When I’m hungover and the only one of my friends who has to eat diner breakfast immediately, I feel alone. Awkward, nerdy, childish. But once I sit down at the counter and see someone else who is nodding their head as they inhale their pancakes, I think, Yes! Someone else knows. This food hugs you from the inside.
There’s a big fat line between greasy spoons and breakfast institutions like Chloe’s and Dottie’s. When I feel I deserve powdered sugar on perfectly browned waffles with plump strawberries and whipped cream, I know where to go. On all other mornings, my wallet and I need a good greasy spoon diner. There’s also a line between inexpensive and gross.
The definition of a greasy spoon is loose according to my fellow patrons. They’re historically hole-in-the-walls, family-run, and frequented by blue collar workers. I’ve heard “must have counter seats and cheap coffee” and “don’t wash dishes right so the spoons are greasy.” Whatever. My criteria: cash only, counter service, and breakfast all day.
I decide to start my research where it all began for me, Art's Cafe.It’s a quiet Inner Sunset staple, wedged into a sliver of space flanked by larger restaurants and boutiques. Art's Cafe's specialty, the hash brown sandwich, consists of grilled onions and your choice of meat (bacon!), pressed between crunchy hash browns (not bread) with two eggs and toast on the side. This invention has proven to me that food orgasms do exist.
I order my usual large OJ and coffee, and the hashbrown sandwich, banana French toast, and two sausages, with, that’s right, two more eggs. Minutes later, it’s time to feast. I’m rubbing elbows, literally, with the construction worker next to me, and the jackets hanging on the wall graze my head whenever I lean back in excitement after a bite of that magic hashwich explodes in my mouth.
Distractions abound, but I am fully focused on the mini buffet in front of me. I’m pacing myself, sipping OJ and altering between the salt of the hashwich and the sweet of my French toast doused in syrup. I look up and realize the waitress had set down a to-go container. I guess she thought I couldn’t eat what I’d ordered in one sitting. Obviously, she doesn’t remember me, and obviously, that container won’t be necessary.
There are famished faces peering through the glass door, vying for my seat. So I grab my change and my jacket, and leave, still chewing.
I could easily crown Art's Cafe my go-to greasy spoon, but I have a second home in a sunny corner counter seat at Eddie's Cafe. When I lived in the Western Addition, I happily surrendered large portions of my paycheck to eat breakfast here too often. The same family has been serving up solid soul breakfast at Eddie's Cafe for 22 years. My heart cried a little when I discovered that an old Korean man makes better grits than my own black mother.
Eddie's Cafe serves collard greens and cornbread for $1.65 each, which, if I were any more hardcore or a grown man from the South, I could handle before noon. I’ve tried to talk myself up to that – it’s a goal of mine. Instead, I order a large OJ, coffee, three buttermilk pancakes, two scrambled eggs, a pork chop, and a side of grits with enough butter to stop two hearts. Holler. The server asks if I’m waiting for someone else. No, it’s just me. And yeah, I’m going to eat it all.
Hidden near the water closet is a ’90s-esque stereo system sitting atop an old, defunct jukebox. Mid-bite, I’m subconsciously bobbing my head to Love and Happiness, and so is the lady in her church clothes sitting next to me, and the pair of housepainters down at the end of the counter. I’m cutting and chewing with a rhythm now. I shut my eyes and it’s just me and my pork chop on a salty dance floor, covered in syrup.
In my research, I don’t put much emphasis on service because most greasy spoons are about efficiency, not smiles. But at Eddie's, you feel loved for the duration of your meal. Min, the owner, triples as cook, server, and cashier, all with the friendliest demeanor of any diner in the city, hands down. Min is the man. Also, Min will not let you make substitutions, no matter how much you beg.
As much as I like Eddie's, I can’t overlook Golden Coffee Shop in the Tenderloin – it shines like an obliging diamond in the rough. I found Golden late one night/early morning and have been there at least once a week since.
Greasy spoons are no-frills. And because of the lack of embellishments, I feel I should be able to mix it up to make the most satisfying meal possible. Golden Coffee Shop lets me do just that. Like this:
Me: “Can I have the pancake sandwich (per the menu – two buttermilk pancakes, one egg, two sausages or two pieces of bacon), but with two blueberry pancakes, a scrambled egg, one sausage, and one bacon, please?”
Server/ cashier/ dishwasher: Nodding.
And this place doesn’t even charge you extra. Ninety percent of the time, if I’m craving a greasy spoon, I’m hungover. And judging by the number of people wearing sunglasses or articles of their pajamas, I’m not alone. The last thing I want to debate in this state is soft sausage or crisp bacon because I need them both in my mouth, preferably at the same time.
It’s the least expensive breakfast diner for a meal that makes your knees loose. Meaning, I can eat here twice in a five-hour time frame. The staff will usually say something like, “Oh, you back, huh?” Do I smell you pitying me? Nope, I smell hash browns – give me a fork.
Though typically frequented by older gentlemen and students from the nearby Art Academy, there’s a difference between being a regular and a regular at Golden Coffee Shop. I go in the next morning to see what it takes to move up the ladder. We all sit at the counter in a giant horseshoe with the solo cook behind the cashier as the main viewing entrée.
A regular comes in loudly and tells an inappropriate joke, amusing mostly himself. I laughed – it was funny, fuck it. The cashier hands him not the whole newspaper, but just the section he likes. A few minutes later, an omelet, four sausages, and one pancake are in front of him, with a glass of milk. Clearly, a special order. I’m in awe.
I’m still on Step One, which means I don’t need to see a menu, I just recite my order, with the substitutions, and they make it. This guy is on Step Two – he walks in, he gets his section of the paper and his special order – no conversation necessary. And there is a Step Three (which I’ve only seen at Golden), which is when the staff busts out the “Reserved” placard at the counter for you. New. Life. Goal.
I’ve devoured my eggs, bacon, and sausages. My blueberry pancakes lay there, in little, spongy squares, oozing purple blood, demolished. I’ve killed my breakfast, yet again. I feel triumphant. I’m sitting here, reflecting, feeling blissfully filled. I want to thank the cook, but that would probably be weird. I slowly get off the stool, and everyone on my side of the counter silently scoots down to make room for the next party. The symphony continues.
Art's Cafe and Eddie's Cafe will each always have a special place in my clogged, little heart, but for now, Golden Coffee Shop is hard to beat. All three offer take-out, but sitting in the diners, preferably at the counter, is kind of the whole point.