I live for BBQ. I wake up for breakfast. Those who know me best will understand when I say that American breakfast is the backbone of my appetite. If done right, it’s cheap, satisfying and timeless. Two eggs over easy have nowhere to hide and everything to prove, especially when they’re on short order.
Some people wake up for brunch. Brunch lovers, wafting through restaurant doors for a beautifully arrayed spread of poached eggs, afternoon greens, brioche, grapefruit, gourmet bacon and the hair of the dog, cross a gradient of dining that I cannot. I get into debates when I try to preserve the line between American breakfast and American brunch, as if I were drawing it in sand. I’m not; yet, with every new brunch menu that hits the table, the empirical distance between the two semantic cousins becomes more and more palpable in ways that make me think that I hate brunch.
This turn has been a long time coming. As a newcomer to the world of comestible obsessions in Berkeley, I discovered the joy of breakfast at Ann’s Kitchen, an understated, high turnover corner joint with sticky tables, plenty of Bruce Louisiana hot sauce and an owner who could memorize the name and face of a customer after two visits. Ann’s breakfast plate, consisting of two eggs any style, two slices of toast with apple butter, and a molehill of the most impeccably crisped home fries in three dimensions, hit the counter five minutes after order for $3.45. It was food at its peak: brutally simple, yet impossible to replace.
As years passed and I found myself sharing more and more morning meals with friends, I discovered that my enthusiasm for the off-the-cuff familiarity of Ann’s was burnt crust compared to the student body’s lust for the brunch experience. Each time I joined a weekend excursion for the same old overdressed basics, I felt a little more disillusioned – by the long waits, the $12+tip price tags, and the over-seasoned, hyper-relaxed, late morning banter. What struck me most, though, was the feeling that the simplicity of breakfast was being slyly replaced. Before long, no one wanted to go to Ann’s with me. Sure, the food was good, the price was right, and Amoeba and Moe’s were right around the corner, but it just didn’t scratch that lazy, luxuriant itch that only a mimosa could pacify.
I went on with my life, avoiding brunch outings when possible and not quite knowing how to explain my aversion to the meal in certain terms. Then, on the suggestion of a good friend (ironically, also a brunch lover), I had breakfast at Stage Restaurant in the East Village.
If Manhattan was born with greasy spoon in its mouth, Stage would be that spoon: a short order holdover from a world in which entire meals are cooked on a griddle no bigger than the cook’s torso, and no one has ever asked for granola. Unaffected by nostalgia, the Stage is simply one long counter of history. Elbow room is the only room in this alleyway of a diner, and the diners whose elbows rub against mine range from a scruffy student annotating texts over pancakes to a barely comprehensible IEBW member who uses firm, stubby fingers to drive home his claim that Keith Richards is rock and roll’s greatest guitar player. “But you know who looked the best? Mick Jagger. He looked goood, man.”
At the far end of the counter, as if by cue, sits an old man whose newspaper is more important than humanity itself. A bulky, wall-mounted payphone just behind him rings for minutes at a time before Stage’s senior waitress decides to oblige the occasional telephone order. As she repeats the words coming across the wire, cooks in the back room slide hot plates of food through a service window, from which they shuffle their way to patrons at the counter. On the opposite side of the diner, blue collar workers and cooks from the neighborhood stop by on break, sweeping huge bags of food for their staffs from the counter and pushing off just as quickly as they had stepped in.
Breakfast, prepared to order on the griddle just behind the counter, is a winner here. For $4.65, you can have two eggs any style, a molehill of home fries, two slices of toast, breakfast meat of your choice, and a bottomless cup of diner coffee. The gourmet choice, as noted by Serious Eats’ Nick Solares, is corned beef hash, prepared in house and served scrumptiously under eggs. Thoroughly crisped on the edges, fluffy and pink on the inside, and seasoned with just the right about of black pepper, Stage’s corned beef hash, like a great burger, is a patty of victory for Americana (though, sadly, Stage’s actual burger has recently earned scorn from the very same Nick Solares).
Stage’s immigrant personality only enriches that victory. Despite the presence of a Russian language calendar and at least one Russian speaking staff member – I still haven’t figured out which one it is, but I’ve placed a bet on the behemoth short order cook, whose speech is indecipherable in any language that doesn’t involve the words “eggs over easy,” anyway – Stage is a solidly Polish-American establishment. Consequently, substitution of kielbasa for breakfast sausage and buckwheat kasha for potatoes (doused, if you like, with mushroom gravy and grilled onions) is a few words away. While a brunch menu would attempt to surpass the essential with gourmet flair, Stage is much more content with the natural beauty of cultural assimilation, connecting comfort food dots across international borders and serving up the result in a melting pot of grease.
Pierogi, latkes, blintzes and a number of other Polish staples are spot on at Stage, but they’re also overpriced. With even better Polish food at half the price just across the East River in Greenpoint, diners at Stage are better off asking what specials are on deck – homemade meat loaf, lasagna and a huge plate of egg noodles with sour cream are a few of the choices I’ve seen make their way across that counter.
The best representation of the diner’s Polish-Ukranian heritage is its soup – after all, any cook bred from Eastern European stock must benchmark her skills by the ladle. Stage doesn’t shy from the challenge, offering as many as four different types soups with a hunk of challah bread on any given day.
Cabbage soup here is a bright, tender and tart mix of kraut-like cabbage, potato and other vegetables. Lentil soup, with just right amount of vegetables and a parsley garnish, is also wonderful. Highest praise, though, goes to Stage’s zurek, a diner-grade bowl of the rich, savory fermented rye classic that comes with boiled potato and egg if you’re lucky. While my favorite bowl of zurek is still Lomzynianka‘s tangy, pure, rye-heavy blend, Stage’s soup tastes exactly like the zurek I would eat on the daily in random cafeterias when I was traveling through Poland. And, like fried eggs, it’s served all day, every day.
With places like Stage still making good on the promise of breakfast, I have little interest in the next iteration of eggs benedict. If I’m going to turn my weekend morning into a culinary experience, I’d much rather make a trip to Flushing to indulge in Taiwanese breakfast or play shortstop on an extended dim sum session. I could parlay my lazy hours into a wonderful, home cooked breakfast in the apartment with friends, channeling emptied hours into a richer form of relaxation. Better yet, I could head down to Shopsin’s and put my wages and wait time to their best possible use.
I suppose what Stage has taught me is that I really don’t hate brunch. Positively speaking: I love American breakfast, as food and as experience, and when I’m sitting at the counter at Stage, no aspect of brunch can supplant that experience. Wait lists, well spaced tables, cloth napkins, pristine presentation, individualized wait service and the mantra of leisure are all imports of fine dining that don’t add any value of mine when they latch themselves to a meal I love for its straightforward dishes, its workman’s character and its ubiquity. American breakfast is a meal that requires no special context, no special menu and no special timing to be relevant. It simply has to satisfy. For a five dollar meal, that’s the role of a lifetime.
128 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
2498 Telegraph Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704