New Orleans: The Build-Your-Own Biscuit at Willa Jean
I believe a good breakfast spot should give you a feeling of complete optimism—a conviction that the next 12 hours of your waking life will contain nothing but happiness. Sure, it’s a tall order, but in New Orleans, Willa Jean does just that, and not only because they serve you a literally tall order—a stack of sticky buns—as soon as you are seated. The passion project of New Orleans pastry queens Kelly Fields and Lisa White, Willa Jean restaurant (named for Fields's grandmother) lets diners glide through that liminal period between “just barely awake" and “fully functioning human" with Southern-inspired poise. The space itself is a light-drenched natural alarm clock, but the food invites you to linger for a spell, hit the snooze button, and take your time: After all, a dish like crawfish gravy with slow-poached eggs cannot be rushed.
More than anything here, though, it’s the permutations of biscuit dishes that I find myself returning to over and over again. To be sure, the biscuit itself is a stand-alone dream: an overstuffed throw pillow of buttery, flaky, perfect puff. But then there’s the “build your own" option, which speaks to my Kentucky-bred, Louisiana-living heart with add-ons like pimento cheese, fried chicken (with Tabasco butter!), and sausage gravy. It’s enough to make a person want to eat an entire mountain of biscuits just to try them all. With a Willa Jean biscuit in my mouth, it’s hard to believe whatever the day has in store could be anything but glorious.
Chicago: The "Staff Meal" at Cellar Door
The Staff Meal at this bakery/café in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood serves as the constant on a menu that changes daily and can go places breakfast usually fears to tread. But if you worked here, you’d want this elemental plate of food—simple and spot-on—before every shift. Two thickly cut pieces of warm sourdough bread arrive with a generous quenelle of butter, a shell-off soft-boiled egg, and a tuft of dressed greens. That’s it. And yet the bread sports a crust so dark and deep, so chewy and crackly, that it merits a new adjective to describe it. The house butter, made from local Jersey milk and cultured with kefir grain, is hand-paddled into a soft curd unlike any commercial product. You can’t wait to slather this butter and its dusting of crunchy sea salt over the bread, break open that lush egg, and tangle your fork in those bittersweet greens. With fresh butter comes buttermilk, which you’ll find in the delightfully weird daily breakfast specials. Think rutabaga-buttermilk soup, or pan-fried trout in a pool of warm, cilantro-flecked buttermilk with pistachio and fig.
Charleston: Lowcountry Hashbrowns at Marina Variety Store and Restaurant
To be clear, the foundational starch of the Lowcountry is rice, not potatoes. Breakfast in a Charleston home is likely to mean egg and rice, fried together in flaring-hot bacon grease. But no local restaurant better exemplifies why people are drawn to take their first meal of the day in public than Marina Variety Store, a 53-year-old dockside hash house where table-to-table conversation is packed with more news than the morning paper. Tourists don’t come here: Their glancing experience with water is usually limited to beachy drinks or a ferry ride to Fort Sumter. Yet among Marina Variety Store customers are those who look to the sea for their livelihoods, a relationship reflected by the Lowcountry Hashbrowns, a workmanlike pile of crisped and peppered potato shreds. Two eggs on top are cooked however the breakfaster wants them, but the rest of the plate never changes: There’s a glossy summertime hollandaise that radiates lemon juice; slivers of sweet bell pepper that signal like red and yellow sailing flags; and husky grilled shrimp, pulled from nearby trawling grounds.
Los Angeles: French Toast at Canelé
If we’re being frank, the French toast at Canelé, Chef Corina Weibel’s bistro in the northeast LA enclave of Atwater Village, is downright impractical. Each five-inch-tall hunk of egg-dipped, caramelized baguette could—nay, should—be a main course. That a single plate holds three of them borders on comical, until you take a bite. See, the bready wedges are first soaked overnight in vanilla-tinged custard before being seared on the griddle, which turns them into fragrant, yielding pillows that disappear quicker than you might have initially suspected. (Read: You’ll devour all three.) Syrup and powdered sugar alone would be too sweet, so Weibel includes wine-poached prunes and a cooling gob of mascarpone. The result is a refined take on the frugal morning staple that appeals to a grown-up palate.
