Alís Breakfast, Minneapolis
413 14th Avenue SE, 612-331-9991
Nowadays, some restaurant owners take any sign of popularity as a reason to start a franchise. But Al Bergstrom operated on a different logic. The late founder of this breakfast-only joint never expanded his comically narrow space, even though the 14 stools are always filled and thereís a crowd waiting along the wall behind them. Today, co-owners Jim Brandes and Doug Grina run the place, turning out buttermilk pancakes studded with fresh blueberries, hash made with house-cured corned beef, and golden hash browns crowned with poached eggs, salsa, and melted Cheddar in a glorious concoction called the José. Regulars donít leave without their free to-go coffee refill.
Mei Lai Wah Coffee House, New York City
64 Bayard Street, 212-925-5435
At the bottom of your paper cup of bracing coffee is a blackish sludge, and a revelation: All the espresso and local-egg omelets in Manhattan couldnít lure you away from this place. The decrepit booths and dinging cash register conjure a glorious time when breakfast, not brunch, was king (thereís a no spitting sign on the wall). Ancient Chinese countermen pass out the shopís raison díêtre: char siu bao. They resemble dinner rolls, distinguished only by the sheen of sugary syrup painted on their brown tops. But inside each eggy bun lurks pork. And not just porkreally fatty pork slicked with sticky, savory sauce. Itís like French toast with bacon done hot-pocket style.
Lou Mitchellís, Chicago
565 West Jackson Boulevard, 312-939-3111; loumitchellsrestaurant.com
Itís not because the hostesses ply those waiting for a booth with warm homemade doughnut holes. And itís definitely not the gratis stewed prunes that appear on the table just after you sit down. No, what elevates this Greek-run West Loop diner above the rest is its authenticity, evident in the faithful execution of founder Uncle Louís simple cooking. Long before culinary integrity became a restaurant-industry branding tool, Lou Mitchellís was baking its own bread and using only double-yolk eggs for its masterfully prepared omeletswhich are served right in the skillets in which they were cooked.
Square One Dining, Los Angeles
4854 Fountain Avenue, 323-661-1109; squareonedining.com
This spare storefront with apricot-colored walls is where Robert Lee and Hayden Ramsey, both alums of top-notch kitchens, lavish the same meticulous attention on the elements of breakfast that they once did on elaborate sauces. The result: morning standards that are emphatically elevated but not gussied up. Muffins and pecan coffee cake arrive at the table warm from the oven. Fruit salad is a farmersí market in a bowl. Be warned that your thick-sliced, slow-roasted Nueskeís bacon could upstage the omelet you order it withand these are some damn good omelets.
Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
1305 East Franklin Street, 919-933-1324
Sunrise restores to respectability two phrases that have been thoroughly tarnished by McDonaldís and its cohorts: sausage biscuit and drive-thru. The Chapel Hill institutionís insanely buttery, fist-size biscuits eclipse those of the mom-and-pop purveyors scattered throughout the Carolinas. And since Sunrise has no booths, chairs, or stools, you can consume yourssandwiching sausage (if youíre feeling classic), country ham (if youíre feeling southern), or fried pork tenderloin (if you have a death wish)in the comfort of your car.