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Sunday, 27 May 2012

A Comprehensive Guide to Eating Greasy Breakfast in Peterborough

(Updated 15/04/13)

I am a connoisseur of greasy spoons. Whether they remind me of the places I dined as a child, or whether I picked up a fascination watching film noir and reading Beat fiction, I cannot get enough. Bacon, eggs, potatoes and toast are not only a one hundred percent effective hangover cure, they are also North America's single greatest contribution to world cuisine. Wherever I travel, I keep an eye open for those out-of-the-way nooks that look like they haven't changed a thing in decades, and that goes double for my home turf. With that in mind I present to you this survey, comprehensive to the best of my knowledge, of the greasy breakfasts available in Peterborough.

After more than two years, I am finally publishing my results. Still, this is not a survey of all the breakfasts in Peterborough. To save time and keep costs down, I have limited my search to only places serving bacon, eggs, potatoes and toast, although I did not consider it unscientific to occasionally  order eggs Benedict instead. Very occasionally, when I arrived long after noon, I substituted a reuben (I am also a connoisseur of reuben sandwiches). Although I fancy my palette reasonably sophisticated, food quality was not the only criteria by which I made my judgments. Equally important to the success or failure of a greasy spoon is the quality of quintessence - whether it evokes a sense of dinerly "rightness" or just seems drab, neuter, or contrived. Nostalgia is a huge factor, but any diner attempting to exploit it outright received a punitively low grade. Service is also a consideration, and must be either very friendly or amusingly surly to receive full marks. With that in mind, I present to you my findings.

N.B: the term "greasy" is not a pejorative when used in this sense. "Greasy breakfast" is simply shorthand for bacon, eggs, potatoes and toast, and I mean no offensive to the chefs who serve it up!

1. The East City Coffee Shop: The undisputed reigning champion of the Peterborough breakfast scene. The 'Shop receives maximum points for a quintessential vibe streets ahead of the competition, further enhanced by the banter of the Albanian proprietors, which contains a very real note of passive aggression towards each other and occasionally their clientele. It doesn't get in the way of their serving up a killer breakfast, which includes hands down the thickest bacon in town, a generous helping of their distinctive, spiced-to-perfection potatoes, and lovely runny yolks that erupt from the over-easy eggs when you pierce them with a corner of toast.

Note this is not the cheapest breakfast on the list, but you get what you pay for. Nitpickers might deduct marks for this diner's practice of charging for coffee by the cup, rather than offering free refills. I don't like it either, but in my mind it's made up for by the fact that the place is nearly always full of patrons who never seem to leave. They sit on their stools reading newspapers and ask questions like, "How's Hal today?" "Just fine Gary, how are you?" You can't put a price on that.

Note this place is sometimes mistakenly called "The East City Diner."

2. The Only Cafe: Not exactly a greasy spoon, this trendy joint is nonetheless a Sunday morning standby. More than that, depending on who you ask, the Only is either a hub of Peterborough cultural life, or a cesspool of malicious gossip. Either way, their "Cowboy Breakfast" is one of the few to offer the East City Coffee Shop any real competition, and they make a hell of an eggs Benedict, too (if you opt for the eggs Benedict, get the salad option with it, it makes the plate look a lot less lonely). Unquestionably the place to go if it's a nice day and you want to eat outside, but don't go if you're already starving. It can take up to an hour to get your meal, and woe betide the customer who hurries the staff. The dumpster out back is filled with their dismembered remains.

Friendly and obliging staff do work there, but the reputation is not exactly undeserved. Rebecca once ordered without specifying how she liked her eggs, and the waitress replied, "Details, I need details!"

3. Mark's Finer Diner: Technically this place is outside of the Peterborough city limits, but no list of this kind would be complete without it. Go for their "Breakfast Marché," served Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays. You can watch a real chef make your omelet to order, or just keep ordering rounds of eggs Benny until you burst. There is also a vat of comingled breakfast meats (the usual suspects - bacon, sausage and ham), a waffle bar, all the potatoes you can eat, and various other goodies such as croissants and fruits. The impression is that they genuinely care about serving up a good breakfast, and at $9.99 you can't really go wrong.

There is so much interest on the walls you can feast  your eyes as well on bow and arrows, mounted muskies, and old road signs. I've had to deduct a few marks for quintessence that occasionally goes too far, though. In one booth there is a sign that says "Sexual Harassment Will Not Be Reported; However, It Will Be Graded," and in the bathroom there is a poster listing "Ten Reasons It's Great to Be a Guy."

