A Wesleyan alumnus from Chicago. A faculty film aficionado. A martial arts teacher and that teacher’s teacher, a tenth-degree black belt visiting from Germany. Four elementary school students, here as a reward for good deeds, along with their principal and school nurse.
This is breakfast at O’Rourke’s, and the scene this morning is a lot like owner Brian O’Rourke’s namesake everything-and-the-kitchen-sink breakfast: an eclectic mix of ingredients combined in ways you would never expect. You never know what you’re going to get, but it always works, and it’s always delicious.
“Come in.” Brian opens the galley door, ushering me inside. “Stand here, and you’ll be in nobody’s way.”
I stand as directed, ringside.
“This morning, I roasted corn for tomorrow’s polenta. Over here is a sweet bread pudding, which will be a special.”
“It’s just ‘for.’ We just keep on going,” he says with a smile. “Follow me.”
Into the walk-in. “Amaretto crème brulee on butternut squash waffles, done as a French toast. Apple fritters. Raspberry cream cheese empanadas. A carrot cake for a French toast, topped with peach cobbler. Roasted tomatoes. Ratatouille. Swiss chard. Gluten-free muffins . . . ”
Back to the stove.
“This, is Brian’s Breakfast.”
Brian’s Breakfast is never the same twice. O’Rourke came up with the idea one morning, when two friends asked him to surprise them with breakfast. When O’Rourke didn’t have enough ingredients for the second breakfast, he worked with what he had and a classic was born.
“At home or here?”
“At one time this was my home—I was here 100 hours a week for many years.”
“How many hours do you work now?”
“This isn’t work,” he smiles. “I came here as an 8-year-old in 1959, after school, when my Uncle John owned it, and I never left.” By the time Brian was in high school, he had graduated from sweeping floors and peeling potatoes to manning the grill. He bought the diner with a cousin in 1976 and became its sole owner in 1985. Brian tells his story, and shares his recipes, in Breakfast at O’Rourke’s (Wesleyan University Press, 2015).
“Do you have family working here now?”
“They’re all my family,” he says, gesturing at his colleagues. On this particular morning, O’Rourke’s family includes Julia, Tony, Hailey, Melissa, Mike, and Derek Trafton.
Trafton is the manager at O’Rourke’s. He first met Brian in 2006, when the diner was closed after being gutted by a devastating fire. “I loved Derek’s philosophy, and I knew when we opened up again he would be working on this team,” says Brian. “And today he’s leading this team.” The diner reopened in early 2008, thanks to the support of the Middletown and Wesleyan communities.
“I’ve been here eight years, and every single day he does something I’ve never seen before,” says Trafton. “He has that genius brain.”
Brian’s Breakfast is ready. He takes me through the first of the two courses. “Here’s an empanada stuffed with butternut squash and cream cheese, topped with peach cobbler, with a slice of watermelon and a glass of apple-peach cider.” And the second. “A tomato cutlet, risotto done with sage, lasagna with garden greens and fresh homemade cheese, a potato stuffed with an Asian chili, breaded coconut-crusted pineapple, a poached egg . . . ” There’s more, too, topped, like everything else, “with a little love.”
This order is for Larry Schulman ’78, visiting from Chicago. I ask Schulman his favorite thing about O’Rourke’s. “I love everything—I have to pick just one?” He laughs, but he’s serious. “I went to school here, back when O’Rourke’s was a 24-hour diner. Whenever I’m in town, I come here.”
“Why Brian’s Breakfast?” I ask.
“It’s always Brian’s Breakfast,” says Schulman. “Because you always want to see what Brian’s doing now.”
Marc Longenecker, programming and technical director of Wesleyan’s College of Film and the Moving Image and a regular here at O’Rourke’s, is sitting at the counter. “I come here for the food, the people, the warm atmosphere—it’s a good mix,” says Longenecker. You can find him here two or three times a week, he says. “I love it. It’s one of my offices away from the office.”
When O’Rourke says “I try to make every day the best day of my life,” you believe him. In the hour I spend at O’Rourke’s, I learn about the history of the Fuji apple, the Wesleyan biologist who’s also a pig farmer, and the former Wesleyan soccer player who’s now a garlic farmer. I’m introduced to the martial arts teacher who tells me about his father, a former Middletown police officer who walked the Main Street beat in the 1960s and 1970s. He tells me that even today, Brian remembers how his father takes his coffee. I listen to Brian recite the inscription on the breastplate of St. Patrick and I learn that he practices Modern Arnis (a Filipino fighting art) and tai chi and says the Rosary every morning—once in Latin, 10 times in English, and 10 times in French. And in between the learning and listening, I watch him cook, and teach, and give thanks for the people who surround him.
Before I leave, I want to know one more thing about Brian’s Breakfast: “Do you know what will be in it before you start, or do you make it up as you go along?”
“Good question,” he says. But he’s already thinking about tomorrow.
“I’m going to the farm this afternoon. I’ll walk the fields, and if they let me I’ll pick 12 squash blossoms. Tomorrow I’ll serve 12 specials with 12 stuffed squash.” Stuffed with what? I ask. “Stuffed with love,” he smiles.
I believe him.