Join me, if you will, for a very, very brief review of the trajectory of brunch in pop culture. Like the great New York vs. Chicago pizza debate, pro and anti-brunch battles have played out publicly in recent years, turning the once-benign act of eating omelets at noon into a meal of near-political significance. Far less explored, however, and infinitely more worthwhile, is the world of late-night eating, which is in many ways the antithesis to brunch. While the boobs over there are busy arguing about Bloody Marys, they’re missing the point: which is that the greatest eating experience of all is late-night dining.
Before we get going, let me be clear here with what does and does not qualify as late-night eating, because it’s not as simple as just eating late at night. The late-night eating that I’m talking about—the kind that’s unbound and pure—typically occurs after you’ve already eaten a reasonable dinner at a reasonable hour, and after you’ve given up the ghost of responsibility for the evening. Late-night eating is not eating late because you got stuck at work and missed dinner. Late-night eating is a beast, an uncontrollable urge that seeps into your subconscious and demands, quite literally, to be fed.
Late-night eating is radical—so radical that we as a society can’t even come up with a proper name for it, let alone guidelines for what to eat during it. Brunch, meanwhile—a made-up hybrid meal—has all kinds of structures and codes propping it up. Late-night eating, in contrast, is free and untamed. The act itself breaks the rules—when you get down with eating late-night, you’re implicitly agreeing to release yourself from the confines of “normal” eating habits. And once you’ve made that decision, you’re in the Wild West of meal possibilities. French toast? Club sandwich? Shawarma? All fair game in this liminal space where anything goes. When it comes to late-night eating, one should enter into the arrangement wholeheartedly, accept that all bets are off, and proceed accordingly.
Once you’ve made the commitment to eat late-night, the meal itself is almost always incredibly satisfying. For starters, it has likely been several hours between your last meal (dinner) and this one, so you’re hungry. You may also be tired, drunk, or in an otherwise altered state that can both absolve some of the guilt you may have toward ordering those nachos and make them taste approximately 1000% times better. It is possible, in fact, that said nachos may actually relieve you of some of the crushing hangover that’s likely in your future, by absorbing some of the impact of whatever other substances are coursing through your bloodstream (this process is not verified by science). Late-night eating is hedonistic, to be sure, but what are we if not dumb, hungry animals in the constant pursuit of pleasure?
Beyond the physical delight of eating late-night, there is also the metaphysical. Things happen at places where late-night eating occurs that would not happen were it not late-night. There is a certain camaraderie among late-night diners, and a strange kind of beauty in the way that club rats, off-duty cops, and skater boys can all convene peaceably under the fluorescent light of the taco truck. And when you are traveling, or alone in a new place, eating late-night can provide an unvarnished peek into local life—chances are, whatever strict social codes are at play during normal business hours have relaxed or disappeared entirely by this point. Things feel looser, lighter. You might, as I have, find yourself compelled to strike up a conversation with a kind-looking stranger, who will become your friend for the night, at least until the sun rises.
“Part of its allure, too, is the subtle undercurrent of risk that throbs through a pizza parlor or diner in the wee hours, when something dangerous could happen at any second.”
This is not to say that late-night eating is always a breeze: part of its allure, too, is the subtle undercurrent of risk that throbs through a pizza parlor or diner in the wee hours, when something dangerous could happen at any second. You’re in the territory of things (drunkards, vagabonds, tramps, etc.) that go bump in the night, which makes late-night eating all the more thrilling. I’ve avoided eye contact with cashiers arguing with penniless customers, stepped over passed-out figures on benches and booths, and once called 911 after witnessing a man kick in another man’s head on the sidewalk outside of my favorite late-night izakaya. The victim was okay; I shook for days.
Truth be told, I don’t find myself in a position to late-night eat very often these days. My white-hot nights are largely behind me, and with them the opportunity to confront a mountainous bowl of hand-pulled noodles after midnight. I drink to excess infrequently, and even on the rare occasion that I do find myself out past curfew, my practical concerns about things like my waistline and my general desire to not feel like complete and utter shit in the morning usually outweigh my lust for pizza. So I admit that my love of late-night eating is also partially rooted in nostalgia, the invisible albatross that accompanies aging.
It’s silly, I know, but late-night eating is so gleefully, unabashedly self-indulgent that I can’t help but put it on a pedestal. Now that it’s not a regular part of my life, late-night eating is all the more special—on the rare occasion when that little spark of Epic Nights past catches into an actual flame, and I find myself feeling loose and wired in the predawn, I know I don’t want to wait until the morning after to confront a platter of overcooked eggs. I want to feel the power of the night, from the inside out. I want to eat it all up right then and there, in the woozy hours between midnight and dawn.