Queensway Restaurant (685 The Queensway): After the East City Coffee Shop, the Queensway earns the highest marks in quintessence. If I ever shoot a movie about the converging life stories of a hardscrabble trucker, a preacher who just stole $100,000, a returning war vet in love with the struggling single mom who works double shifts as a waitress, the worst bowling team in the league fighting to finally win that trophy, a plumber addicted to back pain meds, a dignified deaf mute and a brilliant blogger, I'm going to shoot it in here. I can forgive a lot for quintessence, including a breakfast which isn't really in the same league as some of the best on this list. Everything was good, but our potatoes were dark brown verging on black. They didn't taste burnt, and it's possible we hit it on an off bad day.

The Queensway also earns the distinction of having the highest marks for service on this list. Rebecca and I noticed the welcoming vibe as soon as we walked in, and later we heard a member of a weekly breakfast club sing the praises of Pam, the best waitress in town. She deserves an award of some kind, because said breakfast club changed joints just to follow her. We also liked that the place was full to bursting even though it's in the middle of nowhere.

Docker's: On the surface, there's nothing to Docker's that sets it apart from competition, but Rebecca and I have been back several times. Maybe that's because it's kind of a median diner, meeting all the criteria with a pleasing unpretentiousness and serving good eats cheap. If you're just looking for a place to pass a quiet Sunday or nurse a hangover without in-your-face kitsch and snappy banter, try Docker's. You'll command a magnificent view of heavy traffic on Landsdowne St., a view so bleak it almost seems soothing.

Fifties Good Time Cafe (590 Monaghan Rd): Usually abbreviated to "The Fifties Cafe," I knew I would like this place as soon as I saw the "Good Time" on the sign outside. It's not a quintessential diner, more like a shrine. There's a good helping of authentically old furniture, along with posters of more recent vintage showing sockhoppin' teenagers. The effect isn't overwhelming, but it manages to be tacky and sweet as opposed to corporate and contrived. I seem to remember a steady stream of doo-wop coming over the radio.

I was prepared to put this baby in the top five, but unfortunately the breakfast didn't really impress. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but the meagre serving of potatoes forced me to steal from the plates of others. Prices are fair, though. I'd recommend this place to diner completists and anyone drawn to roadside attractions.

P.S: Know why it's called a sock hop? Because they used to make kids take off their shoes so they wouldn't scrape the gymnasium floor with their crazy dance moves.

Two Fifty Cafe (250 Sherbrooke St): Granted I visited this place a long time ago, but I don't remember much about it and I have a suspicion that's not my fault. Neither the decor nor the food make a statement you'll remember ten minutes after you leave. There's a rumour going around that breakfast is only two fifty a plate, but I'd encourage anyone who's spread it to look at the address.

Smitty's (139 George St. N): Even though Smitty's is close to our house, Rebecca and I left Smitty's until near the end of our explorations. It exudes a Corporate Family Restaurant atmosphere antithetical to what a good diner should really be all about. Still, it's the only place we've had to wait for a table. The designers have done a fairly good job of using freestanding brick walls to break up a huge space into something that feels reasonably private, but the shades of paint everywhere else will suck the life out of you. The best part of Smitty's is undoubtedly the menu, which is full of pictures of people having screeching laughing fits at packed tables or spoonfeeding each other eggs. It gives the impression they are working very hard to be as good as Denny's.

Unfortunately, the high cost of models has driven up prices, because everything in the menu is at least three dollars more expensive than anywhere else. I had the eggs Benedict, and they served it with a few potatoes on a plate so large I felt a distinct tug of horror vacui. Their only other interesting practice is leaving a carafe of coffee on the table, which is good if you are fiending but bad if you are looking for forced banter or trying to see how many extra cups you can squeeze out of the waitress before she starts avoiding your table.

Captain George's Fish and Family Restaurant (91 George St. N): I might not go far out of my way for a plate of Captain George's, but as far as breakfast joints go it has cornered the tacky nautical niche. The deals are so irresistible I was compelled to order three eggs, a thing I never do. Something about those checkered tablecloths always inspires me to be lavish.

Incidentally, if you're looking for fish and chips in faux-maritime surroundings, I'd say Jeff Purvey's has it over the old Captain (I can't do a complete survey of fish and chips restaurants, my gut won't handle it).

The Aviemore (398 McDonnel St): The Aviemore has the air of quintessence, but nothing you can really hang your hat on. When I visited it had a fresh coat of paint and the decorations were fashionably neuter. I arrived late in the day so I ordered a reuben instead, and although I've never met a reuben I didn't like, I had to slather each bite with mustard before it really started to savour. To me the Aviemore seemed to typify an all-too-common Ontarian belief that strong flavour is to be mistrusted. Several people I know speak affectionately about the Aviemore, though, so it probably deserves a second chance.

