Breakfast of Champions

“Breakfast was, on the whole, a leisurely and silent meal, for no member of the family was very talkative at that hour. By the end of the meal the influence of the coffee, toast, and eggs made itself felt, and we started to revive, to tell each other what we intended to do, why we intended to do it, and then argue earnestly as to whether each had made a wise decision.”

― Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

The maxim that “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” has deeper roots than your average slice of self-help hyperbole: To “break the fast” of the ancient middle-eastern world was a blessed relief from the pious rigor of fasting usually reserved for the holiest of holidays going back even before Judaeo-Christian times. It usually occurred after sundown of the last night of the fast and consisted of little bites to bring one’s body back from the brink. People came together and celebrated their humanity and inherent fallibilities after a day of being very disconnected and focused on the divine.

The modern breakfast is a far different beast; much less religious, but no less of a celebration.

Like our ancestors we come together as a tribe regularly to nourish our body ‘n soul. We treat breakfast like a “time out” during those most perilously surreal hours we call the morning. As the sins of the previous evening fade into a distant reproachless haze we gather in places with obscene amounts of cheap florescent lighting to bathe in the comfort of our peers, gossip, laugh, share insight and eat some seriously greasy food.

The great American-style breakfast joint has become a part of our physical and social landscape like almost no other type of foodservice operation. Think of all the TV and movie scenes that take place in diners, or all the paperbacks that rely on the diner as a plot hub (I’m ‘lookin at your murder/mystery) add on top of that the amount of references to breakfast and greasy spoons  in popular literature, poetry and music. Tom Waits has an entire album just about eating in diners… No lie.

The fact that diners are still a thing in the age of double-whip coffee shops and drive through Mc muffins is strange. The equally startling fact that they are commercially viable in this day and age when similar-sized (ie. small business) restaurants are withering left and right is downright awesome! Only pubs can compete with the popularity of a neighbourhood diner… But why? Is it the food? The tradition? The individual portions of maramalade?

Crystal and I hit up our local diner almost every weekend to just hang out and chat. It’s weird for a married couple, I know, but we really like turning our phones off and getting into rambling conversations while simultaneously stuffing pancakes into our faces. As breakfast pros we know exactly what to look for in a good diner and avoid those that are sub-par or (much worse) un-authentic.

An authentic diner is cheap, spacious, terribly lit, a little loud, slightly grimy and always welcoming. It should have a lunch/dinner menu ten pages long that no-one every looks at and do five breakfast items really well that everyone orders. The staff should know your name, how you like your coffee and never hesitate to make a joke or two at your expense. It goes without saying that an authentic diner should be owned by someone in your town.

Aside from all that Americana bullshit, a good breakie joint should have really good food and drink. The metrics for a gourmet breakfast doesn’t exist; in fact it’s so wrapped up in a high-low brow battle for the heart of mankind that I’m loathe to wade into it, but there are some touchstones we can all agree on. Yes! Certain criteria that make a good breakfast joint the kind of place you want to spend your whole morning hanging out in.

Coffee

“Morning has broken
Mr. Coffee has spoken
The familiar wake-up call
Sings to my ears
I wake up with a shrug
To the floor with a thud
Where in this hellhole is my coffee mug?”
Lagwagon, “Mr. Coffee”

Coffee is statistically the first flavour most of us experience every day. It’s the very first thing that hits the breakfast table when a customer sits down and probably the last thing he or she sips before getting up. Any good manager knows you ‘gotta make that experience count, yet very few go out of their way to lavish even an average-tasting coffee on their customers.

It doesn’t have to be some organic, single-origin hand-picked bullshit (although that stuff does taste pretty good!) but refreshing the carafe on a regular basis is a must. In this, and many other aspects a really good server is essential to a good diner. He or she needs to keep that coffee fresh so that when we, the customers come stumbling in it’s ready to work its magic.

The most treasured words in the English language are, “we just put on a fresh pot”… Even if you have to wait for it, do it! It will be worth it. This is the rocket-fuel of relationships and the finest lubricant for conversation known own to man.

Eggs

“He shoveled the bacon out on a plate and broke the eggs in the hot grease and they jumped and fluttered their edges to brown lace and made clucking sounds.”

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

While I’m throwing around hyperbole, consider this:  A properly cooked egg may very well be simultaneously the most simple, complex and transcendent bit of food cooked and eaten by man. It’s easy to learn, hard to master and a study in roshi-like focus and patience to produce again and again and again. This is why at the beating, bleeding heart of any good diner slouches a badass short order cook.

