At a buffet station set with assorted cereals and packaged yogurt, a distinguished-looking man dressed in a tailored suit and shoes that gleamed darker than black caviar stood dishing a bowl of oatmeal. Perhaps he had grown bored of lobster tail or gold-flecked tortes and simply desired a humble portion of porridge. I, however, had not and rose to fill my plate with another round of prime rib and stone crab claws. Clearly, the brunch crowd at the Breakers Resort — an extravagant hotel on the luxurious island of Palm Beach — hosts two classes of guests: those who dine here regularly and those of us who splurge once or twice in a lifetime.
When my boyfriend and I pulled off the main road onto the Breakers' long driveway, the breathtaking view came into sight, and we stopped talking midsentence. A massive cream-colored building that resembled a Roman palace, complete with flags waving from two turrets, rose from the oceanfront property. We passed three football-field lengths of manicured green hedges and flower-filled medians before arriving at the lobby entrance, where we were greeted by a bevy of doormen. Across the lot sat a gleaming pearl-white sports car that resembled an aerospace novelty. "What kind of Bentley is that?" my date asked with adolescent-boy excitement as he handed the valet the keys to our Ford Taurus.
While doing research to find worthy brunch spots for Mother's Day, I had heard about the 25-year-old brunch tradition at the Breakers Hotel. It was said to be a magical place with quarters fit for a king, a real maze made out of landscaped hedges à la Alice in Wonderland, and champagne that flowed more freely than a busted city water line. It arguably had the largest selection of superbly prepared food items within a 100-mile radius. No need to fall down a rabbit hole; it was right here in South Florida.
But it would cost us. In fact, the woman who took my reservation on the phone had warned us in advance:
"What are you celebrating?"
"We aren't celebrating anything."
"You do know the price is $90 per person?" she asked kindly.
With eggs costing about 15 cents apiece, some people might argue that it's absurd to pay 600 times that for brunch. But let's be clear: No matter which tax bracket Breakers guests fall into, they are not coming here for a made-to-order omelet but rather for the promise of a regal experience.
The Breakers has nine on-site restaurants to feed the guests in its 540 rooms. These include L'Escalier, its signature French eatery; the Flagler Steakhouse, located in the bath and tennis clubhouse; and the Seafood Bar, where a fish tank serves as the countertop. Getting to the Circle, where brunch is held, requires an inspiring stroll through the main lobby, past the Renaissance images painted on the vaulted ceilings, and down a hall that stretches the length of the hotel and opens to a sitting area decorated with vintage button-tufted sofas and high-reaching windows. It's easy to imagine debutantes clothed in tea dresses meandering the same Victorian halls when the hotel was constructed in 1896. Thanks to multimillion-dollar renovations, the space remains as splendid as the couture-clad guests who roam the grounds.
At the entrance to the restaurant, two poised hostesses greeted us like characters from a Disney movie. "Welcome to the Circle," they chirped. Since we were an hour early for our 2 p.m. reservation, one hostess escorted us to the Tapestry Bar for bloody marys and champagne — all complimentary with our meal. This was a second food-filled room! Our path snaked past stands of domestic caviar and blini and ice tubs that showcased stone crab claws, clams on the half-shell, and other seafood delights. As we waited for our drinks, only an arm's length separated us from the sushi station, where a chef sliced succulent-looking sashimi. We contemplated sneaking a bite before being seated, but composure was required in a place as imperial as this. Besides, we feared that the refined blond standing nearby, crowned with a large hat and floor-length dress, would report us for lack of decorum.
Forget all the striking impressions that had been made up to this point; entering the Circle's main dining room put them to shame. Windows lined the round room and opened to the sapphire ocean in the distance. The warmth of the sun hit our shoulders as it shone through the skylight. Thirty feet above, eight oval, hand-painted murals depicted Italian landscapes and gardens. The clatter of families at nearby tables was muted by the gentle hum of a harp. On our left, a couple blew out a 70th birthday candle from a slice of chocolate cake. To our right, a table of four men in bow ties dunked lobster tail into clarified butter.
After our trip back from the buffet tables, both of us supremely pleased as though we'd just won a competition, we showed each other our dishes; they were both heavy with meat. Using my sterling-silver knife and fork, I cut into a thick slice of marbled rib roast and added a dollop of creamy herbed mayonnaise against the savory crust. The freshly sliced prime rib was succulent, with swirls of marbled fat throughout the crimson meat. "I think I have the winning dish here," my date proudly asserted. He offered a taste of moist baby lamb chop lightly sweetened with plum flavors from reduced port wine and cooked strawberries.
Our server, a tall gentleman with an Eastern European accent, presented a carafe of orange juice and a bottle of house champagne — Marquis de La Tour, a light and fruity sparkling wine that retails for around $10 a bottle. He ensured that we were never short more than two finger-widths of a full glass, so that we could convincingly claim that we just had one mimosa during the entire meal.
"What are you celebrating today?" our server asked. After once again convincing a staff member that we weren't celebrating anything, we mentioned that we might return for Mother's Day. He explained that the Circle books quickly for holidays, so an additional room (the Ponce de Leon Ballroom) is opened to accommodate everyone. Although a holiday brunch buffet is virtually no different from an average Sunday, Mother's Day in the Circle costs a tad more — $115 per person, or $45 for children under 11 ($100/$40 in the ballroom).
A child passed by balancing a plated omelet larger than his head, which signaled that we ought to start round two — breakfast. It's difficult to resist eggs Benedict at a brunch buffet, and the Breakers prepared it the way my taste buds had memorized — a soft poached egg atop a slice of salty ham and crusty English muffin. The Benedict isn't made-to-order and instead rests in a buffet chafer that can typically cause food to dry out. However, a slice into the egg released a river of yolk into the buttery hollandaise sauce that was spiked with lemon. Racing to protect the sauce mixture from commingling with the other meal on my plate — a waffle overflowing with maple syrup — I built a barrier of sausage links. The two dishes lived harmoniously, thanks to spicy pork borders. I cleaned my plate.
And so it went. For more than two hours. Our server poured more champagne. I revealed hopes of exploring the hotel's five oceanfront pools. But he thwarted my plans, gently informing me that "those areas are reserved for hotel guests." Dejected, I looked for my date, who was carefully instructing a chef on how to construct the perfect ice cream sundae at the build-your-own station. Craving the smooth, buttery flavor of Brie, I headed for the cheese and pâté table. My body was slowed by vast consumption, and there was no way I could sample the 30-plus dessert options. Waddling back to my seat, I ignored yearnings to stash handfuls of dainty petit fours in a takeaway container and instead enjoyed a selection of cheeses and the dense and creamy pâté with a salty gelée.
By late afternoon, we had tested our chances at "just taking a peek out back" and indeed found ourselves overlooking the ocean as we sprawled on a poolside chaise lounge with a cushion as thick as a Tempur-Pedic mattress. Breakers employees either didn't notice or generously let us have our day in the sun. "Cheers!" said my date. The crunch of two plastic champagne-filled cups signaled the close of a day. It may have been just an ordinary Sunday, but it was cause enough for celebration.