by Nick Roumel
A. A. Milne once recounted this conversation:
“When you wake up 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.”
Current’s “Breakfast Odyssey” team also wanted to start the journey with an exciting breakfast. The question was, where to go? There are scads of places in Washtenaw County, but we had neither the time nor the wherewithal for more than a handful. We ruled out hotels and chains, places that did not focus on breakfast, or did not actually serve breakfast in the morning. There were still too many. We ultimately chose a sampling of traditional diners and more specialty restaurants, ultimately visiting Nick’s Original Pancake House, Beezy’s, Juicy Kitchen, Angelo’s, Northside Grill, the Broken Egg, Benny’s, Bomber Restaurant, and the Uptown Coney Island.
Let our Odyssey begin.
Our Odyssey team consisted of all veterans: Nick Roumel, Ken “Sky” Walker, Cynthia Hodges, Heather Leavitt, Lisa Gottlieb, and Brad Wicklund. Patti Smith and Ken Anderson even managed a few visits on the eve of their wedding. We don’t let any restaurant know in advance that we are reviewing.
Team members scored each item on a ten-point scale (“10” reserved for food that you’d “shove your mama aside” to eat; “6” was average; and “1” for a substance “not fit for beast nor compost”). We gave scores for appearance, aroma, portion size, ingredients, and flavor, and encouraged frank comments across the board.
We chose representative dishes from basic to fancy and tried to order the same thing everywhere, substituting when necessary.
Spinach/feta cheese omelette. Feta’s briny sweetness really brightens up eggs. Some cooks blend the ingredients together; others take the extra step and fold them into the center. We were looking for fresh spinach and tender eggs that were not overcooked.
Hash browns. There is nothing more sublime than hand-shredded potatoes, crisp on the bottom and fluffy inside. They are much trickier than home fries, simply cubed potatoes browned in a pan.
Breakfast meats. Bacon strips and sausage links. Nothing complicated—we looked for good flavor and nothing burnt.
Corned beef hash. Make sure this diner mainstay is homemade and not canned Alpo. It’s not difficult to fry up corned beef, potatoes, and onions in butter. Served with two eggs “over easy,” rye toast and Frank’s hot sauce, it can be breakfast perfection. We found this the most inconsistent item in our Odyssey.
Eggs Benedict. The classic recipe of disputed origin consists of poached eggs over Canadian bacon on a buttered English muffin and topped with Hollandaise sauce. It has many variations. Many restaurants avoid serving this because making and (especially) maintaining a Hollandaise is tricky.
Bread and toast. Most restaurants offer the staples: white, wheat, rye, and English muffin. Those that take the time to make their bread in-house really impressed us.
“Carbo item.” This was our wild card. We ordered whatever pancake, waffle, or French toast that seemed to be a house specialty. Real maple syrup was a plus.
Coffee. While many places offered constant refills of ordinary restaurant brands, we were pleasantly surprised that more and more restaurants are pouring specialty and local roasts.
3030 Lohr Cir, Ann Arbor, MI 48108
734-622-6425 | www.nickshouseofpancakes.com
Best overall; best spinach/feta omelette;
Best hash browns;
Best eggs benedict;
Best carbo item – pecan/banana pancakes.
Restaurateur Nick Panos has transformed a former Big Boy into a open, cheery space with wide, comfortable booths, seating for large parties, and hip touches like artist David Zinn’s rotating chalkboard drawings. And he’s unafraid to take on a huge menu, with twenty-eight types of pancakes, waffles and French toasts—not including seasonal specials. Nick’s also features omelettes, skillet breakfasts, and more traditional breakfast specialties.
Nick’s delivers. Portions are huge and beautiful, and we ate like starving castaways.
The spinach-feta omelette included fresh spinach, tomato, onion, and perhaps just a few too many Kalamata olives. The accompanying hash browns were a massive folded pillow of fluffy flavor and crispy crust.
The cooks take care to put a different spin on the corned beef hash, shredding the potatoes more finely with the corned beef. Heather called it “beautifully caramelized, not too salty; the fried egg was cooked perfectly.” (Frank’s is available to spike it up, along with Cholula and what I call “devil’s spittle,” a.k.a. Tabasco).
A hearty English muffin sat beneath a well-poached egg smothered with buttery Hollandaise. Bacon and sausage were high quality with good flavor, though the bacon was a tad burnt. The coffee was workaday diner fare, good and plentiful.
The star of the show, naturally, was the restaurant’s namesake, in a pecan banana variety, a pancake with the ingredients expertly mixed into a fluffy, tender cake served with maple syrup. Sky gave it “10” across the board.
Sky added, “Friendly staff, customers were loyal, knew people by name. Definitely worth coming back – quintessential diner – scary good!”
