Navigating the Brunch Wars

Somerville’s Ball Square has long been prime breakfast and coffee territory. There’s java mecca True Grounds, old-school Kelly’s Diner, and the cute Broken Yolk. But the neighborhood has primarily been known for Sound Bites, the legendary hole-in-the-wall and winner of multiple “Best Breakfast” awards from this very magazine. Packed yet supple omelets, rich challah French toast, and unusual items like eggs topped with cumin…truly the best way to start your Sunday.

Or at least it would have been if not for the endless line and owner Yasser Mirza’s seeming preference for turning over tables rather than ensuring that diners can properly enjoy their meals. As a Ball Square denizen, I am hardly the only person on a Sunday morning to experience Mirza hovering over the table, only to blurt: Enough, you have five minutes, finish up.

Now I am not a slow eater. My wife and I would not bring a paper to linger over, nor would be helping ourselves to a third refill of coffee, but still we felt like we were eating on a timer. Some of the clientele enjoyed Mirza’s bluster, and during the quieter weekdays, he would be fun and affable, and attentive to our needs. But our breakfast experiences on the Day of Rest would be so not restful that we began to forsake Sunday brunch altogether.

That’s why when we found out that Sound Bites was moving to a larger space, we were happy for Mirza and hopeful that we could enjoy his excellent brunches in a reasonable manner. However the story was certainly not so simple.

In short: Mirza’s former landlord, Victor’s Deli, opened its own spot, Ball Square Café, in the old Sound Bites space, while Sound Bites moved…next door. The whole morass involves accusations of forced evictions and swiped culinary talent—did Victor’s steal away Mirza’s cook, or his “dishwasher,” as Mirza claims? I cared little (and still don’t) about who was right or wrong in this matter, just only that we might enjoy brunch in our neighborhood again.

When Ball Square Café opened, the Sunday scene on Broadway was oddly tense. Despite the larger size, the same old queue was bottlenecking out of Sound Bites, while mere feet away, the Ball Square Café owner was on the street, actively telling people not to wait in line but to come inside his place, which was festooned with banners saying “SAME COOK! NEW LOOK!” Well, impatient hunger won out, and my wife and I decided to try the new place, which truth be told, tasted exactly like the old place.

We’ve been back several times since, and from the assortment of eggs benedict dishes to the omelets to the fresh-fruit whole-wheat pancakes, Ball Square Café is, frankly, just as excellent a place to go for brunch as Sound Bites. Plus, we get the chance to eat it without looking over our shoulder, as the friendly staff lets you eat in peace. So while Sound Bites and Mirza enjoy the loyalty of those who post on local online foodie forums, I’m happy to let them wait in line while I eat next door.

That being said, Sound Bites’ move filled a much more pressing need on Ball Square, thanks to it’s establishment now as an excellent, affordable dinner place. With a fully stocked bar (left over from a Mexican restaurant better left forgotten), it’s a mellow place for a cocktail while you eat baked haddock (my wife’s fave), chicken piccata, or the evening’s seafood special – all entrees are well below $20.

As an appetizer, I recommend the muhammara, a Levantine red-pepper dip, that has the consistency of baba ghanouj, but with a sweet-and-spicy tang. Best of all, Mirza himself hangs out and chats, urges you to try new things, and makes sure that you enjoy yourself for as long as you want. He truly seems a lovely guy, but it’s also because the restaurant needs more people eating there at night. He certainly has enough coming by for breakfast.

—Matthew Reed Baker