Eye-Opening Meals

Sizing up the sunrise selections at a trio of downtown eateries.

At its best, breakfast is an unpretentious wake-up call of sunny eggs, fluffy flapjacks, or hearty hash, washed down with manly mugs of joe. Typically consumed on a weekday morning on the way to The Job, this isn't a meal that calls for formal or fawning service; it's enough just to start the day surrounded by reasonably friendly faces in a welcoming environment.

That's what we were hoping for when we hit the streets on a recent workday morning, consuming towers of toast, heaps of home fries, and what seemed like a veritable henhouse full of Grade A Extra Larges. The downtown eateries we chose have devoted followings for breakfast, and they serve meals that are ample and inexpensive. But we found that it takes more than that to make a breakfast spot shine: The best of the lot exude cleanliness and graciousness as well.

On the Edge
Like running into your teacher at the grocery store, there is something downright weird about strolling into a Flats bar in the first light of day. And yet, in some respects, the morning brings out the best in River's Edge, a high-ceilinged watering hole on the Cuyahoga's east bank.

For one thing, in the daylight you can read the celebrity autographs writ large upon a wall by visitors like Wilt Chamberlain and the Moody Blues. And you can listen without interruption while owner Lillian Ewolski tells stories of each celebrity's visit, something that is impossible in the usual nighttime din.

But better still, Ewolski and her staff have the sort of friendly faces that look just right hovering over a stack of French toast or a plate of scrambled eggs. The regular members of her breakfast bunch (everyone from Cleveland Clinic nurses to muddy construction workers) convene around the big wooden bar to chew and chat in the dim morning light. Even though we are obvious newbies, a perky waitress greets us like old pals as she slaps down paper place mats and plastic flatware on the immaculate bar top and pours strong coffee into tall, black mugs. Her good-natured nurturing continues throughout the meal when, for instance, she frets that our breakfasts are too slow to arrive and, later, urges us to clean our plates, lest the cook come out and scold us.

In fact, portions are impressively large, and plate cleaning can be a challenge. A stack of "stuffed" French toast is filled with a massive slab of cream cheese and strawberry preserves. A Southwestern scramble, with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and cheese, is rounded out with a portion of crisp-edged home fries, salsa, and a loaf of soft pita. And the delicious, if regrettably named, Mish Mash -- wherein six eggs are scrambled with a barge-load of bacon, potatoes, and onions -- is piled so high that the accompanying rye toast and fresh orange slices threaten to slide right off the plate. Ewolski opines that breakfast at the Edge may be the best-kept secret in town. For price, quality, and friendliness, we say it may be the best, period.

The Wheel Deal
We first heard about Fifth Wheel's breakfasts from Lillian Ewolski herself. The owner of River's Edge had nothing but good things to say about the little spot on St. Clair, and we had no reason to question her judgment. Still, after spinning into the Wheel, we think Ewolski may have been too kind.

It wasn't that the food didn't taste good. Sure, the huge pancakes -- thick, heavy sponges for soaking up artificially flavored syrup and margarine -- were a disappointment. But moist corned beef hash, delicate scrambled eggs, and grits (a bit watery, perhaps, but well-seasoned) had plenty of flavor. And the prices were certainly low, topping out at $5.50 for the Hungry Man Omelet, a busy, bulging affair overflowing with bacon, sausage, ham, corned beef, gyro meat, tomatoes, onions, green pepper, and cheese.

But compared to River's Edge, Fifth Wheel is a drear and cheerless place. A gaunt-faced worker schlepped around the tiny space with an ammonia-drenched mop, filling the air with fumes. Our wittiest bon mots elicited only the barest hint of a smile from the taciturn counterperson. Sturdy oval china plates were clean if mismatched, but dried food clung to our as-yet-unused fork, the blob of margarine on the pancakes was speckled with crumbs, and fuzz floated in the cream pitcher. And, in the succinct phrasing of a male companion, the condition of the men's restroom was "deeply disturbing." While the sign outside Fifth Wheel declares that it serves the best breakfast in town, we beg to differ: For neatness and courtesy, especially, breakfasters can do better than this.

Diner Time
Just down the street from Fifth Wheel, The Diner on 55th is a bright and lively place. Service is welcoming and swift. Natural light streams in the large windows, lighting up the colorful retro decor. Plates and mugs are handsome white china with black-checkered rims, and the entire place is off-limits to smoking.

Pretty place settings and a spiffy decor don't come cheap, though, and prices here are slightly higher than at the other two locations we visited. Still, a hearty breakfast with all the trimmings should ring up at no more than $8, and guests can count on getting a good meal for their money. In fact, the kitchen's take on French toast -- six plump, cinnamon-scented half-slices of attentively griddled white bread -- might get our vote for best in town, even if we hadn't smothered it in warm blueberry sauce and squirted whipped cream all over it. Corned beef hash was flavorful and lean, and a big Western omelet, with ham, peppers, and onion, smiled up from the plate like a tidy, golden half-moon.

Still, a few dishes were on the bland side. Grits were thick and pearly white, but needed to be doctored with salt, pepper, and margarine. And nicely crisped home fries tasted entirely unseasoned; next time, we'll order them with the optional fried onions and peppers for some much-needed pizzazz. But if a family-friendly atmosphere and a sparkly setting are what it takes to crank your engine, The Diner on 55th makes a fine early-morning pit stop.