(Second place tie, best overall)
1506 N Maple Rd. Ann Arbor, MI 48103
(734) 585-5562 | www.juicykitchen-a2.com
“JK” grew from owner Susan Todoroff’s catering operation and still offers a full catering menu and occasional pop-up dinners, along with its homey café fare. Susan’s target audience is “health conscious foodies.” Her ingredients are fresh and seasonal, her dishes light and bright with flavor. Heather said, “It feels like eating at a friend’s house. I like how balanced and thoughtful all the dishes are.” Lisa coincidentally wrote, “Feels like eating an amazing breakfast at a friend’s house.”
Like Beezy’s, JK does not offer traditional diner fare. So we substituted a breakfast burrito and tempeh hash, as well as other dishes: the omelette was made with seasonal vegetables and white cheddar, and the “Benedict” was really a unique riff with corn cakes with a red pepper goat cheese sauce.
Most everything was delicious. Cynthia rhapsodized about small touches, like the fennel in the fluffy, tender omelette, the big burrito with “homemade salsa with a dash of Brinery hot sauce, served with a salad,” and the whole-grain, healthy and delicious bread from Crust bakery in Fenton. The latter was the basis for the French toast, stuffed with cream cheese, apples and raisins, topped with walnuts and maple syrup. Orange juice is fresh squeezed, and the chicken sausage was outstanding. Coffee is locally roasted at Mighty Good—one free refill.
It was a strain to find misses. The tempeh hash was good but uninspiring. The bacon was bland and slightly burnt. Cynthia theorized: “it might be some kind of natural uncured low salt bacon or something.” Yet on a separate visit, Patti and Ken found the bacon “perfectly cooked.”
Patti also appreciated that Susan recognized her and they had a warm conversation, but it was not as interesting as the conversation at the next table, covering standardized testing, “anti-vaxxers,” trips to Hawaii and Tanzania, mountain climbing, and gluten. This is Juicy Kitchen: quintessentially Ann Arbor, quirky, healthy and delicious.
(Second place tie, best overall)
20 N Washington St. Ypsilanti, MI 48197
734-485-9625 | www.beezyscafe.com
Hard to believe this super-hot breakfast (and lunch) spot is already seven years old. Dynamo owner Bee Roll has nurtured this sunny space into a hub for Ypsilanti’s movers and shakers, a quiet spot to get some work done, or anyone wanting fresh, made-from-scratch breakfasts, bread and baked goods, soups and sandwiches.
Because Beezy’s does not have a traditional breakfast menu, we had to substitute freely. The omelette became the scrambled egg plate, the Benedict was transformed into a breakfast burrito, and the corned beef hash was made with tempeh. Everything was very good to excellent. Lisa said “the eggs were perfectly cooked, soft and flavorful,” and the homemade bread was “buttery and comforting.” She rhapsodized over the burrito: “toothsome and flavorful, the chorizo rocks, homemade salsa!” We also loved the cumin-flecked roasted potatoes, caramelized on the outside, fluffy and tender inside.
Beezy’s has a delicious, proprietary blend of Intelligentsia coffee, but be warned: no free refills. Still, Beezy’s value is excellent, with prices significantly lower than Ann Arbor counterparts. And they offer a variety of hot sauce.
But it’s not just the food; Beezy’s has personality, a je ne sais quoi that makes even waiting in line a fun experience: “People ARE well treated, ARE well fed and ARE very happy. It’s a lovely thing to behold.”
Patti concludes, “I guess my only complaint is that it isn’t closer to my house … but then I would eat there for every meal and my ass would expand all the way to Ypsi.”
1100 Catherine St. Ann Arbor, MI 48104
734-761-8996 | www.angelosa2.com
Angelo’s has been around nearly 60 years. Local music legend Dick Siegel even wrote a song about it: “We’ll go to Angelo’s cause the place really hops, We’ll go to Angelo’s where the service is tops, We’ll go to Angelo’s we’ll be licking our chops.” Weekend brunch lines are long, and with good reason: this is the granddaddy of them all, the standard by which all local diners are measured. If it weren’t for two categories that dragged it down, Angelo’s probably would have edged into a four-way tie for first place.
Its diced, fried potatoes seemed to be an afterthought, and the Paramount institutional coffee blend, while fresh and generously poured, was nothing special. Everything else at Angelo’s was first rate.
Start with the homemade bread. Brad called it “the star of the show,” and Patti termed it “glorious.” The raisin bread is perhaps more famous, but it was the wheat bread that really impressed us—dense and chewy, still warm, with great flavor. Heather always “plans her meals around the bread” when she comes here for breakfast.
