“I pretty much began the whole brunch scene in New York City,” claims Sarabeth Levine, pastry chef and founder of Sarabeth’s. As far-reaching as that statement might sound, it’s pretty accurate – Levine, who is now 73, pioneered the culture of social brunching in the Big Apple, and recently opened the first Sarabeth’s restaurant in the Middle East, in Dubai.
It all began in 1981, when Levine used her family recipe to start making orange apricot marmalade from her home. It quickly grew popular, and soon, she and her husband, Bill, had launched a small store and bakery to meet the high demand. “One thing led to another. You couldn’t have just had a jam shop, you needed something to put the jam on. We only had three tables, and we started serving a little tea and coffee with a croissant or scone,” says Levine. “The next thing you know, people wanted eggs.”
Sarabeth's is an ideal spot for a quintessential New York City breakfast, and it's popular with celebrities, too. Taylor Swift, Karlie Kloss, Kristen Stewart, Kanye West and Brad Pitt are a few of the famous names that have been spotted dining at Sarabeth's. And while it has been widely reported that portions of Sex and the City were filmed at Sarabeth's, Levine strongly denies this, even when shown location images from the show that are captioned as Sarabeth's. "That's wrong information," she says. "That isn't my grillwork, those aren't my chairs, that's not my restaurant." Whatever the case, the restaurant can attribute some of its fame to being listed as a filming location for the series. Tourists who are fans of Sex and the City often book themselves in for breakfast, brunch or just a cup of tea at Sarabeth's.
Levine's restaurant was, without a doubt, discussed on the hit television series Gossip Girl, and a portion of the film It's Complicated, which stars Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, was filmed at a Sarabeth's Bakery. Streep plays a bakery owner, and Levine herself stepped in for the actress for a close-up baking shot. "I taught her how to roll croissants – those were my hands," recalls Levine. "That was crazy; it was the most amazing experience at the bakery. It took two days to shoot a one-and-a half or two-minute scene."
Though Levine’s Manhattan restaurant happens to be something of a celebrity hotspot, the restaurateur seems largely unaffected by her high-profile clientele. “I don’t think about it. I think every customer is a celebrity to me,” she says.
Today, there are 20 Sarabeth’s restaurants in the world, with the most locations in New York, a couple in Japan, and the newest in the UAE, at City Walk in Dubai. On opening day, Levine, who wears her white chef’s coat with a blue plaid shirt tied around her waist, over grey leggings and black sneakers, spends most of her time in the kitchen, making sure that things are running smoothly and that the Dubai team is adhering to her exacting standards.
When we do sit down, she orders a tea for herself. The waiter brings two cups. “Did you order tea?” she asks me. I shake my head no. “Then why are there two teas?” she asks the waiter. She then makes a comment about the teabag, which sits in its packet next to her teacup. She’d prefer that the staff serve the tea with the teabag already inside the pot or teacup.
To call Sarabeth Levine a control freak would be something of an understatement. “Yes, I’m very particular,” she admits. “The whole branching out, it’s stressful, because I want everything to be perfect, and because it’s so far away, I can’t just run over and fix it, you understand?”
When she catches sight of a photographer with his camera pointed towards a plate of eggs Benedict, Levine expresses her concerns about marketing and social media. Though Sarabeth’s may have become famous for its breakfast and brunch offerings, Levine is eager to emphasise that the restaurant cooks a mean lunch and dinner, too.
“When I first opened my first full restaurant, I didn’t serve dinner for three weeks, and that was the biggest mistake I made because they pigeonholed me into the breakfast [category],” she says. She takes out her phone and shows me a video of a waiter elaborately pouring a rich pea soup broth into a bowl filled with split green peas, celery and onions. “I’m so much more than just breakfast,” she says.
Though lunch and dinner at the restaurant may be on a par with its famous waffles, pancakes and French toast, there’s no denying that Sarabeth’s is synonymous with brunch. Whether that’s because the workweek is generally hectic, or because brunch is such a happy, feel-good meal, weekend brunches out have become something of a ritual in most major cities, and Levine explains one key reason why: “Weekends are leisurely, and everybody is together – the family is together.