When Brenda Hunter was hired as a line cook at Sunrise Café in Ocean City in August of 2018 she was hiding a big secret.
Just a year prior, she had closed down Sam’s Rialto Grill, the restaurant she had ran since 1983 with her late husband Sam Hunter. But after spending too many days on the couch watching Judge Judy, she decided it was time to go back to work. But running a restaurant was not on the agenda. Her plans were to keep a low profile. While she diligently spent her early days at Sunrise Café doing mundane tasks like chopping lettuce, the former head chef kept her true culinary talents hidden — until one fateful day.
“They asked if I could help make toast and I said ‘I’ll try…’ and so I did. Then eventually they moved me over to the grill, but it became obvious that I knew what I was doing, so they started to get suspicious about who I was. Finally I showed my boss the video of me being featured on the Food Network show ‘Diners, Drive Ins and Dives’ and she was shocked,” Hunter says with a laugh.
With the cat out of the bag, Hunter took over the reins at Sunrise Café, managing the kitchen and cooking up breakfast and lunch items each day to regulars and vacationers alike.
Sunrise Café is part of the ever growing empire of Ocean City restaurants owned by the Idell family. Other spots in their fleet include popular eateries such as Drip N Scoop, Dead End Bakehouse, and Dockside Kitchen. And having four restaurants under the same ownership gives each spot a unique opportunity to feature items from the others.
“We use the iced tea from Drip N Scoop as well as the donuts,” Hunter says. Of course the donuts are not simply served in their natural state; at Sunrise Café they slice them in half and use them as the base for their decadent Donut French Toast.
On the savory side, they make use of Dead End Bakehouse for their sourdough bread as well as their bagels, which serve as a trade off — Hunter makes the soups served at Dead End Bakehouse.
Of the four restaurants, Sunrise Café is the original (it opened in 2013), and perhaps the most traditional. “Sunrise was our first concept,” Owner Robert Idell said in a recent interview. “It’s the prototypical Ocean City breakfast restaurant. It’s kinda no frills, and people like that.”
Although Idell’s original concept for Sunrise was “no frills,” Hunter is doing her best to add the occasional frill via her superb skills in the kitchen. Hunter credits both her mother and her late husband in showing her the ropes. “My mom taught me how to cook, but Sam (who was the head chef at the legendary Atlantic City restaurant Zaberer’s) taught me how to cook professionally,” she says.
Over the holidays she added a list of mouth-watering specials, with unique takes on trendy items such as the Spicy Avocado Toast which adds a pair of chorizo patties to a slice of Dead End Bakehouse sourdough topped with avocado spread and two sunny side up eggs. And just to add an extra dose of heat, the dish gets finished off with a sprinkle of crushed pepper flakes. Sweeter items include Chocolate Peppermint Pancakes and an out-of-this-world Egg Nog French Toast served with a warm butter rum maple syrup and whipped cream. The holiday menu will only be around for a few more days though, so grab something from it while you can.
The seasonal specials are a nice treat, but the year-round menu at Sunrise Café keeps folks coming through the door every day for creative dishes like the Breakfast Fries, which get topped with homemade sausage gravy and a sunny side egg, or the Grilled Crumb Cake which is served warm and buttery straight off the grill.
Of course many of the most traditional breakfast items remain some of the most popular as well.
“The Sunrise Breakfast (three eggs, two pancakes, three bacon slices, three sausage links, homefries and choice of toast) is always a slam dunk,” Hunter says. “And the Cream Chip Beef — served over homefries or toast with a sunny side up egg — is becoming a rising star in town. I’ve been making that dish since I was 13 years old.” Hunter says with a smile.
For a spot that is solely focused on breakfast and lunch (Sunrise Café shuts its doors at 2 p.m. each day) the menu is surprisingly large and well varied. Alongside the various varieties of French toasts, egg dishes and breakfast sandwiches are some things you likely wouldn’t expect to find. Mexican dishes such as the Carnitas Tacos (shredded slow-roasted pork layered with cilantro sour cream and pico de gallo) or the Crab and Avocado Quesadilla (lump crabmeat, avocado, and a three cheese blend served with a side of fresh guacamole and pico de gallo) make the lunch menu stand out, while items like the Breakfast Tacos (scrambled eggs, chorizo, pico with a tri-cheese blend) and the Tex Mex Omelette (avocado, black beans, pico, chorizo and pepper jack cheese) spice things up on the breakfast side.
Those looking for healthy options are not left out in the cold either, as some tasty options include the Cran-Walnut Chicken Wrap (cranberry-walnut chicken salad with baby spinach served on a plain wrap) and the Mighty Green (avocado, sautéed spinach, and broccoli with your choice of cheese and bread).
But no matter what you order, a trip to the Sunrise Café comes with a heaping portion of love, courtesy of Brenda Hunter.
“It’s a family business just like Sam’s was, so I know a little something about that. I’m just passing on what my soul has to offer,” she says.
“And I still get home in time to watch Judge Judy!”