Eggs eaten in any restaurant are by and large, cooked on either a flat-top griddle using a couple of wafer-thin metal spatulas or dunked into a simmering pot of vinegar-water. It takes a long time behind a griddle to get the proper flip, flop, fling and plop motions down without accidentally piercing the egg’s delicate yolk. Timing the whole process properly so that the egg reaches the customer at the desired doneness is a whole other master class.

Speaking of doneness, I am of the belief that no matter how you order your eggs cooked (ie. poached, scrambled, sunny side up, etc.) that you should request the yolks remain soft. Hard, rubbery eggs are an abomination in the eyes of the kitchen Gods! You lose all the wonderful, velvety, unctuousness that make eggs so delightful. So don’t do it! Leave hard cooked eggs to your egg salad sandwiches.

Pork

The chicken contributes, but the pig gives his all.

Bacon & Eggs by Howard Nemerov

The influence of Celtic/Germanic culture on the North American diet has never been more profound than at the breakfast table. Think about it; every morning someone you know is cooking sausage or cured pork belly to eat with their eggs. Every freaking morning! Moccus must be mightily pleased!

Salted or smoked pig parts have been THE North American breakfast protein for a variety of cultural and economic reasons that are still being debated to this day. Pork was, by and large absent from the pre-WW1 breakfast table until master advertiser Edward Bernays was hired by a bacon conglomerate to boost the brand. Thanks to the sketchy recommendations of his doctor friends the public was convinced of the health benefits of a bigger breakfast involving the now-iconic duo of bacon and eggs.

Whether it be thin and crispy or thick-cut, chewy and charred (the way it should be!) the inherent fat and saltiness of bacon is the star of breakfast plate, playing off egg’s subtleness. It’s the hook, the riff and the David Gilmour-esque guitar solo that everyone is waiting to sing along to all wrapped up in one. Despite years of doctors screaming from the rooftops that it’s deadly and ‘ol Eddie Bernays was a swindler North Americans can’t get enough of it.

If bacon is the screaming lead guitar, then sausages are like funk bass. Instead of hitting your pallet with salt up front it’s mellower, more subtle and meaty. The really good, funky sausages show up more often in places where European immigrants (esp. Germans, English and Spanish) put down roots. Fatty and heavily seasoned delights like weisswurst, boudin noir, andouille and the like show up next to beans, rough bye bread and tomatoes in a traditional “Fry up”. The farther south, the spicier the pig with Spanish-style Chorizo lending its signature heat to Chilaquiles or my own personal favourite breakfast: Huervos Rancheros.

Needless to say, if you find a breakfast joint that makes their own sausages, grab a seat and never leave!

Starch

“Oh, I deep fried for you / But now I weep ‘n’ cry for you / Oh, babe, this meal was made for two / And these hash browns mean nothing, oh these hash browns mean nothing, yeah these HASH BROWNS MEAN NOTHIN’ without you.”

-John Green, Three Holiday Romances

Hashbrowns get a labelled as “filler” a lot, but I would support their place on the breakfast plate as an equal to bacon and eggs. To continue the rock band metaphor they are like the drummer; without ‘em all these Joe Satrianis would go flying off the plate in a thousand different directions… And breakfast would get boring if everything was fatty, salty, soft ‘n squishiness.

The spuds are there to bring everything back to the simple, starchy centre. Like a blank canvas for all the other edibles to colour with their more assertive flavours. Not that a good hashbrown should be too yielding, perish the thought! A killer tot should be rough ‘n crispy on the edges to give textural variety to the breakfast and a nice fluffy interior is essential for stabbing with a fork and wiping around the edge of your plate, sopping up all the beautiful oozy egg yolk, pork grease and rogue splashes of hot sauce.

Now, as much as I love potatoes as my starch, some of the most soul-satisfying breakfasts I’ve ever had eschew them and focus instead on a velvety puree of slow-cooked grains topped with an egg. Grits are my favourite example:  Corn meal cooked until it resembles a deeply savoury wallpaper paste with a touch of cheese and cream.  It’s pure comfort food for little boys and girls from the deep south.

