My first memory of restaurant owner Jodie Royston doesn't involve Jodie himself. It centers on a tightly cropped photograph of the man's head, framed and hung on the wall of his six-seat diner in Albany, California.
That photo is the purest marriage of food and joy I've encountered. Jodie, a seasoned mug wrapped around a mustache and a pair of bifocals, sucks the last morsels of chicken off a leg bone, eyes clenched. I did the very same with my plate of fried chicken and eggs at Jodie's.
The chicken in question—a star attraction at Jodie's for over 20 years—was removed from the menu in late 2011, when a local health inspector discovered that over 200 pieces of chicken were being prepared in the Roystons' home kitchen before being brought in for weekend service at the hole-in-the-wall diner. Not one to take decades of fried chicken lightly, Jodie posted notices that chicken service would be "temporarily" halted. Soon after, he announced that the search for a new space, one with enough room to meet spec while leaving his recipe unchanged, had begun.
For some, fried chicken exile is where the story ends. Regulars have plenty more to say about Jodie, whose restaurant has grounded three generations of the Royston family and hosted a diverse gallery of locals. East Bay diners who have been eating here for years have little problem brushing elbows with a rotating cast of Berkeley students, but it's not as if they have a choice.
The joint's six seats place everyone a good word's length from the griddle, the prep counter, the other customers, and Jodie himself—and Jodie Royston is not a man who takes money from strangers.
Naturally, it takes only one meal to become a regular, especially when one takes hunger into account. The restaurant's sprawling menu—over 64 specials splayed across two walls in the form of cheeky laminates and repurposed receipts—offers a bounty of flavor beyond the fried chicken leg. Dotting Jodie's Arkansas-born appetite with California cooking, dishes like Something Different (flash-poached eggs served over a blanket of country hash browns, bacon bits, grilled tomato, and grilled English muffins with spiced hollandaise) blend fresh produce, household staples, and Southern comfort to euphoric ends.
Jodie's breakfast specials tend to be scrambles, double-deckers, or both. Often starting with an improvised order from one of the regulars, each dish thoughtfully tweaks a seemingly mundane combination and taste-tests results around the 90-degree counter until the cooks decide that it's perfect. Jodie, susceptible to speaking in a rapid-fire succession of declarations and chuckles, summarizes the process as "taking a little of nothing and making a whole lot of things."
His description is apt. While specials are often named after the customers who inspired them, "Hal's B.B.Q Omelette" is flanked by a special entitled "Nothing." For an additional $1.25, customers can order their Nothing with a side of "Something." On my most recent visit, Jodie took extreme pleasure in waiting for an indecisive customer to say the words, "I don't know," then pointing to two sheets of paper with his newest specials: "I Don't Know" and "I'm Not Ready Yet." If grins were edible, Jodie would sell them with a side of grits.
Novelty aside, the short-order cooking here is spot on. Eggs are served "country scrambled" by default, a minor miracle of cooking that turns the yolk into a partially runny ribbon. Bacon, breakfast sausage, and hash browns are dutifully store bought, and specialty links are usually available for substitution. Pancakes haven't won me over in eight years of repeat visits, but Jodie's English muffins—slathered with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and grilled to a crunchy sheen—exemplify the cook's stewardship of the space where white and blue collars overlap.
At the end of the day this is an inspired diner of the old school. Though it's just a short walk from North Berkeley's upscale eateries on Solano Ave., Jodie's is parked diminutively under the BART track, a culinary footnote punctuated by the sounds of overhead trains. Juxtapositions of hand-picked peppers with frozen potatoes, fresh corned beef with pre-packaged breads, and homemade hot sauce with Minute Maid juices capture a food culture not quite in tandem with the artisanal zeitgeist, but special all the same.
Although the weekend blitz is absent two fried chicken specials, Jodie's spirits are still in top form. As his grandson, Charles Garrison handles most of the cooking, Jodie hops from seat to seat during busy hours, trading jokes and recruiting customers to help him bring food to tables on the sidewalk. During slow hours, he takes to shouting frenzied greetings at passersby, one puzzled gaze meeting another when the old woman parking her car elects to not come in for a cup of coffee.
Hanging above the entrance is a banner directing customers to jodiesfuture.com, where Jodie's most fervent customers have set up a donation account to help the Roystons pay for the move to a new spot. Just inside is the photograph that's just as effective a sales pitch: Jodie, fried chicken, and satisfaction. With any luck, they'll get together for a reunion shoot soon.