How Sabrina's Cafe opened our eyes to brunch

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Robert DeAbreu at the original location of Sabrina's Cafe on Christian Street.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

On Sundays, many a city sidewalk clots with bleary-eyed brunchers willing to stand in line more than an hour. They’re all awaiting tall stacks of Frisbee-sized pancakes, 17-egg omelets, suspiciously overpriced pitchers of orange juice that come with “free” bottles of prosecco, or that most iconic of Philly brunch menu items—the hulking stuffed French toast. This dish, which sandwiches a sweet, cream-cheese-based filling between two massive slabs or challah or brioche, may have first appeared in Philadelphia when Sabrina’s Café opened on Christian Street, just off the Italian Market, in 2001.

Certainly we didn’t invent brunch in the new millennium, but we have taken this liminal meal and made it into some kind of food culture institution. It became so popular that there have been screeds written in backlash. Brunch can be a divisive issue, but not at Sabrina’s, which is the restaurant where a whole generation of Philadelphians learned to practice the art of the midday meal that can easily dominate, from a calorie and time standpoint, much of a weekend. 

Sabrina’s owner, Robert DeAbreu, would not say this when we spoke, but careful observers of the restaurant scene here know that it is true:

During the last 15 years, Sabrina’s has been painstakingly imitated but never equaled. Some of its charm is owed to its location. Steps from the Italian market, it’s the ideal place to begin a weekend provisions run during which you fuel up on eggs before stocking up on gourmet cheese, artisan pasta, and cuts of meat from one of the remaining real butchers along Ninth Street.

And much of Sabrina’s appeal belongs to the building itself: many small rooms whimsically decorated and more or less stuck in time. The Italian market location of Sabrina’s would still be recognizable to someone who loved it when it was Molly’s, the breakfast spot it had been before DeAbreu took it over.

Sabrina’s also serves lunch and dinner, though you can be forgiven if you didn’t know that. In addition, it’s a very Philadelphia spot for a private event: I’ve celebrated wedding rehearsal dinners and bachelorette parties there. But for all those other functions, it’s brunch that remains the wellspring of Sabrina’s identity.

Today there are five Sabrina’s locations throughout the area. Those original brunchers are now into middle age; for them “Sunday funday” starts at 8 a.m. and includes a multivitamin and a trip to the grocery store. But for many, it still may include (at least sometimes) a stop at Sabrina’s.

Just on the early side when the lines aren’t so long. 

What inspired you to open Sabrina's? What year was it and what were you thinking?

It was 2001. I just finished working with Outback Steakhouse. Then I was working with a friend of mine in Delaware. That was where we first opened a restaurant together and that wasn't working out so we went to New Jersey and my wife [Raquel] became very friendly with one of our neighbors. Our neighbors worked for the landlord of this property and said that there's an opportunity if you want to go look at it. I had set a goal for myself, that at age 35, that if I didn't have a restaurant we'd get out of the business. I was 33 years old then. I saw this place, fell in love with it. Very charming, very quaint.

We came in and did a quick study of the area and at that time, there was only the Morning Glory Diner available around. So we figured, "Hey, breakfast and lunch, that sounds great! Let's try and do something."

Who is Sabrina?

Sabrina is my daughter. She is 16 years old now. She was a year old when we opened. We still have guests who ask us, "Where is Sabrina today? I remember when she was a year or 2.” This year she’ll start her junior year of high school.

Sabrina's is known for many things, but one of them is the long lines, especially on weekends. Did that start happening right away? 

No. It took us a while. In the beginning it was small lines. But I think after we were reviewed by [Craig] LaBan, who gave us 2 bells, we saw the bigger lines and they kept growing and we have maintained them.

What's a peak wait time over the weekend? How long will people wait?

Right now, we are about an hour to an hour and a half.

This is your original location. You guys have obviously expanded since then. Have you watched this neighborhood change over the years you've been here? How do feel like it's changed? How do you feel it's stayed the same?

It's stayed the same because we still have a lot of the people who were here 15 years ago.

The business owners are the same. You still have Esposito’s, still have Claudio’s, Di Bruno's, still have CNS Supply where we get our supplies from. We still have Judy's produce right across here. Still have Anthony's Coffee House. 

Do you think that Sabrina’s helped create a brunch craze in Philadelphia?

I've been told that. I've been told that a lot. I think we helped.

Has the menu evolved over time? Has it changed?

I wish I could've brought an old menu for you. It was one page. So … it's expanded.

Did that first menu have the stuffed French toast on it? 

Yeah, it did.

Where did that idea come from?

There's a lot of controversy over that idea. We opened here with a banana-stuffed French toast on the menu. We just had a chef who joined us here in the beginning and he came up with the special, along with our chef here. It went back and forth. "Whose idea was this? Who had the idea first?"

It’s gigantic. Do people ever eat it all?

Yes, and people actually add an order of eggs, and eat all that, too. 

Tell me about your regulars.

Oh, my goodness. We've had so many people that have come in and that still come here and they are very particular with what they want.  Yeah, and we even had one regular for 14 years who brought her own oranges, her own coffee. 

Her own coffee beans, or her own cup of coffee?

Her own coffee beans. We’d juice her oranges, then we had to make her own coffee, and then she even brought in her own eggs at one point. It was herself and her daughter, they would come in and we enjoyed talking to them. 

Let’s talk about your expansion. When did you open your second location?

That was about eight years ago, in Callowhill. We had been open here for seven years at that time.

What made you decide to expand?

At that point, I realized that to keep this thing going I had to get my name out there. I felt other restaurants then nipping at my heels. So I thought I needed to expand if I want to keep up with the times. Also, I have people working for me and they want me to do things as well. 

Now you’ve branched out to five locations. Do you have any further expansions or are you guys done for now?

We're taking 2016 to reboot. We're in the middle of a transition. I'll look again, next year. But not right now. Look for something new from us in 2017.

Sabrina's Cafe, 910 Christian St., Italian Market; 1804 Callowhill St., Logan Square; 227 N. 34th St., Powelton Village; Wynnewood Shopping Center (50 E. Wynnewood Rd., Wynnewood); and 714 Haddon Ave., Collingswood.

  

Joy Manning, a writer and editor who has covered food and restaurants in Philadelphia for more than decade, is also the executive editor of Edible Philly and Edible Jersey magazines. Also follow her on Instagram @joymanning.

 

 

Amplification: Todd Bergman, Sabrina's first chef, was responsible for adding the stuffed French toast to the opening menu. Its recipe has changed over the years.