Nothing sticks to ribs like that… Except maybe congee, the ubiquitous Asian rice porridge, usually made with a luxuriously fatty pork stock and topped with eggs and all manner of crispy bits. Either are a fine way to start the day and have both begun to emerge onto the N. American breakfast scene at large. If you see ‘em on a menu, don’t be afraid!

Booze

Breakfast is the only meal of the day that I tend to view with the same kind of traditionalized reverence that most people associate with Lunch and Dinner. I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon; anybody with a terminally jangled lifestyle needs at least one psychic anchor every twenty-four hours, and mine is breakfast.

– Hunter S. Thompson

Brunch is a strange, mirror dimension that exists only on Sundays between breakfast and lunch, morning and afternoon, life and death, body ‘n soul, obligation and who cares it’s the weekend! You eat too much hollandaise, wear sunglasses to hide your bloodshots and drink like it’s the only thing to make you forget how stupid you acted last night. It’s pretty much as far from the ancient piousness associated with breakfast as you can get, but damn if it isn’t an indulgence that I (we all) love!

Drinking a bit of morning booze to equalize your system is a tradition almost as old as breakfast itself and has many permutations, additions, superstitions and traditions associated with it across many cultures. The classic Scottish phrase “Hair of the dog that bit you” is probably the most famous morning toast, but equally awesome are the Romanian “Pull out that nail with a nail” the Chinese “Drink to restore one’s soul” and the no-bullshit Finnish “Morning repair kit”. Each traditionally down a drink or two with breakfast to ease the pain of last night’s indulgence with whatever local specialty brew acting as a tonic.

Here in diner-land the king and queen of breakfast boozing are The Mimosa and the Bloody Mary/Caesar. Both are mixed drinks, allowing the host (or in the diner’s case, the server) to determine how much hard alcohol to add to one’s morning and also both include a generous splash of fruit/vegetable juice to keep us thinking they’re less naughty than they are.

The Caesar, legendary Canadian version of the vodka/tomato/hot sauce drink that dares to pair clam nectar with tomato juice and vodka is my go-to morning cocktail. I always stick with a single and throw away the straw so I can sip a bit at a time and savour that celery salt without getting too blurry too fast. Forget the elaborate bacon flags and mini-burgers that everyone wants to squash onto the top of a “entree Caesar” and stick with the classic wake up and be merry; a Caesar with an extra shot of Tabasco and a pickled green bean.

Mimosas are a different beast. Sure you sip them like a Caesar, but instead of a little shot of the hard stuff in a glass of vegetable juice a good mimosa should be 90% wine with a splash of orange juice. It’s for those mornings when you really need to forget or just get going. I’ll order it at a place I know won’t skimp on the good stuff.

Whichever drink you choose to spice up your morning eggs ‘n toast it’s clear that we’ve come full circle and are now once again reliant on the talents and tastes of our server. Never trust your cocktail ratios to a bored-looking high-school student, wait for the lifer lead hostess to come back from her smoke break and grace you with a perfect pick-me-up.

Some Exceptional Breakfast Joints on Vancouver Island

If you are still reading this rambling rollercoaster of misplaced and possibly misspelled metaphors and downright criminal over-alliteration you must be drunk, hung-over or suffering from lack of sleep. I know this ‘cause I’ve been in the same boat (mostly the later) quite a bit lately… It helped me build this rudderless dreadnaught and formed most of the muddled opinions found therein.

The good news is if you are indeed part of my doomed 2pm crew, this post will actually help you! I’ll bet you’re desperate to a) Find an early-morning haven to get work done or b) Kill last-night’s shudders with a bit of old-school diner grub. No problem! Here’s a quick list of some of the best breakfast diners Crystal and I have sampled on Vancouver Island.

  • 3rd Street Cafe (Sydney, BC) – This funky little joint has an open kitchen and really good grub. Proscuitto and pesto bennies should be everywhere!
  • Blue Room Cafe (Ucluelet, BC) – Long waits will be rewarded with massive portions and really good sausage.
  • Dukes (Campbell River, BC) – Big piles of hash browns and garlic toast for breakie? Yes please!
  • Floyd’s Diner (Victoria, BC) – The Downtown institution is a little hard to get in, but worth it! Order the Mahoney and get a surprise plate you flip your waitress to pay for.
  • Michaels on Main (Courtenay, BC) – Our favourite brunch place, hands down; fabulous mimosas, perfectly cooked eggs ‘n hash and scratch-made hollandaise.

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