Cambridge: Turkish Breakfast at Sofra Bakery
I love every single crumb and pickle slice and sweet spoonful of the Turkish breakfast at Sofra Bakery: the semi-soft-boiled egg ringed in shredded phyllo, the salted Armenian cucumbers, the tomato jam and spoon sweets over thick Greek yogurt, the soft cubes of fried feta, all ping-ponging between sweet and savory, crunchy and creamy, rich and lean. The only downside: Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick’s Middle Eastern–inspired bakery is so popular that you’ll need to either get up early or do takeout if you want to enjoy your perfect meal in peace, at least on weekends. But it’s worth the trouble. And don’t skimp: Breakfast isn’t complete without an orange-blossom morning bun or a Moroccan almond bostock.
Pittsburgh: Ham From the Bone at Dor-Stop
I'm devoted to the Dor-Stop for many reasons, but maybe above all because I think the true test of a diner is its potatoes. And this one serves them Lyonnaise-style, O'Brien-style, griddled into crisp potato pancakes or home fries, as well as mashed or French-fried (and served right on your sandwich, if you like, because this is Pittsburgh). That's true hospitality. My go-to breakfast at the Dor-Stop is Ham From the Bone, and not just because it has the best and straight-shootin'-est diner-breakfast-menu name of all time. This hearty yet, in its way, pleasingly austere plate comprises ham cut, yes, from the bone; two eggs (I order mine sunny-side up); potato pancakes (or home fries, if you prefer—as if); and toast. It's not flashy. It's not especially pretty. But it presents all the salty, crunchy, fatty, gooey, sustaining things I want in a breakfast on a certain kind of morning, free of any distracting frippery.
Cincinnati: The McWaffle at Taste of Belgium
About nine years ago, I happened upon Belgian Jean-Francois Flechet—recently transplanted to Cincinnati—standing over a single sturdy waffle iron at the back of a small grocery in Findlay Market, making Liège-style waffles. With nuggets of pearl sugar and a caramelized exterior yielding to a rich, dense, vanilla-scented middle, this yeasty waffle was the exact opposite of the airy confection bearing a Belgian title and familiar on breakfast menus across the country. That first bite was the stuff from which oh-em-gee moments and devoted disciples are made. Flechet’s waffle has since built a small kingdom, with several Taste of Belgium restaurants and retail stands (including one in Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds), and has a starring role in local breakfast manifestos. While Waffle & Chicken (never put chicken before waffle in Flechet’s presence) is the most popular menu item, I’m partial to the McWaffle, a twisted tradition on the … obvious. Sliced to hold an over-easy egg, applewood-smoked bacon, and melted Gruyère cheese, this waffle-does-breakfast-sandwich can seduce a night owl.
San Francisco: Home Fries at Plow
People use the term "life-changing" when they don’t really mean it, but when I say that the home fries at Plow, the Potrero Hill brunch spot in San Francisco, are life-changing, I mean that they actually changed my life. Despite having lived in New York and San Francisco, perhaps the two most brunch- and line-inclined cities on the planet, I don’t really do brunch, and I really don’t like to go anywhere that requires waiting in line. All that changed in an instant when my teeth first shattered the impeccably crisp, golden-brown crust on those potatoes and sank into the creamy, buttery interior. They’re made by first boiling Yukon Golds in salted water until tender, then the potatoes are individually smashed by hand and deep-fried until the skins burst open into papery petals that crackle and dissolve on your tongue like savory sugar candy, all tossed together with caramelized onions and thyme. Plow is the only brunch I do these days, and the only line I’ll wait in.
New York City: An Egg on a Roll
I’ve eaten at a lot of classic New York City breakfast spots in my nearly 14 years of living here. I’ve had the eggs en cocotte at Balthazar, the smoked-fish platter at Barney Greengrass—that bowl of uncommonly good oatmeal at The Breslin. All of them lived up to their respective hype. But if I ever leave this city, the thing I’ll miss more than anything else is the most mundane, most workaday, and most overlooked morning meal New York has to offer: the egg on a roll. The one served up by street carts, delis, and bodegas all over Gotham. They are best enjoyed on a park bench or at your work desk with a cup of sweet, heavily creamed coffee and a copy of the New York Daily News. They are wrapped in foil, stuffed into a brown bag, and handed over with a friendly "There you go, boss" in a matter of minutes. Yes, there are variations. There’s the egg and cheese on a roll, the egg and bacon and cheese on a roll, the—well, that’s about it. But they require zero improvisation, elevation, or reinterpretation. Their job is to provide for us a warm mouthful of fried or scrambled egg, melted cheese, and doughy soft bread whenever we need them, on a cold or rainy morning, as we surface from our subterranean commutes. They have made it here. They can make it anywhere, but they will always be uniquely New York.