Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Best Way to Start Your Day...

While I ruminate on the loss of Robert Hegyes (“Epstein” from “Welcome Back Kotter”), and Whitney “Crack is Whack” Houston, let me share a few thoughts about breakfast foods. Thanks to Jordan Rich for having me on his show last weekend, where we spent hours discussing the callers’ favorite breakfast treats and places to eat. It seems that French toast was a big winner, and someone even called in about “scrapple” in Pittsburgh. “Scrapple” is the “Spam” of breakfast meats, and I use the word “meats” loosely…

As you all know, I grew up working at B.J.’s Diner (save the snickering for later). If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to make, and consume, a messy, heart-unhealthy breakfast. We weren’t serving massive “Man v. Food” style meals, but we were serving two eggs, bacon, ham or sausage, home-fries, toast and coffee for $1.99. After we sold out, I went corporate and worked at McDonald’s, and wouldn’t you know, I picked up the weekend breakfast shift. Despite the crappy hash brown potato patty, the eggs and sausage were real (or as close to “real” as any sausage could get).

With a sizeable amount of breakfast eating experience under (and hanging over) my belt, I recently embarked on Breakfast Quest 2011-2012. Here are some of my experiences…

First, we have to address the different types of breakfast dining establishments. For this quest, I ate at places ranging from local diners and dives, to exclusive, high-end hotels. While I really enjoy the greasy-spoon style breakfast, the more I reflect, the more I enjoy the hotel-style experience. Besides these, in the middle, you have the chains (Friendly’s, Denny’s and the king of kings…IHOP). I find the chains to have a more institutional feel, and taste, but some great dish names, like “Rootie Tootie Fresh and Fruity” and the “Grand Slamwich” (Two scrambled eggs, sausage, crispy bacon, shaved ham, mayonnaise and American cheese, on potato bread grilled with a maple spice spread. Served with crispy hash browns). Yes, Denny’s has now brought “heart-healthy” to their menu…

First…the “joints:

Sunny-Day Diner (Lincoln, NH)-this is a true diner…a small rail car greasy spoon, but one that had previously been featured on some local food shows. For years I wanted to try it, but never found the opportunity, until recently. The food was very typical, and to a certain extent, disappointing. I was expecting great things, and while it was fine, there was nothing to make my mind, or stomach explode. I’m glad we ate there, but I didn’t leave doing cartwheels, excited for finally fulfilling my diner desires there.

The English Muffin, (Hampstead, NH)-I eat at this small diner every last Wednesday morning in June, and have for the past 8 years, which happens to coincide with dropping the kids off at camp. Call it habit; call it a celebratory breakfast, but this is where we always end up. The food is fine…I have no real complaints, but Mrs. Palate and some other dining companions are usually underwhelmed. I do agree with Mrs. Palate that if you order a veggie omelet where the description says “grilled veggies”, they can at least cook them. At the English Muffin, “grilled” means “raw”. However, it is perfectly situated and starts our summer vacation off right.

Zaftig’s (Brookline and Natick, MA)-I like the Brookline location much more than the Natick one. More of a sit-down restaurant, for a traditional breakfast, bagel, cream cheese and lox, in a place pretending to be deli, then this is for you.

Maxie’s (Stoughton, MA)-I didn’t eat there for this quest, but as a tribute to my grandmother, I thought I’d just say one thing-“Kippers”. If you like salted fish with your breakfast (then again, we do eat lox), then Maxie’s is the place.

Kugels (Framingham, MA)-the location could not be worse, hidden around the side of a quiet Route 9 strip mall, but yet it still attracts a crowd on weekend mornings. It has the worst entry-way, and no place to wait (and there’s usually a wait for one of the 10 tables), but they import their bagels (from where, I don’t know), and the service is prompt. Greasy spoon with table service…not bad. Better than the Natick Zaftig’s.

Brittany’s Café (Lincoln, NH)-Inside the Kancamagus Motor Lodge, this was a pleasant discovery. With very low, and perhaps no, expectations, we ate there, and were thrilled with the service, quality of food, and clean atmosphere. We’ve been several times, and haven’t been disappointed. One of the few places we went that has “chicken sausage”, which was nice, because we don’t dig on swine.

J & M Diner (Framingham, MA)-another strange location, in a no-name strip plaza on Route 126 in Framingham. Despite it’s off-the-beaten-path location, in the good weather, there’s always a wait outside on the weekends, and the owners have been kind to put one bench outside, so everyone else standing around can give the sitters some serous stink-eye. It’s a small joint on the inside, with a mix of booths, tables and counter seats, but the food is decent. I am partial to corned beef hash, and they have some decent, right from the Hormel can, corned beef hash. One thing-they give you one small paper napkin when they seat you. Just one…and don’t dare ask for more!

Lloyd’s Diner (Framingham, MA)-this is as close to the old-school diner that you can get out here in the suburbs. As I previously wrote several years ago, under old management, it was only open about 15 minutes a week, and not consecutive! However, though the same ownership is in place, the current people running it realize that in order to make it work, you have to be open. The Senior Palate ranks this among his favorites, and as a former diner owner, and someone that eats breakfast out a lot, I have to put stock in his opinion. They give you a massive amount of greasy breakfast food and know you by name. Fresh, hot and bountiful, and that’s just the waitresses…the food is pretty good too, and we give it a strong recommendation.

For a more formal experience, there’s the hotel breakfasts. Having done some travelling, there were a few standouts…

Embassy Suites (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada)-the nice thing about staying at the Embassy Suite is not just the extra space in the rooms (though the décor is a little industrial), it’s the extras factored into your price. With your stay, you get access to a “manager’s reception” in the afternoon (more like a “warden’s cattle call”) where they offer off-brand soft-drinks, alcoholic beverages, and snacks, but also the cattle-call breakfast buffet, with made-to-order omelets. I like this hotel, and the breakfast was ok, but as hotel breakfasts go, this was more industrial, steam-table cuisine compared to the others. However, when you have a busy day ahead, nothing gets you going and satisfies you more than a big breakfast. I’ll be staying at another Embassy Suites in Tampa in a couple of months, and will report back whether the experience is the same as Ontario…

Marriott Chateau Champlain (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)-zooming way, way up on the fanciness scale was the breakfast at the Marriott. This hotel is on the higher-end of the scale, and the restaurant serving breakfast was no different. The breakfast buffet and omelet station was very well-presented, with attentive staff help with juice, coffee and the like. It made it more palatable (pun intended) that the breakfasts for 9 of us were included in the price of the stay, but nonetheless, two delightful and satisfying experiences.

The Wentworth Hotel (Jackson, NH)-this was the apex of the various breakfast quests. No greasy spoon, this was the perfect combination of time, place, quality of food. Mrs. Palate and I stayed at The Wentworth 4 days last summer. As part of the package, breakfast is included. There is a very pleasant breakfast menu, served outdoors (weather permitting), which not only includes a made-to-order breakfast, but a lovely spread of continental pastries, as well as yogurt, fresh fruit, granola and fresh-squeezed juices. On a warm summer day at the foot of Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Wentworth is the best way to start your day.

In the breakfast spirit, as they say in Chicago…eat early, eat often.