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Twenty-one years ago in July, having driven 3,000 miles across the country, my sister and I pulled into Berkeley, the end of the line. It was late and we were hungry — not to mention confused by the unfamiliar summer chill. Given that we were in a college town, and also in America, we rolled down the window and asked some pedestrians to point us towards the nearest diner.
“Hmmm,” said one man, stumped. Foggy silence.
“Um, there kind of…aren’t any,” said his friend. And that’s how we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
With come-as-you-are booths, counter service, and satisfyingly cheap, hot coffee, classic diners provide the backdrop almost everywhere else in this country for high school, college, hangovers, family treats, famous movie scenes and every road trip ever. They are simple, homey, chromey refuges for everyone and anyone, and, before the pandemic, usually offered lengthy menus (including a focus on all-day breakfast) morning, noon and into the wee hours of the night.
But even before COVID, the East Bay was a place where a good diner was mysteriously hard to find. An independent, 24-hour joint such as Nikko’s Family Restaurant (RIP) was a local anomaly in a land of fancier cafes. And no, national franchises and faux-retro novelty chains — usually overpriced and overchromed, with no real heart — don’t really count. If you can’t picture Thelma and Louise at a nearby table contemplating next steps, or at the very least a quiet regular in work boots downing biscuits and gravy before their shift, the atmosphere is incorrect.
Thankfully, we do have some local establishments with diner-style appeal — homestyle breakfasts, relaxed service and nostalgic comforts — though after the last two years, there aren’t many left. Along with Nikko’s, a moment of silence please for departed favorites Au Coquelet, Emery Bay Cafe, Tribu, Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe and Albany’s still-dark Royal Cafe, among others. Meanwhile, the following enduring diners proudly offer today’s budget-minded breakfast customers a win-win. And yes, a hearty plate of eggs with a side of old-school charm that’s less than $15 these days is a win.
BUTTERCUP DINER This no-frills family-owned mini-chain has five East Bay locations, with the original founded in 1988 in Jack London Square. The restaurant was a campaign stop for Biden in 2020, just before lockdown, where he ordered a slice of the coconut cream pie. Two eggs and bacon: $13.99. Locations are listed online.
DREAM FLUFF DONUTS Some might not know that cheap diner-style breakfasts are available alongside this Elmwood neighborhood favorite’s tasty doughnuts. Food is mostly to-go but there are a couple of small tables inside. Two eggs, two pieces of bacon and toast: $6.95. 2637 Ashby Ave. (near college), Berkeley
FATAPPLES There’s a soothing dependability to Fatapples’s homestyle, diner-esque atmosphere at both its Berkeley (still open for take-out only, with a limited menu) and El Cerrito restaurants. Pick up a pie to go, trust us. Two eggs with cottage fries at the El Cerrito location: $7.25. 7525 Fairmount Ave. (near Colusa Avenue), El Cerrito and 1346 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (near Rose Street), Berkeley
H & J’S RESTAURANT Offspring to the wonderful Inn Kensington, whose more upscale vibe takes it just shy of this list (but you should go), H & J’s (in the former Nibs property, see below) keeps those housemade biscuits and scrambles in the family but adds a touch more down-homeyness. The spacious back parking lot became a simple, tented patio in COVID; friendly service and great food warm things up. Two eggs, homestyle potatoes and choice of bread, biscuit or tortilla: $9.95. 10841 San Pablo Ave. (near Orchard Avenue), El Cerrito
HOMEMADE CAFE We love this corner neighborhood restaurant’s honest, heartfelt welcome, nourishing cooking and constant little improvements in comfort, such as the updated outdoor seating. Two eggs with homefries, toast and a choice of grits or black beans: $12. 2454 Sacramento St. (near Dwight Way), Berkeley
