Art's Cafe Owner Hae Ryong Yoon at the griddle. (Lori Halloran)
Leave the brightly lit terrariums for the youthful that require to be seen for their own vanity. Leave the dimly lit and questionable used napkin strewn countertop greasy spoons to me.
If I’m not stepping into a coffee shop diner that feels like I’m stepping back in time, I don’t want anything to do with it. We created a list of five Bay Area diners where you can be left alone while you eat, or bring your gaggle of friends for a weekend brunch. But, why you would want to ruin a perfectly good diner with your loud bottomless mimosa-chasing friends?
Age has buried diners all across the country. San Francisco is no stranger to losing some of its beloved diners. Gone the way of the dinosaurs have been Lafayatte Coffee Shop, Lucky Penny (closed for condos) and the most beloved, 24 hour Sparky’s on Church and Market. In political correctness landia, the straight forward diner server we associate with some of our memorable cinematic moments would not be allowed to thrive in most of California.
Along with the disappearance of this independent spirit, is the disappearance of mom-and-pop coffee shops. With formica countertops and vinyl booths, these simple, and often small, restaurants offer a no-frills experience for those who just want to indulge in the comforts of Americana breakfast and lunch staples. Luckily, the Bay Area’s definition of Americana — like its definition of almost everything else — is a spectrum. So, even your most Americana diner will have spam and eggs over rice, bulgogi stuffed hash browns, loco mocos and chilaquiles with homemade salsa.
Everyone knows that the only thing you should even consider ordering in this wood panel veneered spot is the chilaquiles. That’s not actually true, as they have a wicked huevos con nopales dish.
Chilaquiles is a dish consisting of corn tortillas torn into pieces and pan fried until crispy, then simmered in your choice of sauce (sometimes roja, verde or even mole) until the tortilla starts to submit to the sauce and softens. It seems counterintuitive to fry and then simmer, but somehow Anna’s manages to retain the crispy edges of the tortilla pieces and tops it with your choice of egg (please let it be a runny yolk). Some people even ask them to mix in carne asada. But, do yourself a favor and ask them to mix in some chorizo. The Chilaquiles sauce starts to samba with the rich egg yolks and the spicy chorizo fat is constantly trying to cut in and boogaloo. Did I mention the plate comes with Spanish rice and refried beans?
Fifth Wheel’s menu states that the restaurant was established in the 1950s. Before John and Lisa Lee took over in 1978, there had only been two previous owners and the restaurant ran 24 hours a day. In 2016, dedicated patrons impatiently sat by and chomped at the bit while their favorite breakfast spot was temporarily closed for upwards of a year, possibly two.
Luckily, the Lees are back to whipping up favorites like chicken fried steak with your choice of country or brown gravy, fluffy golden pancakes, chicken teriyaki and grits. Diners can be seen mixing and matching dish components and side orders, creating their own comforting classics like loco moco: hamburger patty served over rice, covered in brown gravy and topped with an egg. This is not a place to bring a large group, as it only has 11 counter stools and enough table seating for 16. Aside from the delicious and affordable eats, the limited seating explains why there is constantly a line out of the door.
Two words: Bulgogi Omelette. Nothing like a protein overload to sustain your life as a cubicle jockey at the local tech company. But, who can resist a soy sauce flavored rice encased inside a gossamer thin omelette topped with hard seared pieces of beef marinated in soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pureed Asian pears. Bibimbap served to you in an oversized metal mixing bowl for the glutton you are. And if you’re not in the mood for Korean bbq with your breakfast, that’s ok.
They still have all the best hits of American diner classics such as a corned beef hash that sits on the flat top to develop an otherworldly exterior crust. One of the regulars, who is a nearby neighbor, informed me that this site has functioned as a diner for upwards of 40-years, changing ownership often. But, it’s only since 2009 that it’s been owned by Han.
Ole’s Waffle Shop is named after Ole Swanson, an immigrant that established this waffle centric location in the 1930s. Then “in 1972, Bob Adams purchased the diner from Ole himself on his way home from a movie with nothing more than a handshake and a promise.” And a $100 down payment.
KQED may have listed Ole’s as one of the top five places in theBay Area to get a waffle, but they may have overlooked their fried chicken. These days, it seems fried chicken is always served in one of two forms: exorbitantly priced from being served up as some truffle coated gold dusted trend or bucketed up via drive thru. Sit in one of Ole’s burnt orange vinyl booths or take a stool at the low coffee counter and order the Southern fried chicken and waffles for a different experience. The chicken thighs are barely coated on the outside, allowing the oil to have maximum contact with the skin until it turns dark golden brown. Jaggedy ridges and valleys form on the exterior and, as your teeth sink into the dark meat, you can hear the crispy crackle. Ole’s waffles are not of the Belgian kind, they are of the Waffle Shop variety: thin and wide with shallow crevices. Pair the two together with some warm pancake syrup and you’ve got a winner.
Ole’s isn’t interested in changing to benefit trends, just ask one of their servers who has been there for nearly 40-years. Opened seven days a week, Ole’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from 5:30AM most days, closing at midnight on weekends.
As soon as you walk in, it’s hard not to notice Owner Hae Ryong Yoon’s (who emigrated from Korea in 1982) sort of pensive face. The second thing you notice is Hae flipping the one thing that seems to dominate the elongated flat top just a foot away from diners mulling away their breakfast at the counter: hash browns. The special here is hash brown sandwiches; a large hash brown square cooked on the flat top and folded over your choice of stuffing.
These hash brown eiderdowns seem to be cooked until they’re at their crispiest and then filled with things like teriyaki beef, spinach, tofu or mushrooms. Grilled banana and walnut french toast is your basic sandwich bread cut into four sectors, dunked into an egg batter and cooked on the flat top. But what separates the quality of Art’s is the fact that the bananas are also grilled on the flat top so they get wobbly and caramelized. The champion bite is hot buttery grilled french toast, earthy toasted walnuts, sweet and warmed through caramelized banana and a bit of salty sausage or bacon. While Art’s has been in this location for around 60-years, Hae and his wife Sarah have been serving up these addictive flavorings since 1989.
This is not a place to bring a group or even more than another person. It’s counter seating only and there are only a dozen stools. Cash Only.