The outing was on a whim. A friend of mine had returned from February break armed with a car. This 2004 Honda Insult to Fuel Efficiency liberated us from the limits of expensive Ubers and the cumbersome TCAT; suddenly, the decision to travel three miles for a Saturday morning brunch was easily within reach. We whisked off to a lot just north of Ithaca College occupied by a gas station, a liquor store and a staple of the Tompkins County dining experience: Sunset Grill.
The crowd nearly dissuaded us the moment we walked in. With every seat taken and a swell of people waiting by the entrance, it was a few minutes before we could even get the host’s attention to ask about a wait time. His optimistic estimation of five minutes proved prescient; diners melted away almost instantly to free up a table for four located right beside the griddle.
A choice spot for brunch has a few early indicators of quality to look out for. The size of the crowd around brunch time is the first sign; one look through the doorway of Sunset Grill inspired confidence. The second, aroma, was immediately obvious as the sweet scent of the warm interior beckoned us to enter from the frigid parking lot and demanded that we stay. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the hot sauce waiting at the table spoke volumes about the establishment that placed it there. To sit at a table prepared for a medley of warmth and savory and be greeted with the familiar bottle of Frank’s RedHot is to be sure your chef knows what they are doing.
The homey, American decor ensured a pleasant atmosphere despite the high-speed hustle of the staff. When we settled into our booth, vintage posters and advertisements on the walls welcomed us to a safe late-20th century vibe. Sunset Grill has strong a reputation that precedes it, and I was ready to experience it for myself.
The griddle was occupied almost entirely by about ten pancakes being made simultaneously, signaling that I may have had no choice but to check them out. When my three friends each ordered pancakes, though, I saw my odds of securing a bite skyrocket and opted for the classic American breakfast of steak and eggs.
Two eggs over easy, four pieces of rye toast, half a plate of home fries and a six-ounce black angus sirloin landed in front of me about 15 minutes after placing my order. Even with no attempt at frill or fanciness, the dish was undeniably handsome.
Classic for a reason, the brunch satisfied both hunger and pallet with every bite. The toast — heavy and flavorful, buttered without so much as a nod toward moderation — proved a delightful vehicle for the eggs while they maintained their form and handy sponge once the yolk had been broken. Sunset Grill clearly emphasizes quality in their ingredients; the eggs were a rich and bold first bite of the day, brought to life by a substantial dousing of Frank’s RedHot. While warnings at diners about undercooked red meat abound, I can attest that they are best reserved for other establishments. The steak was seared to perfection and survived the longest of any item on the plate as it demanded to be savored. Although the home fries would have done well to be more thoroughly cooked and seasoned, the main course was plenty to satisfy all the moderately hungry brunch-goers, relegating the potatoes to an afterthought.
Sunset Grill is an excellent spot for delicious food to start a day off right, and it is also a space worthy of any hours of free time you might have to spare. Its patrons are a mix of students and locals (though locals seem to dominate), drawn to the warm and inviting prospect of its wholesome American experience. Friendly staff, vintage decorations and rustic furnishing were complemented by the buzz of conversation, punctured sporadically by bursts of laughter.
For $12.99 before tax and tip, my cold morning became a cozy afternoon. If you have access to a car and a couple hours to spare, try Sunset Grill, and don’t be surprised if you become a regular. After borrowing plenty of bites from plates to my left, front and right, I recommend that on your next visit to Sunset Grill, you insist that your date gets the pancakes. From the food on your plate to the jubilance in the air, Sunset Grill is an experience worth sharing.
Serves: American breakfast and lunch
Vibe: Classic American