JIM’S Alameda has an undeniable old-school, family vibe, so it’s no wonder some of the area’s classic diners can be found here. Jim’s is one of the most warm-hearted, no-frills establishments on this list. Two eggs, with hash browns and choice of toast: $10.69. 2333 Lincoln Ave. (near Park Street),Alameda
LAMA BEANS This little cafe on Gilman is on the IYKYK list for savvy diners seeking comfort cuisine. Two eggs with homefries and toast: $9.75. 1290 Sixth St. (at Gilman Street), Berkeley
MAMA’S ROYAL Such a favorite, Mama’s cozy wooden booths and diner-like interior win all the nostalgia awards. Though the atmosphere is down-homey, the breakfast, brunch and lunch fare here is a cut above. Two eggs with homefried potatoes, grits or fresh fruit and choice of toast: $11. 4012 Broadway (near 40th Street), Oakland
NIBS This landmark diner served patrons in El Cerrito until it was closed by a kitchen fire in 2013. It moved to West Oakland during the pandemic, and has established itself as a warm, welcoming spot in that neighborhood. Two eggs with grits, homefries or rice, fresh fruit and choice of bread: $8.45. 3112 Market St. 9near 31st Street), Oakland
OCEANVIEW DINER One of this year’s happier stories, the Oceanview Diner, formerly Bette’s Oceanview, was rescued from closure and became a worker-owned business — and is that much more beloved for it. We know it’s on tony Fourth Street, and often has prices to match, but this pretty, shiny, Berkeley diner has big heart. Two eggs, homefries and choice of toast or pastry: $13.50. 1807 Fourth St. (near Delaware Street), Berkeley
OLE’S WAFFLE SHOP About as vintage as you can get in the Bay, Ole’s opened in Alameda in 1927. The vibe is more 1950s-adjacent though — vinyl, neon, diner mugs, jaunty paper caps and, these days, outdoor seating for COVID-era breakfast and lunch courtesy Wine & Waffles’ covered patio next-door. Waffles, hotcakes, fresh-squeezed juice and good coffee are touchstones here. Two eggs, hash browns or grits, and toast: $10.25. 1507 Park St. (near Santa Clara Avenue), Alameda
ORIGINAL POLLO A classic for sure, old-fashioned diner Original Pollo (“Pollo” or “Pollo’s” to locals) has anchored the corner of Shattuck and Addison in downtown Berkeley since 1986, with its low-slung ceilings, friendly service, ample plates of comfort cuisine, sidewalk tables and breakfast served all day (though the budget-friendly burritos and chicken here might be the bigger stars). Two eggs, homefries and toast or muffin: $9.45. 100 A Berkeley Sq., Berkeley
PARADISE PARK CAFE Hearty cooking, comfortable sidewalk seating and a welcoming, neighborhood atmosphere have kept this airy corner cafe busy, even over the last few years. Two eggs, bacon and tater tots: $8.95. 6334 San Pablo Ave. (near Alcatraz Avenue), Oakland
RICK AND ANN’S One of the greats — often voted the actual greatest — for comfort food, Rick and Ann founded their Oakland restautant in 1989 when they realized how few old-fashioned spots there were around. Cue endless lines of fans — the same fans who eventually helped the restaurant endure the pandemic. Sole remaining owner Ann Lauer also owns Ann’s Catering. Two eggs with homefries and choice of bread: $10. 2922 Domingo Ave. (near Ashby Avenue), Berkeley
SAM’S LOG CABIN This Albany mainstay’s adorable diner interior is too tiny for COVID safety, so customers now enjoy their homestyle specials on the expanded, heated and altogether lovely back garden patio. A longish wait on San Pablo Avenue is part of the experience here, and worth it. Two eggs, potatoes and toast: $11. 945 San Pablo Ave. (near Solano Avenue), Albany
SEQUOIA DINER A fancier diner for sure — California-style seasonal cuisine, stylish digs, they even make their own bacon — but sought-after in the Laurel District for its welcoming, community minded ambience. Two eggs, potatoes, house-made sourdough and…arugula salad: $13. 3719 MacArthur Blvd. (near Loma Vista Avenue), Oakland
Featured image: Breakfast at Oceanview Diner. Credit: Quinn Dombrowski