The Monaghan Cafe (1017 Monaghan Rd): The Monaghan Cafe reminds me of the Aviemore, one rung further upscale. The colour scheme is dark instead of light, and the wall hangings - flowers in bloom - are a tad more distinctive. It's not indispensable in terms of atmosphere, but I did find it cozy enough and appreciated that the Hollandaise sauce on my eggs Benny was spicy. I think if were with a group of family and friends and didn't know how deeply their taste for quintessence ran, I'd steer them towards the Monaghan Cafe.

Starlight Dining Lounge (809E Chemong Rd): I confess that I came to the Starlight long after dark, so its inclusion on the breakfast list is not entirely fair. I don't care, I can't go back. When we first slid into the booth we giggled over our find because it seemed to have quintessence in spades, right down to the Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling tiles that should've long since come down. The longer we watched, however, and saw the wheezy clientele undo their pants to fit another bite of Salisbury steak, or shuffle past the counter to grab a fistful of mints as they made for the door, the more the atmosphere became indistinguishable from a retirement home cafeteria. As this form of squalor began to seem my ultimate fate as well I found less and less joy in my reuben. When I went to bathroom, the most featureless I have ever seen, I noticed someone had scrawled the single solitary word "Penis" on the new paint beside the hand dryer. Not recommended.

Speakeasy Pub and Eatery (362 George St. N): I wanted to like the Speakeasy more than I did. It's right downtown, a little scruffy but not unsanitary, and an odd shape. You may not notice the latter until you actually enter, because the windows make it hard to see in. There seems to be some nascent Prohibition theme, but it is confused by artwork featuring roosters and fat Italian chefs that gives you the lurking suspicion you've seen it before in other restaurants. The service is friendly, the coffee flows, but the fries are freezer fresh, and that I cannot forgive. A completist will enjoy their stay, but anyone in Peterborough for the weekend could do better.

The Old Henhouse Country Kitchen (597 Monaghan Rd): This is another seemingly-out of the way joint that packs 'em in like you'd never expect. If I were to remove my food critic's cap and don my anthropologist's hat, I could fill pages wondering about the breakfast rituals of Ontarians. Unfortunately I'm still dressed as a food critic, and I didn't like the Old Henhouse much. Because it was so crowded, Rebecca and I got a table by a noisy standing fan and a freezer the cook was constantly opening and closing. Unlike the Only Cafe, which justifies long wait times with a relaxed environment, I just wanted my greasy breakfast but it was long in coming. The meal was fine when it came, but with so many other options I think we'll leave the Old Henhouse to its stalwart regulars.

The Hide-A-Way (540 Romaine St.): Although we usually pass over the Hide-A-Way in favour of some of the heavy hitters on this list, it's a nice joint and worth your time. Like Dockers, the quintessence won't strike you in the face when you first come in, but it is genuine and cozy. They offer a potato casserole option in addition to the usual hashbrowns that's pretty tasty, and your breakfast won't break the bank.

Thurston's (769 Lock St.): It took us awhile before we discovered Thurston's, but it turned out to be worth the wait. Like the Old Henhouse or the Queensway, locals come out of the woodwork every weekend for breakfast. The owners have personalized the quintessence with a hockey shrine along one wall, and in general the vibe is casual and lived-in. The meal didn't quite challenge the top three, but the ingredients were quality and the plating harmonious.

Charlotte Anne's (390 Queen St): Charlotte Anne's is located in by far the nicest building on this list, a renovated old brick home with high ceilings, soft lighting and rich old wood. Every order comes with a complementary side of treacle, served on the walls in the form of inspirational quotes such as "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take out breath away," "A day is lost... Without Laughter," and "To Enjoy the True Flavour of Life Take Big Bites." The quotations are nothing if not upbeat, but so prescriptive they begin to feel oppressive and cheapen the elegance of a stately old building. Whatever quibbles I have with the decoration, Charlotte Anne's is undone by its freezer fries - you simply cannot to expect to top this list without making your own homefries. Although we couldn't say for sure, we strongly suspected that our gnarly, dried-up bacon had been deep-fried. I won't be back for the food, but at least I know where to go when I need my fix of motherly platitudes.

Van Veen's (190 Simcoe St.): Van Veen's gets a bad rap because it's inside the bus station. To fans of quintessence, however, that's a major plus. Inside, it has all the right trappings for your last meal before catching that Greyhound to the great unknown. It also scores big on service - for awhile we though the waiter was just a friendly fellow patron, until he finally asked us for our order. We liked the homefries, which were served with tomatoes and green pepper. If you like the East City Coffee Shop but aren't in the mood for caustic banter, Van Veen's might be your next best bet.

