On a recent trip to New York I skipped the expensive breakfast at my hotel each morning and instead went around the corner to a perfectly good-enough diner. The menu there seemed to have changed little in decades, and I found it funny that the words “health” and “healthy” were always doled out with a scoop of cottage cheese for lumpy punishment. That cottage cheese healthified a bunless hamburger, a salad and even an egg-white omelet.
I can’t imagine a life of egg white and cottage cheese omelets is one worth living, but I guess I shouldn’t knock it until I try it.
Still, it bums me out that restaurants ghettoize the healthier options on their menus behind a wall of veiled contempt and medical data through which no joy or flavor can pass. Isn’t it possible to find a meal dense with good nutrients and appropriate caloric content that also tastes good going down and ends with a feeling of satiety? Call me crazy, but I don’t think we’re talking the holy grail of face-stuffing here.
In fact, come and have breakfast with me at Rise -n- Dine, and I’ll show you how it’s done. This Emory Village diner not only serves one of the most sensible morning menus in town, but also one of the best. It does so with real hospitality, good ingredients and smart, out-of-the-box ideas about how to start the day.
Owner Stephanie Panek, who opened shop four years ago, sets a friendly stage. The room is a little kitschy retro (but not too too), with rose-pattered blue tablecloths, old furniture and a dress dummy tucked into the corner. Bright morning light floods the room. If you’re breakfasting with a newspaper for company, enter through the rear door from the parking lot and you’re sure to find a stool along the counter that fronts the kitchen. You’ll have a cup of fantastic Counter Culture coffee ($2) in your hands in seconds flat.
I crush hard on the standard breakfast ($6) that begins with two eggs any style (including a reliably soft scramble). But here’s the fun part: The two sides range from toast to biscuits with (great homemade) jam or gravy, to pancakes, hummus, sliced tomatoes, vanilla yogurt, grilled Indian flatbread and roasted sweet potato.
But wait, there’s more. For a surcharge of 50 cents, you get to choose a premium side from List B, which means bacon, a fine homemade chicken sausage, a grilled chicken breast, mixed berries, granola, a croissant and sage-quinoa grits that I always order and always want to bury my face in. The only thing missing from this list is cottage cheese.
Are you with me? Whatever your diet, your bent, your personal weirdness, there’s a breakfast plate for you. And I’m not going to bore you (any more than I normally do) with talk of “Quinoa: Nature’s Miracle Grain!” or “incorporate more vitamin-rich orange vegetables into your diet” or “a high-protein breakfast will provide the best energy for another day of slogging in front of a computer.” This is all tacit. But you get the idea, right? You get to customize, and there’s none of that potatoes-and-toast-with-every-order thing going on. You eat purposefully here.
But I must stress: This is no health-food restaurant but an actual diner. Remember, there’s bacon — good crisp/chewy bacon — and huge pancakes with enough syrup to drink, should you care to.
The buttermilk pancakes are certainly fine, but I’m a fan of the house specialty sweet potato pancakes ($2.50 for one, $4.50 for two, $6 for three). Thin, crisp-edged and dense, they pack a lot of flavor. Pancake purists will call them gummy; sweet potato pie fans will have a new favorite breakfast. I much prefer these pancakes to the dry, chewy and seemingly reheated buttermilk waffle ($4.95) I tried.
Rise -n- Dine satisfies all my sundry morning food cravings, and when I flip through the menu I usually have an aha moment. Yep, I want nothing more than the AM tacos ($5.50) with individual, bursty black beans and pepperjack cheese scrambled right into those soft eggs. For a final touch, the flour tortillas that cradle the eggs are crisped on the grill. This joint often gets that right final touch that makes a plain-sounding dish memorable.
It also gets that no diner is pickier than an American facing breakfast, and so the house granola and oatmeal are infinitely customizable to particular likes and dislikes. Sliced bananas, dried cranberries and 2% milk? Done!
The restaurant serves lunch, and I like it fine. “Mediteritos” ($7.75) bring two tubes of hummus, feta, cucumbers and olives rolled in Indian roti bread like fusion taquitos. Better is the Polish pierogi bowl ($8.95) with caramelized onions, apples and a small dollop of sour cream that you will parse out bite by bite. All these ingredients figure into a breakfast omelet that I’ve never been hungover enough to consider ordering.
Panek has tried to extend the diner’s hours to dinner a couple of times, but it never caught on with patrons. She has also, sadly, decided to retire the seasonal dishes, such as the weirdly wonderful farm-to-table omelet. Most recently it arrived stuffed with mounds of shredded parsnip and carrot.
OK, you may not share my enthusiasm for parsnip omelets. But I’m sure you will be thrilled with the standard breakfast, customized to your needs. And I bet you will choose a healthy breakfast without even thinking about it — the kind of breakfast that will get your day off to a brilliant start. Try the sweet potato. Trust me on this.RISE -N- DINE 1565 N. Decatur Road, 404-377-4407 Food: Breakfast diner fare with more healthy options than you might imagine Service: Always excellent, though the kitchen does back up a little Best dishes: AM tacos, pierogi bowl, sage-quinoa grits, any of the egg dishes Vegetarian selections: Out the wazoo Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover Hours: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday Children: Fine Parking: In lot behind building and on the street Reservations: No Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Can get pretty noisy when the place is full Patio: No Takeout: Yes