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The Egg and I 

Breakfasts excite at downtown icons Dottie's and the reborn Sears Fine Food

Wednesday, Sep 22 2004
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"'When you wake in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?' 'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?' 'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?' said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. 'It's the same thing,' he said."

I generally go a step further than Pooh: I think there are several opportunities for excitement during the day, and their names are breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In reality, however, where most of us live, breakfast isn't often all that exciting. I try to draw inspiration from John Thorne of Simple Cooking fame, who offers fascinating archives containing miniessays about -- and photographs of -- many of his intriguing breakfasts on his Web site, www.outlawcook.com. (And, adding yet another opportunity for excitement, Thorne manages to fit into his singularly interesting gastronomic life a midnight snack, which gets its own archive.)

My breakfasts usually do not achieve the level of invention of Thorne's (the first three entries in his breakfast gallery are beef kidneys, beef satay, and cabbage pirogi pan-fried with onion and prosciutto). Left to my own devices, I tend toward the open-faced breakfast sandwich: sliced avocado on a toasted bagel, sliced tomato on toast with a touch of mayonnaise, melted cheese on toast (sometimes, if I'm feeling ambitious, I'll top the last with a fried egg). An even lazier (and slightly health-conscious and self-righteous) breakfast is shredded wheat with blueberries. I'm very fond of all the classic American breakfast foods -- eggs and preserved meats and potatoes, et al. -- but I've found that preparing even the simplest classic diner breakfast results in an appalling number of dishes in the sink, starting the day off with domestic drudgery rather than excitement.

For the multidish breakfast, therefore, I frequent (not often enough, ha ha) restaurants, though not without a certain tension: Breakfast out is less expensive than lunch or dinner, and yet it still feels mildly illicit to me, something of a treat, whether I enjoy it alone or in a group. Two recent breakfasts at well-known downtown eateries reminded me of how delightful (and exciting!) the first meal of the day can be.

I took myself to Dottie's True Blue Cafe on a Monday morning. You can't miss it, among the excellent Indian and other ethnic spots that line Jones, because there's almost always a line outside Dottie's, people patiently waiting for their chance at a small table inside the snug room. At 9:30, there were a dozen in front of me, and I wasn't the last in line for very long. Several of the parties clutched lists of nearby restaurants provided by their hotels (I heard German and an English accent). Boy, I thought, they were lucky to have gotten this tip: Dottie's facade doesn't really hint at the coziness or the quality hidden behind it, the place is on a superficially unpromising block, and tourists could easily stumble into other breakfast spots that cost about the same for standard, uncaring slop.

Dottie's cares. Within its self-limited purview, which is breakfast and, on a lesser scale, lunch, it is ambitious and inventive (though not as inventive as Thorne). The juices are fresh-squeezed, the maple syrup is real, the baked goods are fresh and homemade. There is an evolving list of daily specials on a board (which, as the very specific menu helpfully states, is posted "next to the small window"); another board lists the day's baked goods. I pondered: Should I have the dependably good black bean cakes with eggs, potatoes, sour cream, and salsa, or try something I'd never had here before, such as the Southwesternized scramble with chipotle'd ground beef and onions?

But the lure of the classic American breakfast was too strong, especially because Dottie's has a special called the Open Road, which includes your choice of pancakes or French toast and a glass of juice, along with eggs any style, your pick of meat (bacon, ham, or sausage), and potatoes. My eggs over easy were perfectly cooked (is there any other foodstuff that I enjoy so many different ways? The egg is really a miracle), the very smoky bacon properly soggy and copious. The moist chunks of sautéed potatoes came scented with oregano, and the two big, tender pancakes lightly cinnamoned. The heavily mascara'd eyes of some Hollywood starlet, imprinted on the tabletop, smiled up at me between the dishes; I peppered and salted my eggs with tiny simulacra of King Kong and the Empire State Building. The service was friendly (when I started to tell the nice man who'd brought me my menu and water what I wanted to eat, he smiled, "Oh, I'm not your waiter, I'm your minion!") and thoughtful. When I recklessly decided to bring back to the office one of every pastry on offer that day (plum streusel coffeecake, chocolate chip oat scone, apricot oat scone, cinnamon pecan roll, raspberry mango bread, carrot cranberry muffin, blueberry muffin, caramel pear coffeecake -- the kitchen had just run out of the blueberry peach bread), the server asked me if I wanted them warmed, and everything was swiftly wrapped individually in foil and packed carefully into boxes.

