BRUNCH is a mood, an event, a special time of the week, a nice place to be.
Brunch is an occasion. Sometimes even a spectacle.
But brunch needs to be relaxed, or it is a flop.
Restaurants veer from their regular menus to put out many-splendored spreads that are, by their very nature, diverse -- breakfast, lunch, cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, even dessert.
Therefore, everything on a brunch buffet or menu is not for everyone. And every dish is not of equal quality.
It seems, in fact, that restaurants offering brunch buffets often play to quantity rather than quality, but amid 30 or more items, almost anyone can find something to love.
What separates one brunch from another then is not necessarily the food itself, but the atmosphere, the selections, the specialties of the house -- make-your-own omelets, for instance, or steamed shrimp -- the price and whether alcoholic beverages are included.
I look for fruit, fresh and plentiful; for wonderful breads; for strong, rich coffee; and for fancy breakfast items, such as blintzes and waffles. I usually give only cursory attention to the heavier items -- the newburgs, the ala kings and the bourguignons -- before ending on a sweet note.
Buffets seem to be more popular than menu brunches, probably because buffets let diners have the best of several meals. When a person orders from a menu, he pretty well has to cast his lot with one meal.
Buffets tend to be more expensive than menu brunches, and most people probably eat more at buffets.
No one seems to be counting how many restaurants serve brunch. Neither The Restaurant Association of Maryland nor the National Restaurant Association keeps statistics on brunch.
Brunch in Baltimore does seem to be almost an exclusively Sunday event. Most people don't have, or won't take, the time to dine so indulgently on Saturday. Brunch is a staple at most area hotels and at many restaurants near the Inner Harbor and in Fells Point. But you certainly don't have to go downtown for brunch -- the suburbs and city neighborhoods have restaurants that do brunch.
You can dress up for brunch, but you certainly don't have to, as long as you pick your spot.
And that's the point of all this -- picking a few spots. What follows are four snapshots of brunches my family and I have enjoyed during the past two months. These are not necessarily ''the best'' brunches around; even a month of Sundays would probably not yield the absolute finest. There are just too many to try.
Rather, it is a representative sampling of what's out there for your early Sunday dining pleasure.
The Rusty Scupper, Inner Harbor. Hours: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Price: $15.95, adults; $7.95, children
The view? Magnificent and soothing. The service? Wonderfully friendly. The selection? Lavish. The quality? Generally high.
You've got it: I like this brunch.
Whether you lean toward breakfast or heavier food, you'll get your fill here. The buffet covers several tables and includes fresh fruit, pasta salads, cheeses, soup, shrimp, bagels, eggs, sausage, bacon and a bevy of hot dishes.
There's also a cook who does made-to-order omelets, but be prepared to wait. This guy plays to a crowd.
One of the clear highlights is the trim-your-own waffles. The waffles themselves are shaped much like large life rafts, but you can sure sink a diet with them. The toppings include butter, syrup, strawberries, blueberries -- even, in mid-winter -- pineapple, raisins, powdered sugar and whipped cream. We saw several people enjoying them as dessert.
But the waffles need not do double duty, as there are several attractive desserts on a separate table. The chocolate mousse was a favorite.
Although the tables by the window are the best and always in demand, there's hardly a bad seat in this interestingly designed restaurant, with its many levels overlooking the harbor.
The waiters and waitresses, who never let your champagne glass sit empty, are most accommodating to children, bringing juice and balloons to the table. And the passing parade of boats and ducks keeps youngsters occupied while their parents go back for seconds -- or was that thirds?
Windows, Stouffer Hotel, Inner Harbor Hours: Noon-3 p.m. Price: $8.95, adults; $4.25, children younger than 12
Considering what you pay for a sandwich or even a cup of frozen yogurt elsewhere at The Gallery, Stouffer's all-you-can eat brunch is a real value. This is not a lavish spread, but the selection is ample and the tastes satisfying.
Again, the view is wonderful, as you gaze over Harborplace's Pratt Street Pavilion across the Inner Harbor. Windows is too contemporary to be cozy, but the sun provides plenty of warmth if too much glare. Our waitress was prompt and attentive and left the coffee pot on the table, a nice touch for brunch.
The cold side of the buffet featured fruit, several salads -- tuna, tossed and marinated vegetables -- croissants, muffins and a nearly tasteless carrot coffeecake.