The 6-Question Breakfast-Diner Litmus Test

I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert when it comes to breakfast diners. I’ve been to enough of them in my life to know what to look for and to know when a place is outstanding and when a place is merely treading water. I have come up with a list of questions I ask myself to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak.

It’s important to know that while these rules apply to breakfast/brunch time only, they come with a caveat – if a place is willing to put the time and effort to make a great breakfast, they are just as likely to place that same level of effort for their lunches and dinners. The converse is also true. If a place phones it in at breakfast, that philosophy likely seeps into the rest of the day at that restaurant.

So here it is – the six questions you should ask of the restaurant when having breakfast at the diner.

  1. Do they have a good cup of coffee?: This should be a no-brainer. Coffee is waking-up juice. If a place can’t even met the minimal requirements of a decent cup of American Joe (Drip coffee that doesn’t sit in the grounds for too long) then they deserve to lose customers.
  2. Do they make their own pastry products?: Some restaurant owners might balk at this requirement, as an in-house bakery is another cost that most would rather not be on the hook for. My response? Tough. The better diners I have been to in this country all had some semblance of an in-house bakery. Would they make english muffins? No. But most made their own breads, pies, and sweet rolls.
  3. Do they take or know how to take egg requests?: Nothing ruins a breakfast more than ordering a soft boiled egg or a soft poached egg, and then being disappointed when the breakfast arrives with the yolk as hard as a rock. Eggs are one of those items that demand personal preference. Those of us who like our yolks runny know the risks involved, and for the most part, we don’t care. We want what we want. If your local state or city bans you from selling runny eggs, it should say so on your menu.
  4. Did they pay attention to their hash? Hash is one of those dishes that can demonstrate a fair amount of creativity and passion. I’ve had hash made with carne asada, I’ve had some made so spicy that your eyes could run, I’ve had some who used freshly sliced potatoes. It is always a let down when I see hash come to the table that was made from the canned variety. It’s obvious and impossible to hide this fact. Using canned hash screams to me that the restaurant just doesn’t care.
  5. Is there variety in their pancakes, french toast, and waffles?: I am an egg and meat breakfast person. However, I do recognize that there is a fair bit of the population who prefer a battered breakfast. Often times diners do not make that same recognition. So while they may offer eighteen different versions of egg breakfasts, when you turn to the pancake page, there may only be one option – pancakes. This is a shame, as there is so much one can do with the battered breakfasts.
  6. Does it look like they gave thought to their potato options?: I’ve brought this up before, I know, but potatoes are the one item often ignored by the restaurant. Many places I’ve been to simply buy a bag of pre-shredded potatoes and then put way too many of them on the plate. But potatoes shouldn’t be there to simply take up space. Shredded potatoes are good. Shredded potatoes topped with onions and cheese, or diced tomatoes or salsa, or mixed with bits of bacon are all MUCH better, and all easily doable with ingredients on hand. The better diners I’ve been to seem to know this intuitively, and I’m always amazed by the amount of places who clearly don’t consider the potato side as anything more than starch on the plate. Fried potatoes deserve better than that.

If a restaurant answers these questions in the affirmative, there is a great chance that it’s, at the very least, a place with potential. Almost all of the greasy spoon breakfast joints that I prefer can answer at least four of these questions in the affirmative. Additionally, once a restaurant realizes that eggs, potatoes, and battered dishes are all the perfect outlet for creativity, new menu items invariably follow. But for me, unless they at least consider the above questions, they simply will not get that far.