My colleagues fell upon the baked goods. The breads (which come with cream cheese), muffins, and coffeecakes were exceptionally moist and fruity, the pleasant scones appropriately dry and crumbly, and the cinnamon pecan roll obscenely big and dripping with sugary icing. The coffeecakes (especially the caramel pear) and the raspberry mango bread were the big hits.

On another morning, I approached the newly renovated Sears Fine Foods (now run by the Kim family, which owns several Lori's Classic Diners, one less than a block away) with some trepidation. I'd arranged to meet out-of-town friends there for breakfast last year and was so shocked by the down-at-the-heels, fluorescent-lit atmosphere that greeted me that I whisked them away to a much pricier hotel breakfast (we considered walking a few blocks to Dottie's, but we were on a tight schedule and couldn't factor in the inevitable wait). I returned to Sears on my own and found the famous plate of 18 tiny Swedish pancakes still appealing, though I was appalled by the charmless, dingy setting (sticky plastic tablecloths), weak coffee, and increasingly limited hours (the restaurant closed at 2:30 and didn't even bother to open Monday and Tuesday). I wasn't surprised when the place announced it was shutting down soon after, even though I mourned the loss of a venerable San Francisco establishment, legendarily opened in 1938 by ex-circus clown Ben Sears.

But a resurrection came not long after, so I arranged to meet Hiya there for breakfast, sight unseen. The signs were good -- in fact, one of the good signs was the newly refurbished neon one outside, with the addition of a plump trout labeled "dinner" above an immaculate new awning. The room inside was welcoming, reassuring, and nearly unrecognizable: The tired gray carpeting had been torn up, revealing vintage hexagonal white tiles, and the lowered acoustical ceiling ripped out, revealing a suddenly high-ceilinged room. It wasn't exactly the long-ago Sears, but it was very nice. There were lots of real antiques scattered around -- wooden sideboards and cupboards and old vintage stoves. The mellow gold walls were covered with framed stories of the restaurant's history, sheet music (including one featuring tunes by Charlie Parker), old photographs of San Francisco, and Norman Rockwell prints. Instead of harsh fluorescent lighting, the multiglobed chandeliers cast a soft and flattering light. Would that all Extreme Makeovers were as successful.

I was delighted that Hiya had brought her husband, Jonathan, along -- we could try more dishes! We had to have a plate of the Swedish pancakes, to share, and then French toast for Jonathan, eggs Benedict for Hiya, a spinach omelet for me, and a broiled grapefruit, added at the last minute. The coffee was strong and good, the tiny, thin pancakes (of the leathery rather than fluffy persuasion) fun to eat (with real maple syrup and lots of butter). I've had tonier eggs Benedicts, but these were fine: runny yolks, creamy lemony hollandaise, decent ham, fragile toasted muffin. And I loved the crisp, shredded hash browns. And I loved that our server, unbidden, realized that the omelet she had brought me was too well-done and whisked it away, returning almost immediately with a softer version, moist with a filling of chopped spinach, sautéed onions, and the happy touch of cream cheese. And I loved that my rye toast was already buttered and still hot.

I thought that the sourdough French toast, which the menu considers as world famous as the restaurant's pancakes, would have benefited from a longer soaking in its egg batter, and that Sears had managed, somehow, to make its accompanying "Own Fresh Homemade Strawberry Preserves" taste exactly like defrosted frozen strawberries. And though we liked the sugar crust on the warm grapefruit half, charging $4.95 for it seemed a bit shameless. (Brown sugar would have been tastier, and the fruit should have been broiled longer.) But these were quibbles: I was thrilled by the new/old Sears. It was more than just breakfast; it was a party. I was delighted to learn that you can order breakfast here all day long and into the night. I knew I'd be back. Starting the day off with an exciting meal is not only appealing, but also relaxing. As another writer once said, "Fate cannot harm me -- I have dined today."

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Meredith Brody

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