Planet Bakery (374 Water St.): The Planet doesn't really qualify for a spot on this list, but in fairness to my vegetarian friends I decided to include it. The Planet has bold, funky decor with a strong Mexican influence, and the vintage touches are the real deal. If my ethics or digestion prohibited me from enjoying some of the other breakfasts on the list, I'd be at the Planet all the time. You'll pay a little more than most of the places on this list, but get it back in food, atmosphere, and service.

The Whistle Stop Cafe (141 Charlotte St.): I have been told that the Whistle Stop serves a good breakfast, but truth to tell I haven't had it. I have been in after last call, when the place fills up with jostling, vomiting drunkards lined up for a bucket of poutine. You can get "gourmet" poutines with toppings like marshmallows, smoked meat, and ravioli, but most of it ends up in the garbage cans and doorways of George St fifteen minutes later. To be fair, this has very little to do with the Whistle Stop and much to do with hard-drinking culture, and a city needs places for late night eats. That said, the nacho poutine I had once was an error in judgment, and one I'm not ready to forgive quite yet.

Wimpy's (228 Charlotte St): I was prepared to dislike Wimpy's far more than I actually did. Being a chain, I figured I would be force-fed a sanitized nostalgia along with a little processed meat. Instead, they brought me a hearty eggs Benny with a side of real potatoes, and they were quite friendly about it. The signage that covers every surface is gimmicky, but there is enough of it to keep you occupied for some time, and a few good surprises. If you had a mind to, I suppose you could eat in a different booth every day and take it all in a little at a time. As far as chains go, Wimpy's is streets ahead of Smitty's.

PJ's Diner (Somewhere on Highway 7): This place is a little ways out of town, but on a route we drive often to visit our families. Eventually we succumbed to the temptation and pulled over, into the little gas station-cum-diner on 7. PJ is obviously enamoured of Wimpy, because he has copped the latter's decor and thin-sliced potato recipe. Having fewer zany signs means that the kitsch is a little more strained, and I docked marks for one sign with faux rust around its edges. I started wondering if diners actually looked like this in the fifties, before everything had faded and warped, then I began to wonder if people sixty years ago were really this infatuated with advertisements. I did chuckle at one sign that said "Coffee: If Your Hands Aren't Shaking, You Need Another Cup," or something to that effect, and you can't deny the quintessence of a diner on an open stretch of highway. The meal was good, and as an added bonus on your way home from PJ's you can stop at Nostalgic Journey antiques emporium, which is the place to go if you need a hurricane lantern or vintage cattle dehorner.

Pete's Subs and Burgers (241 George St. N): Pete's has an attractive sign out front, and abstract art hangs on the walls inside. These little flourishes are nice but don't quite jive with the rest of the ambiance. The place is quite large, but I've never seen it fill up. The few clientele we saw sat alone looking unhappy. The chef was friendly, however. Breakfast is cheap and can be customized at about fifty cents per item for those who are really minding their pennies, but is served on a styrofoam plate with plastic cutlery. I was tempted, but did not order, the "chicken caeser." While you wait for your food you can amuse yourself with the aging arcade game, Police Trainer, which challenges you to shoot pixelated targets with blue and red light guns. We played, and the lefthand slot inexplicably cost more quarters than the right. There is a genuine type of quintessence to Pete's, but maybe not one you need to pay for, at least not if you've ever sat in a bus terminal before.

Piccadilly Restaurant (1080 Lansdowne St. W): The Piccadilly advertises an all-day breakfast, which I suppose is appropriate because the setting isn't really right for the early morning. It's quite dark inside, the better to show off their nifty hanging lamps. Apart from those, and a salad bar along one wall, there isn't really much to hang your hat on. I ordered the eggs Benedict, which came with the stingiest serving of Hollandaise sauce I've ever had, maybe a tablespoon between two English muffins. Chefs be warned - if you do that to me, you're bound to get flamed on mattsnellmusic.com. The waitress also asked how I liked my eggs and what kind of toast I wanted with it, which should've been my clue they were clueless. Nothing was terrible about the place, but I'd have to think hard for a reason to go back.

