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Champion of Breakfasts 

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
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Did you see Ric Burns' documentary on New York a couple of weeks ago on PBS? It had a nice way of serving up basic yet little-known facts about its subject's history with a storyteller's sense of rhythm so that facts became episodes and episodes became turning points and before you knew it the grid was laid down and the subway was built and the Empire State Building was the tallest skyscraper in the world. Sometimes, though, the storyteller homed in on perfectly respectful subjects to the detriment of other, perhaps more deserving ones. Case in point: His complete inattention to the fact that the city of New York helped sire the great American breakfast.

It was to Manhattan Island that wealthy colonial Dutch burghers (who never seemed to have the life-threatening difficulties of the Pilgrims and the Virginians) brought such Amsterdam-style teatime treats as doughnuts, crullers, waffles, and pancakes. "There is a thing called wheaten flour," recorded one 17th-century onlooker, "which the cookes do mingle with water, eggs, spice and other tragicall, magicall enchantments, and they put little by little into a frying pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused, dismall hissing, until at last it is transformed into the form of a pancake, which the ignorant people do devoure very gredillie."

Over the centuries these greasy delights intermingled with stick-to-the-ribs specialties of the hard-working Pennsylvania Dutch until the morning meal, American-style -- its sweet-and-savory, syrup and sausage, blueberries and bacon essence unique in the culinary world -- evolved and spread into every diner and coffee shop on the continent.

For six decades now, the quintessential San Francisco place to break your fast has been Sears Fine Foods. It does the aforementioned classics with the sure hand of a local landmark that's been flipping cakes on a griddle, day in and day out, since 1938. Its legend is vast: J. Edgar Hoover's regular shipment of the establishment's three-flour pancake mix to Washington for, one presumes, culinary purposes; Sears' singular prejudice against reservation-taking and the resultant long lines out the door and up Powell Street, where Mayor George Moscone used to bide his time; its owners' two pink Cadillacs, parked in front of the restaurant with heaters and radios blaring, offering shelter to the line-waiters on particularly cold days.

Sears' antemeridian supremacy, however, is built not on folklore but on food. And ever since that fateful day 61 years ago when retired circus clown Ben Sears and his wife Hilbur opened the restaurant's doors (it was then a block north of its current location) and mixed up a flapjack recipe inherited from Hilbur's Swedish family, Sears' pièce de résistance has been light-as-air, FBI-approved pancakes. While Holland's buckwheat version has enlivened the American landscape for three centuries, pancakes have been everywhere for several millennia: as chapati in India, injera in Ethiopia, blini in Russia, crepes in France, oatcakes in Scotland, tortillas in Mexico, and all regional manner of jonny cakes, hoe cakes, flannel cakes, batty cakes, and shawnee cakes domestically. The Swedish variety, prepared in a special skillet with small, circular depressions to ensure the creation of tiny, silver-dollar-sized pancakes, is noted for its delicacy.

At Sears, pancakes float off the plate and into your mouth, slender, yeasty, and delectable, especially with a dollop of melting butter and sweet-tart lingonberry compote atop ($6). Although they aren't as revered as the pancakes, Sears' waffles ($6) are even better. Brown and crisp as a cookie, they come plain, studded with pecans, or, best of all, crowned with a mountain of fresh whipped cream and surprisingly sweet (for this time of year) ripe-red strawberries. But the French toast ($6), made from sourdough bread soaked in a creamy batter, is too soft and bland for my taste; some kind of zinger -- a stuffing of mascarpone, a dribble of Calvados, something -- would be most welcome here.

A side dish might help. The fresh fruit bowl ($4) is a goblet of pineapple, melon, banana, and whatever else is in season, soaked in freshly squeezed orange juice -- a simple and delicious presentation. More elaborate is the gigantic Rome Beauty apple ($4), baked with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other wintry spices until hot and fragrant. Part of it is tender, part of it is mushy, and all of it is sweet and comforting and absolutely ideal on a cold day.

Of course, nothing's better with pancakes, waffles, fruit cups, and other sugary eye-openers than pork in its myriad forms. Sears' smoked country sausage ($6) is stellar: three thick patties of dark, dense, coarse meat, spicy and powerfully good. The house bacon ($4) is crisp and culinarily perfunctory, but its Canadian cousin ($5) comes in thick, juicy slices with plenty of character. You can also get the Canadian bacon at the base of an inoffensive but unmemorable eggs Benedict ($10), whose hollandaise does, however, have a nice tangy edge.

The basic fare at Sears is as basic as can be -- like the Benedict, the egg dishes are nothing special, especially when compared to the venue's batter-based triumphs (although the three-egg spinach omelet [$8] is absolutely packed with the fresh green stuff). The hash browns ($3) are likewise perfectly edible, crunchy on the outside and freshly made, though lacking in pizazz. But Sears' pies -- and what would breakfast be without pie? -- are exemplary. They come in two forms: the basic slab and the deep-dish. The latter ($4) is a big bowl of (in our case) ollalieberries swimming in their own lightly sweetened, piping-hot juices with a draping of soft crust on top; when you dig in, the aromatic steam hits you in the face, the crust drops into the sweet fruit, and merriment ensues. The slab ($4) -- we chose the blackberry-custard variety -- is sweet and not altogether wholesome, with a nice flaky crust.

Sears serves lunch, too -- soups, salads, sandwiches, platters of roast beef, liver and onions, and the like. All of this is prepared and presented in a throwback-coffee shop ambience of pink, gold, plastic, and mirrors, lots of them, with a friendly counter down the side and pancake mix, T-shirts, and other memorabilia available to go. The terrific service is legendary, firmly in the starched-uniform, what'll-ya-have-honey tradition; as a customer, you're well taken care of. With such a heritage backing the place up, you shouldn't be at all surprised.

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Matthew Stafford

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