Vineyard Haven, MA: Brunch Highlights at Art Cliff Diner
The first thing I do when I walk in the screen door at Art Cliff Diner is check the specials roster. Every morning chef/owner Gina Stanley writes it on a long hanging scroll of newsprint on the left-hand wall, and I scan the list for the sweet potato biscuits. Maybe I just get lucky, but she seems to have them at least half of the time when I'm there. The broad, ocher, saucer-sized pastry discs sit piled on a platter at the counter. To serve, they're halved crosswise, browned on the cut sides, and presented with a ramekin of soft, salty maple butter. The biscuit are great for sharing—or not sharing—alongside another dish. Either way, it's impossible to not order one.
The sweet potato biscuit is the only easy decision though. Art Cliff is a diner through and through, but Stanley (who gave up a career in haute cuisine, including a stint at the Blair House, to move to Martha's Vineyard and buy the diner) creates a menu that is anything but average. In addition to all the short-order classics—omelets, fluffy blueberry pancakes, thick slabs of brioche French toast, all of which are executed perfectly just about every time—she's known for her more offbeat specials. The Bull's Eye consists of two pan-fried fresh codfish cakes with two over-easy eggs, baby arugula, hollandaise, and spicy mustard oil; frittatas are loose constructions with eggs, Yukon golds, and any number of accoutrements; and crepes are a house specialty, filled with anything from Stanley's house jam, to brie, to Nutella, to blueberries and local honey, to plain old (but perfect) lemon and sugar.
My usual strategy: Go with as many people as possible so that I can conquer as much of the menu as possible. But two standouts in my mind are the hash dishes: Corned Beef Hash 'n' Eggs and Spicy Chicken Hash (both $10). The former is definitely a diner classic, but it's completely unlike the usual cat food-esque mush that most places scoop onto a plate. The meat is chopped fine, but not minced, so the pieces are distinct and retain plenty of savory chew. It's mixed with potatoes (Yukons again) and onions, and the whole lot is fried hard, so there are lots of crispy bits. Alongside a duo of runny eggs—I recommend upgrading to local farm eggs for a minimal fee—and toasted raisin-pecan bread with jam, it's just about the most perfect breakfast anywhere.
The more unusual Spicy Chicken version is even looser textured and has a Tex-Mex feel to it. The white meat chicken pieces are diced and fried with onions, potatoes, and both bell and jalapeno peppers. Besides the egg on top, the plate gets a pile of thin-sliced red onion, a healthy dollop of sour cream, and a full quarter of an avocado. The whole concoction eats a bit lighter and fresher than the corned beef version, and the heat is serious, but not incendiary. (Ask for the Sriracha bottle if you want more burn.) Delicious.
If there's a downside to the place, it's the wait. Don't go on a weekend in the summer without snacking on something beforehand; it's a small place and you'll probably wait at least 45 minutes to sit down. But it's one of the few places that's actually worth losing some beach time for. And if you get desperate, you can always order a sweet potato biscuit and eat it on the porch while you wait.