Kelly's Cafe (1135 Lansdowne St. W): A better option for people stuck on Lansdowne in the AM is Kelly's, though the form it's quintessence takes may be too hardcore for some. There's virtually nothing on the walls, and the couple that were working when I was there were getting on in years, to the point I felt a little guilty asking them to wait on me. There were almost no customers when I went in, and they turned on the radio after I arrived. To relieve the emptiness I bought a paper and read up on the events of the day, so at least I left the place a little wiser. Breakfast was decent but nothing remarkable - some chewy bacon and slightly overcooked eggs, but at least the homefries showed they were still trying. 

Champ's (203 Simcoe St.): I avoided this place for a long time because of a disgusting exchanging I saw outside of it once. A drunken woman in a red shirt was sitting cross-legged on the front stoop, barfing into her lap. A man stumbling out of the bar nearly tripped over her, and seized the opportunity to ask, "Hey red shirt, wanna breed?" That wouldn't have been consensual or evolutionarily advisable, so I waited until the girl's friends came to her rescue before I continued home.

That little exchange made we wonder what exactly went on inside Champ's, but I never found out until a freak April ice storm knocked out our power. Rebecca and I hadn't had coffee or breakfast yet, so we braved the storm in search of a hot meal. The electricity was out in every block south of Simcoe, so Champ's was the first establishment we came to that was open. I was relieved to find it was kind of nice inside. Sports bars aren't my thing, but this one didn't have the kind of barren corporate atmosphere I've come to expect. The servers were friendly, and apparently on good terms with the clientele - our waitress asked the man at the next table, "Are we having beer or water today?"

The breakfast came with french fries instead of homefries, which disqualifies Champ's from serious competition. The cook hadn't quite managed to get the eggs over easy on any of his four tries, but he sprinkled them with some herbs to make up for it. I wouldn't go back for the breakfast, but I might consider going for a sporting event. Fingers crossed Canada makes it into the international axe-throwing finals.

Square Plates (836 Armour Rd): We checked this place out on the recommendation of a friend who said it specialized in Eastern European cuisine. I was ready to brunch on a bowl of fresh goulash, but the breakfast menu was strictly in the Canadian style. I asked to see the lunch menu, and the waitress handed me a flyspecked list of the same type of fare. I figured the specialties must be hiding under "Brunch Special," so I asked about that. The waitress said, "He doesn't do that anymore... the menus are pretty old." So we went with good old eggs and bacon. It did the trick, but didn't impress - the potatoes were glistening with oil, and the coffee was a bit sour. The owner obviously does care, because he came over to our table to apologize for running out of peameal bacon, and explained it was because he special orders a low-sodium variety. We overheard him telling the table next to us how he prepares gluten-free fish and chips. Unfortunately, Rebecca said her elbows were sticking to the table, and the atmosphere was pretty lifeless. The menu claims they chose the name Square Plates because "they do things a little differently," but we couldn't find much evidence to support that. And the edges on the plates are rounded, anyway.

Conclusion:

If your breakfast ritual has begun to stagnate, I hope I have provided you with a few fresh ideas. Likewise, if you're from out of town, I hope I have inspired you to visit Peterborough one bright morning and sample our eggs and bacon. I have tried to be as thorough as possible, as well as ruthlessly honest, but if I have missed a spot please let me know ASAP and I will rush to correct my mistake. I feel a bit empty now that my quest is over, and I'd be thrilled to know there's still another greasy breakfast waiting for me somewhere I haven't tried...

7 comments:

  1. Hey. As a greasy spoon breakfast fan, this post was a great read. Some places I gotta try. However, you missed one great place: the Monaghan Café, 1017 Monaghan, just north of the RR tracks. Great eggs benny. Enjoy!

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    1. Ah, sorry. Somehow I missed that middle section of the post when scanning through. Sorry about the oversight.

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  2. Thanks, I should probably up my rating on the Monaghan anyway. I've been back again for the eggs Benny, and it's one of the best in town.

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  3. There's new owners at The Hide-A-Way restaurant on Romaine St now. They're British and offer an English breakfast at the end of every month! Worth a look!

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  4. As a greasy spoon fanatic arriving from Toronto in 08 my wife and I were eager to try out the local fair. So, I do agree with most of your referrals. Last Sunday we took the kids to Southside Pizza as we had viewed their web site offering free children's breakfast. The interior was clean and the owner was nice. The food was fresh and the portions were flinstonian. However, when paying the kids meal was not free so, I guess they are guilty of false advertising...

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  5. That is the first I heard that Charlotte Anne's serves freezer fries. It must be the new owners. When I worked there many moons ago, one of my jobs was to grab a 50 pound bag of potatoes, clean the potatoes and put them through a potato press. The burgers were fresh ground beef and the salad dressings were home made. I will be disappointed to see that they don't have fresh cut fries any more. Fresh and home made food is what made this restaurant popular.

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