The coffee is always ready at The Alley Cafe
I’m in San Francisco’s Easy Bay, spending my last two days in America at my sister’s house, where her hairless cat is addicted to love like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m afraid I’ve only fed his addiction, so I escaped his reaching paws and relentless meows to walk down to the diner my sis recommended.
The booths are thin dark wood frames around ruby-red vinyl benches where butts have been leaving imprints for…years. I tried to find out exactly how many (years, not butts) but found only a facebook page filled with comments like “my grandpa used to take me there when I was young and now I take my son.”
The floor is brick-patterned tiles in shades of coffee with varying amounts of milk, or maybe the range of grease stains found on a cook’s apron. But not this cook. Her shirt is spotless, and the orange of the local baseball team, whose name is on the face of the clock, the framed newspaper clipping by the door, many of the caps scattered among the booths, and is welcome to my eyes in the city of my childhood.
I am the only one who needs to look at the menu, and I bet it’s a large portion of eaters who order “g’morning Marjorie” without needing to add “I’ll have the usual.” I’m only assuming the affable waitress’s name is Marjorie, it could just as easily be Annie, Maggie, or Patty.
Within a minute of my sitting down, a man with some black left in his bushy mustache but none in his paper-white hair brings me the already well-read local newspaper, and everyone at the counter talks to everyone else. Conversation in the Alley Café is the melody above the rhythm of crackling grease.
Laughter is loud while the potbellied man with gaps between his teeth orders his breakfast straight from the cook, French toast, three eggs, and maple bacon, then he goes back to his story about being in the Air Force. That’s pretty close to what I order; my egg is sunny-side up without needing to be specified, the bacon is nice and crisp, and the bread in the French toast is so white it feels like glue before I’m even done chewing, but that’s fine for today.
Syrup comes warm in the little pitcher with the sliding top, filled to the brim and no drips on the front. The bottles of Tabasco sauce are large, and the little packets of jam come in a wicker basket, strawberry, orange marmalade, and Concord grape. I spread their familiar flavors on the toast of my childhood while my grandpa stirred his coffee.
There’s only one cook, and I was warned to be prepared for a long wait for my food, but that seems to be by design in this neighborhood diner, where neighbors catch up and faces are familiar.
48 hours before I leave it, I’ve found America.
Did you take a picture of the storefront? I can almost picture it. Where is it in relation to the donut place?
I didn’t take one, unfortunately. I expected French toast without a side of blog, but was pleasantly surprised. It’s on the other side of the gas station on the corner of San Pablo and Tennant. It’s a pretty unassuming front.
You’ve bested your best! This is a fabulous post of a moment in America. I feel like I just had breakfast with you. My feet feel a slightly slippery grit on the tiles and my legs hurts a tad from the wood-frame in the indented bench seat. The food was glorious, the ambiance pure joy, and the comany? Well, the company was a perfect fit. Thanks for taking us along on your journeys.
Exactly! You’re right on with the slightly slippery floor and little wood ridge. Thanks for reading, and glad you liked it, cuz.
There is a fine line between America and Americana. Sounds like the Alley Cafe swerves back and forth across this line. While your writing is as ever enjoyable, (I am now craving french toast and red vinyl!) because you have some international folks reading this, I hesitate to agree with you that a greasy spoon with a blue collar patina is, in essence, America. It is certainly unique to America, but I wonder how faded that image is. I certainly harbor some nostalgic ideas of Alice and Flo, Arnold’s, and the Denny’s down the street from my youth, but living on the coasts, these kinds of diners seem less and less essential. Can you imagine a new restaurant like these having a successful start these days. Darn you Tim, you have me now thinking about what symbolizes America in a unique and positive way if not the local greasy diner.
By the way, the Alley cafe has been collecting imprints since 1978.
This is a very interesting observation and wish I had thought of it. That being said, to do a little thought experiment on how important the vintage diner is to today’s America, imagine making their existence dissapear in all respects. When I think of this, I get a very different “feel” of America. A cooler one, if you will. I live on the east coast and know that I purposefully seek out vintage diners and there are actually quite a few near me and they seem to do a booming business. When I think of Americana, I think of things that are part of our past and are not thriving today. I think diners are thriving and I also think that there are startup and somewhat older restaurants that have captalized on their ambiance (Johnny Rockets is one, perhaps sad, example). Additionally, I think a certain part of the American spirit is unabashedly retro. Our identity is most certainly strongly influenced by the “values” of the mid-20th century and, in many way is having resurgence (which I don’t necessarily embrace as much as I embrace waffles). I think there is a large contingent of Americans today who are busy polishing off that patina…
Conveniently enough, I agree with everyone. I love it when that happens! (Except maybe not entirely…) I agree, Jack, that there is far more to America (and Americana) than diners, and reducing us to greasy spoons would be a problem (I am very nearly irritated when foreigners ask me if Americans really eat hamburgers every day). I regularly astonish people who ask me which country has the best food by answering “America.” We have excellent examples of just about everyone else’s, plus a few of our own (high five to the Cajuns and Texmex).
And I agree with you, Shirley, that we love our retro culture, where we can wax nostalgic about the good old days when things were easy and we were kings of the world. And before things were commercialized into oblivion. I wasn’t even alive, and I miss that time.
LOL! I hate to admit that I was alive for part of that (at least during the 1960s piece) and I also look back with some nostalgia, but the 1960s was such a socially influential decade that the reality of the social and political upheavals of the time leave my memories somewhat less “easy” than my fantasy nostalgia will readily incorporate. When I enter a diner, my fantasy memories recollect a constructed idealism that just wasn’t so. Thus, I feel like diners and other similar Americana act as touchstones– tethers for us to keep our hearts comforted and tied to our mass self-concept of Home, Motherhood, and Apple Pie. And for the most part, I think that selective memory is a good thing, as long as we keep a place in our hearts for the other lessons and struggles of the times….. (Ok, I’ll quit now… 🙂