Not Just Coffee: In Search of the Best Breakfast

Which of four local eateries has the best menus and atmosphere? Our intrepid Zack makes a Pick.

We’ve all had amazing dinners and scrumptious lunches, but only a fool denies that breakfast is the best meal of the day.

Do we always acknowledge its greatness? Of course not. For most of us, our morning sustenance usually consists of yogurt or a donut. Perhaps this is why, when we get the chance for a breakfast or brunch of restaurant proportions, it seems like the best thing ever. Fluffy french toast, perfect eggs, fresh-squeezed juice – whether they be a hangover cure or the start to a leisurely Sunday, we are hooked.

Charged with the task of naming the best breakfast around, I loosened my belt, grabbed the Datebook’s crossword, and brought my appetite to four of our area's best brunch spots. Warning: What follows may make you hungry.

, San Anselmo

There are many choice dishes one could use as the control for gauging a restaurant’s breakfast. In my time as a breakfast eater, I’ve found that hash browns are an excellent bellwether. You may get home fries, slices of potato, or true hash browns, in all their greasy magnificence. The latter is true at Hilda’s, downtown San Anselmo’s beloved diner. A nearly perfect square of fried joy fills most of the plate and, oh yeah, it tastes divine.

Hilda’s is comical, featuring the same “specials” every day I have eaten there. The thing is, though, that their specials, along with the rest of their menu, are superb, so I really see no need to toy with perfection. Runny eggs, big crispy strips of bacon and a solid supporting cast of lunch options for the misguided bruncher are all available. The coffee is strong and seemingly refilled after a single sip by a staff of delightfully funny and wisened women. Truly the waitresses at Hilda’s are as much a reason to go as the food – they’ll remember you, call you “honey” or “sweetie”, and make the kind of small talk that I would suppose used to be a staple of the diner experience.

Bonus points: Hilda’s isn’t cash only anymore! Oh glorious day. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to waddle down to the after consuming my body weight in swedish pancakes to finagle a couple twenties from the ATM. Now the mandatory digestion period that follows a meal here will no longer to be interrupted.

Two Bird Café, San Geronimo

In contrast to the day-in, day-out menu at Hilda’s, the Two Bird is ripe with seasonal specials and delicious one-offs. During your drive out to the Valley try not to fixate too hard on what your stomach may already be set on ordering, because undoubtedly something on the specials menu is waiting to challenge it.

It would be somewhat overstating things to call the Two Bird gourmet dining, but, in comparison to the other places reviewed in this column, it certainly comes the closest. A lovely décor warms the interior, while outside seating is always recommended if weather allows.

Whenever I venture out to the Two Bird, I’m always compelled to forgo the breakfast options I usually stick to: the standard egg breakfast or, yes, french toast. The original options available to diners truly make ordering something common a bit of a mistake. My recommendation? Try the shrimp avocado omelet, the perfect mix of California and brunch. If you do hanker for starch, make sure you splurge on the real maple syrup. As far as hash browns go, this restaurant opts for the more refined russet potato spread, which is tasty but short of Hilda’s perfection.

, Fairfax

Often the simple breakfast menu can be all a hungry weekender needs, which is exactly what the Barefoot Café provides. Standard fare done well is the name of the game, with a few highlights. I may be in my twenties now, but I will always look fondly on any restaurant that offers Mickey Mouse pancakes on the kids’ menu. How the shape of a pancake can change its taste remains a mystery, but rest assured eating Mickey's ear is a youngster right of passage.

Speaking of pancakes (which it seems I always am), Barefoot has the largest selection of all the places I visited. From a pear-almond pancake to a banana-pecan waffle, the list is bountiful and tempting, definitely meriting repeat visits.

The hash browns are sadly reduced to the “country home fries” variety, which are certainly healthier but, again, not Hilda’s. Points must be added for the inclusion of the always-amazing tortilla scramble omelets, which celebrates the textural decadence of eggs and crunchy tortilla strips. This dish is certainly not for a recovering stomach, but a must try for dedicated breakfast patrons. Lastly, the Barefoot has perhaps the best cup of coffee around, which is always an excellent compliment to a hearty first meal.

, San Anselmo

My childhood breakfasts were often eaten here with the inspired concoctions of a seven-year-old, like a cheeseburger with a hot chocolate. As a more refined eater, I take comfort in the Easy Street mentality – quick, decent food. The ambience has been somewhat shattered since , so inside dining is now a safer bet.

While inside, one will almost certainly notice that a solid fifth of the space is devoted to a well-stocked child’s play area. I do not have any children, but I can speak to any readers who might when I say that Easy Street is the best restaurant around for taking young diners. Not only is the staff highly accommodating, but the play area is off-the-charts. Parents may find that the concept of a leisurely brunch is fantasy with a little one in tow, but Easy Street has gone well out of their well to ensure that the tradition of weekend Eggs Benedict can carry on.

On to the food. Easy Street has modest portions at modest prices. Their menu is pretty expected, but they do everything on it well. Again, hash browns are 86’d in favor of “special potatoes,” which begs the question, who’s eating hash browns to be healthy? Can we not let hash browns be for the moments when we choose to trash our bodies without attempting to modify them to conform to the new standards of organic and nutritious eating? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of organic and nutritious - just not in food that’s never going to legitimately embody those characteristics. Easy Street is not the chief culprit, but simply another mirror reflecting our society’s misguided intentions when it comes to melding culinary standards with healthy alternatives. Please, eat salad six days a week. But on that seventh day, when I order hash browns, they better be two notches below a heart attack.

Best Breakfast: Hilda’s, obviously. Even if you don’t like hash browns, this small tribute to old-school greasy spoon cooking is the dictionary definition of everything right about going out for breakfast. Tip well and leave full. But seriously, how can you not like hash browns?!

Bonnie Zaleski October 27, 2011 at 01:27 PM
Hummingbird in Fairfax has amazing breakfast!!!!! I had a crawfish omelette with grits that was one of my favorites.
A October 27, 2011 at 01:31 PM
Three other great ones: Hummingbird, comforts and Woodland cafe in Ross!
A October 27, 2011 at 01:32 PM
Also: Mamas Cafe in mill valley.
A October 27, 2011 at 01:34 PM
I hear you on the hash browns thing. Oh how could I forget...the best breakfast and hash browns are actually at he half day cafe in Ross!
clarise langley October 27, 2011 at 11:26 PM
Easy Street's Special Potatoes are not necessarily healthier than hash browns... The owner and chef does not use frozen shredded potatoes which all of the other places locally do. Easy Street's special potatoes are slow cooked with onions and peppers and garlic then fried on the grill in bacon fat serves with sour cream and green onion.
clarise langley October 27, 2011 at 11:28 PM
Easy Street has the best eggs Benidict in Marin. Hollandaise made from scratch daily!!!!
juanita October 27, 2011 at 11:39 PM
i'm really loving the miracle mile cafe (just west of mcdonalds). the cinnamon swirl french toast is out of this world!
Alex Zwissler October 28, 2011 at 01:41 PM
Zack Ruskin December 08, 2011 at 12:22 AM
I totally need to try out Hummingbird! My apologies for omitting it from my list. Thank you for the hash browns clarification Clarise. I hate to imagine what other assumptions I've made about the healthiness of my food!


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