It should have protein, starch, fat, and no garnishes. The standard combination — eggs, potatoes, sausage, and pancakes — should be available in some form for under $10. It should come with toast, available in whole wheat or rye or sourdough, slathered with big pats of butter. It should also come with a cup of coffee. The coffee should come with refills, which should be offered as: "A little top-off, hon?" The coffee should not be foofy, or frothy. The coffee should not be fancy, or French. The only French options available should be French toast, and omelets, and the coffee should come out of a glass coffee pot of the type that has been used since the days of George Washington. Same deal for orange juice; it should not be organic or fresh-squeezed or anything else special. It need only be 1) orange and 2) liquid. Maple syrup should be the only type of syrup available. The menu should be plain, so as not to distract from the grub; should not be slick, or feature a sans-serif font, or mention a website, or contain photos of the food you are about to order. Leave that to Denny's.
The service should be efficient, even overzealous. There should be salt, pepper, sugar, ketchup, half & half, and hot sauce at every table. There should be a counter, with seats at it. You should be able to see, hear, smell, and taste the grill. The establishment should have history – at least 20 years, preferably 50. It should also be comfortable, and maybe even thematic, but the theme must not be shoved down your throat (Yes, we are aware of the 1950's). It should most assuredly not be hip. Foremost, it should open early. Eight a.m. is not early, but in San Francisco, we must be forgiving and make exceptions, for there are so few of these places left. The remaining breakfast joints may be scattered across the city, often in unlikely or unappealing spots, but they are well worth the trip. Let’s get greasy.
There are, believe it or not, a couple of good diners in the Marina. Bechelli's Coffee Shop has been around since 1977 and Home Plate was founded in 1989. Both open at 7:00 a.m., but only Bechelli's has a proper counter. Bechelli's also knows how to make eggs: they can do linguisa, spanish, artichoke, denver, and green chile omelets, among others. And they can make your eggs benedict, florentine, poached, fried, or scrambled. The vibe is friendly; there are sports clippings and family photos on the walls. But they don't have maple syrup. Home Plate, which is smaller, makes frittatas: Greek, spinach, chorizo, and hangtown (with oysters). They also serve blintzes, which is New York-Jewish for a lot of starch wrapped into one tasty food product.
The Tenderloin is home to one of the best diners in the city: Dottie's True Blue Cafe. Its doors open daily at 7:30 a.m., and the line forms outside shortly thereafter. At Dottie's, French toast comes in "wedges," the only syrup they have comes from trees, and according to the menu, "all toast comes buttered." That's what I'm talking about. The omelet choices — pesto, kalamata, goat cheese, chorizo — but that's okay, because their down-home cornbread is killer. The tiny place, a third of which is the kitchen, is also far classier than you'd expect for the Loin, and somehow, the Sinatra and Ella on the radio make the meal feel all the more glorious.
For times of desperation at 3:00 a.m., Lori's Diner is open 24 hours. They will put bay shrimp or vegetarian chili in your omelet, and are one of the few diners that serves a proper biscuits and gravy. The wait staff wear silly paper hats, there's a Lori's logo on the paper napkins, and it seems like the Elvis and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia are going to jump off the walls and land in your coffee. Worse yet, the menu says they are "proud to serve healthy, nutritional, and fresh food." Who are they kidding? We want sausage, corned beef hash, and butter – lots of butter. I don't even care if the butter is fresh, much less healthy and nutritional (what's the difference, anyway?).
Market St. & SoMa
Market Street and SOMA offer a pretty good selection of diners: Rocco's Cafe, Sam's Diner, and It's Tops Coffee Shop. Roco's has been around since 1989, and opens at 7:00 a.m. Though the place was just remodeled, somehow they did the work without touching the hundreds of charming photos on the walls; everyone from Johnny Cash to Joe DiMaggio. About the only major change is the prices: they’ve gone up by about 20 cents.
Sam's (formerly Steven's Diner) was founded in 1979, and opens at 6:00 a.m. The menu has photos on it, but in this neighborhood (near Civic Center), they get some mercy. Sam's makes no apologies: they use American cheese and their hollandaise sauce is made with oil instead of butter. But they'll put shrimp, crab, or salmon in your omelet, and they serve biscuits and gravy, as well as tasty apple pie. The cook, who makes 300 to 400 breakfasts a day, swears he never breaks a yolk, and I believe him.
It's Top's Coffee Shop has been in the same spot since 1935, and the owners like to point out that they perfected burgers before McDonald's existed, and poured coffee before Cafe Trieste opened. The place opens at 8:00 a.m. and it has more counter seats than tables, which is two points in my book. At It's Tops, pancakes are called "buttermilk hot cakes," and the banana chocolate chip buttermilk hot cakes are stellar. They also make waffles, milkshakes, mud pies, and cinnamon-raisin French toast. This place is the real deal — so old-timey (there's a horseshoe over the door) that you can't tell what year it is inside, and it’s tied for my favorite in the city.
The Mission has a few worth mentioning, namely the St. Francis Fountain and Tyger's Coffee Shop. The St. Francis Fountain (doors open at 8:00 a.m.) opened in as an ice cream fountain in 1918 (!) and still feels old. Half the room is the counter. They make eggs Florentine, Benedict, Blackstone, Valerie, and Sandhya, they make waffles, they make sourdough French toast, and they make a delicious gut-bomb called the "nebulous potato thing." And don't mess with their milkshakes; they were gold medalists at 1958 California State Fair and Exposition.
Tyger's Coffee Shop, which is technically in Glen Park, has been around since the mid 1980's, and opens at 7:00 a.m. This might be my favorite little escape of a diner — it's got no pretense, it's remote, and they make damn fine pancakes. Eat your heart out.