11 April 2007

Breakfast at Al’s in Dinkytown

We interrupt this discussion of California restaurants to bring you this late-breaking post on Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown. I’ve mentioned Al’s in several of my past posts. My son has worked there. In my next post, I make major comparisons between Snow’s Oyster Depot in San Francisco with Al’s. This morning, I met my brother at Al’s. And I realized, I’ve never actually written a post on Al’s.

Al’s is a long, narrow space, literally built in an alley between two buildings. There are 14 stools at a counter for diners. Waiters (that its, hungry people who are waiting for a stool) squeeze in behind the diners until the space is full, and then the line will snake out the door. Cooks/servers/wiseacres work behind the counter, taking your order, preparing your breakfast, serving your food, providing on-going sardonic comments, observations, and occasionally abuse.

I walked into Al’s at about 7:15 this morning and received cheerful greetings from people behind the counter who recognized me as the father of one of their co-workers. There was a single stool open, and I let the next person who came in take it since my brother hadn’t arrived yet. Fortunately, just as he walked up, a couple at the other end of the counter left, and we got their spots.

Some people get annoyed at the fact that there are only 14 stools, that you have to stand and wait for a spot, that while you’re waiting you’re squeezed between the backs of the diners and the wall, and that while you’re eating, someone may very well be standing right behind you waiting for a spot. It also might happen that halfway through your breakfast, you’ll be asked to shift to an empty stool next to you so that a group of two or three can sit together. It’s all just part of the shtick at Al’s.

We placed our orders. Mike picked an omelet and hash browns. I picked corned beef hash with poached eggs. We both had coffee. I had a glass of grapefruit juice. I introduced him to a few of the people behind the counter who I knew. We chatted about his recent trip with his family and our parents. I brought him up to speed on plans for up-coming weddings of both my kids.

Doug, one of the co-owners, walked by. I introduced him to Mike. Then I said to Doug, “I’m glad you’re not on the griddle today. Last time I ate here, you didn’t cook my hash browns crisp enough.” Doug good-naturedly (out of character) replied, “We took an aptitude test, and I failed, so I’m not allowed to make hash browns anymore.” You see, the rule is at Al’s, you might be the target of a sarcastic comment, but you have the right to launch an attack yourself.

Mike’s omelet came. He started eating. I continued sipping my coffee. Finally Mike asked, “Where’s your breakfast.” I said, casually but loud enough for them to hear, “I guess since I’m related to one of the help, they figure they don’t have to worry about when I’m served.” Without missing a beat, Doug turned around and said, “It’s taking longer because we wanted to make sure your hash is crisp enough.”

My meal came, and I started eating. The hash was done very nicely – a good balance of potato, onion, and corned beef, crisp on the edges, hot, very tasty. The poached eggs were just the way I like them with the yolk flowing smoothly over the hash when I broke them, but not runny. Mike’s omelet looked great, and his hash browns looked like they were nice and crisp as well.

“Doug,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?” “No, I won’t do a lap dance,” he said. All I wanted was for him to take a picture. He snapped one with M.R. (another worker) looking on. “No,” she said. “You need to get more of the counter in the background.” She took the camera and snapped another shot. Then she and Mike and I spent several minutes talking about what kind of digital camera she should buy.

As we finished up, I noticed that there were about 4-6 people waiting for a spot. “I’m sorry it’s taking us so long,” I called out. “The service this morning is real slow.” I paid for breakfast and we got up to go.

Al’s is a restaurant, sure. But it’s also part improvisational theater with the audience sometimes participating in the performance, sometimes involuntarily. If that annoys you, I have a suggestion – don’t eat at Al’s. We’ve got several good places where you can sit and read your paper and eat your food and be left alone. Try Keys. If you go to Al’s you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to be open to talking to your neighbors or the people standing behind you, and above all, you’ve got to maintain a sense of humor.

Al’s is an acquired taste. But I’ve acquired the taste, and it’s not just because my son has worked there. Even when he moves on, I’ll still be coming back.

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