That homemade bread is the base for the Eggs Benedict, with a slice of Canadian bacon (or spinach/tomato), a silky Hollandaise, and brilliantly complemented by green pepper. The bread mostly does well as French toast, too, but on two visits the raisin toast was too heavy and dry. Opt for the homemade wheat instead.
Eggs are another specialty of the house. The fresh, runny eggs helped the corned beef hash, and were cooked perfectly in the omelette, with plenty of feta, and fresh spinach. Patti surmised that “a happy chicken shat them from her organic, free-range ass.” The sausage was outstanding, fat, spicy and juicy, and Cynthia found the bacon “cooked perfectly, not too fatty.”
Angelo’s suffers from limited parking, and crowded weekends can be a bit hectic. For the true experience, go on a weekday when it opens at 6am (one of only two diners to open this early), soak up the history, and eat enough to keep you fat and happy through the whole workday.
1015 Broadway St, Ann Arbor, MI 48105
734-995-0965 | www.northsidegrill.com
Anyplace that is raved about by “Roadfood” writers Jane and Michael Stern—and yet doesn’t win our Odyssey—speaks to the exceptional quality of local restaurants. We agree with what Stern called an “elevated consciousness at work in the kitchen.” Northside is a perennial winner in Current’s “Reader’s Choice” awards, and with good reason, as everything is done with just the right touch. They serve cage-free eggs, Roos Roast coffee, home baked goodies, free coffee for those waiting outside on weekends, and warm, personal service from staffers who have become like family.
Northside straddles the divide between a traditional diner and a specialty restaurant. You can get your eggs ‘n’ sides, but there are skillet breakfasts and breakfast sandwiches (like the “Morning Eggdition,” a portion of the sales of which support WEMU). Its menu featured almost all the dishes on our scoresheet, except for Eggs Benedict (we subbed biscuits and gravy). We also skipped the non-homemade corned beef hash, opting instead for the “Big Easy,” an outstanding skillet breakfast with hash browns, vegetables, cheese, andouille sausage and Cajun spice, along with two eggs any way. Cynthia gave it a rare “10.”
Its best known item, the blueberry-oat bran pancakes, is what caused Stern to put this place on the map, and along with the Big Easy, it was our favorite. Sky called the pancakes “the dish to have.”
The dark roast coffee is from Roos Roast, and was the best on our Odyssey, but make sure you ask for it specifically. (“Coffee, please” will get you a fair light blend.) Don’t forget to stop by the counter for a homemade bakery goody for later, like the dense and chewy chocolate-walnut brownies. You’ll see why Current’s readers and Michael Stern rhapsodized, especially if you have the house specialties.
Bomber Restaurant in Ypsilanti is a rich repository of World War II history, honoring the men who served our country overseas, and the women who kept our factories humming. Their collection of model war planes and memorabilia is as astounding as the size of the portions they serve for breakfast. The Food Network once featured their “Bomber Breakfast” on their “Top Five Overindulgences” segment. Their corned beef hash is excellent, and was the best in our Odyssey.
Benny’s in Ann Arbor is the famous locale of swimmer Michael Phelp’s post-workout “Hungry Man” breakfasts, helping him to become the most decorated Olympian of all time (22 medals). Always reliable diner food, we especially recommend the pancakes.
The Broken Egg is the place to see and be seen in downtown Ann Arbor. Owner Gina Pantely once politely declined the advance invitation to host President Obama and his entourage, because she didn’t want to deal with the security, and business was good enough that the publicity was unnecessary.
Uptown Coney Island (Ann Arbor and Chelsea) is more renowned for its Coneys than breakfast, once winning a local paper’s contest for its savory dogs. The restaurant prides itself on its loyalty not only to customers, but to its staff. Breakfasts are filling and satisfying; we especially liked the cinnamon raisin French toast.
What makes a great breakfast experience? Fresh eggs and vegetables, real butter, high quality meats, homemade bread or at least good local bread. Basic touches are critical too, like keeping a clean grill, not letting items burn, and serving them piping hot. Cooks missing steps were a no-no: not draining the spinach for the omelette, failing to properly season items like potatoes, or even not having certain items ready when the restaurant opened. And having plenty of Frank’s hot sauce on hand, of course!
Ambience and service also made a big difference. Was the diner cluttered, or did it offer comfortable seating and accommodate more than a four-top? Was it clean and sunny inside? Did the staff treat you like family, remember who ordered what, keep your coffee filled, and call you “hon?”
Until the next Odyssey, your intrepid seekers leave you with this thought from comedian Steven Wright: “I went to a restaurant that serves “breakfast at any time” so I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” Maybe, just maybe, you can find an experience like that in one of Washtenaw County’s fantastic diners.