after London. I guess the owner’s not simply some fat guy called Ben. But there are leather seats, highly ornate wallpaper true to British interior fashion, lots of wood, and the toilets even have hot and cold taps! The men’s jaan also has an extra feature.
After washing my hands, I couldn’t help but notice the thickly padded leather cushions mounted on the wall over the urinals. Right at head level. Makes you just want to lean against the wall while you’re there. Then I noticed what it was for, on the opposite wall. The decorator apparently visited some vintage porn shops in Camden. I asked Mrs. Mingus if there was anything unusual in the ladies’ jaan. “Like what?” she asked. I told her nevermind. Too difficult to explain.
This wasn’t the first time I’d eaten in Big Ben. No, that was a few months ago. I got the hamburger because that is what we Yankees eat. That’s all we eat. I did ask if the burger was real beef. The waitress had to ask the kitchen, but yes, it was real beef. And it was surprisingly the best burger I’ve had in Tartu, if not Estonia. Now still, that doesn’t say much, but it had thinly-sliced red onion, a great sauce and even lettuce. I don’t think it was made from scratch in the kitchen though. The patty I mean. Most likely bought pre-sliced and frozen.
A distinctive feature of Big Ben is its patio, or veranda, or rotunda, or whatever you call the large, protruding glassed-in deck suspended over a single load-bearing steel post. It’s pretty cool, but I think it’s been de facto reduced to the largest smoking room in the country. They keep most of the windows closed, so even though it’s outside, it still stinks of cigarette butts. While checking it out, I also got my daily fix of Michael Jackson.
I went back to the table and called the bar to order a drink. Literally. Picked up the phone on the table and placed my order. I could see Kri tiina talking to me, receiver in hand. I left a tip, even though it was a self-serve buffet. This place has gimmicks, and they work.