Sunday, July 26, 2009

Best Breakfast Restaurants

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, yet I rarely eat it because I am always hustling to the office early, thinking only about the mountain of work awaiting me. It just doesn’t feel like there is any time to sit down and eat a meal at the beginning of a workday, and even if I did eat one, thinking about the waiting work would prevent me from enjoying it.

So I tend to savor every minute of breakfast when I am on vacation. I love its freshness. I love its distinct flavors and aromas, and the relaxed feeling of drinking coffee while waiting for it to be served. I love the promise it holds as the beginning of a day on which you can do whatever you want -- a day on which you are liberated from schedules and deadlines.

And here, in alphabetical order, are five of my favorite places in America to eat my favorite meal.

Alexander’s Country Inn; Ashford, WA

Set amidst a dark green forest a mile from Mount Rainier National Park, this historic inn (Theodore Roosevelt once stayed here) has a restaurant which stands out as one of the most memorable culinary gems Erika and I have ever encountered. Its locally focused menu changes with the seasons and features high-end dishes at modest prices. When we were there several years ago I had salmon quiche for breakfast -- which sounds odd, but turned out to be the single best breakfast I have ever eaten, anywhere. As we dined at a window seat, mule deer grazed on the lawn right on the other side of the glass.

And on a side note, if you’re planning on spending the day hiking, Alexander’s will prepare a big boxed lunch for you to take with you when you depart. When we left breakfast, we took one for each of us at a cost of just $5 each. A few hours later we were eating those lunches while sitting above timberline and staring out at glorious alpine peaks.

Café Eleven; St. Augustine, FL

On the outside it looks like a convenience store (which it once was) and on the inside it looks like a funky modern bistro (which it now is). Five miles south of downtown and across the street from the ocean, Café Eleven offers a breakfast menu with five sandwiches, nine entrees, and nine sides, plus a good variety of coffees and teas. Erika is partial to the Praline French Toast and I am partial to the Café Omelet. However, the next time we go I think I’ll have to try The Scramble, which consists of scrambled eggs with cheddar and asiago cheese, peppers, mushrooms, and onions on top of homefries, with a choice of white, wheat or rye toast. And if looking at the décor and layout makes you think this place would be good at night, you are correct, for that is when it transforms into a live music venue serving craft and import beers plus wines from around the globe.

First Watch; Multiple Locations

Typically, I am against recommending chain restaurants to travelers. But there are exceptions to every rule, and in the case of First Watch I would be remiss not to recommend it. I remember when this plucky little chain consisted of just a handful of eateries scattered across the Tampa Bay area, but today it has 75 locations in 11 states reaching as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as Arizona. That means you don’t have to be in just one place to experience First Watch, and its expansion has been accomplished without any sacrifice in quality.

Menu options that are big on both flavor and health have always been a First Watch trademark (we once saw Derek Jeter eating in one) but that does not mean the menu has no guilty pleasures, for alongside banana-crunch-with-granola pancakes they also offer chocolate chip pancakes. Personally, I favor the Breakfast Scramble -- a croissant topped with scrambled eggs, ham, and melted cheese, topped with hollandaise and served with fresh fruit on the side. No matter what you choose, however, you will leave satisfied and ready to seize the day.

Mud Street Café; Eureka Springs, AR

Situated below street level, in a brick building that was constructed in 1888 -- in a mountaintop town that ranks as the highest in Arkansas -- about 50 feet from an auditorium where concerts have been performed by everybody from John Phillip Sousa to Willie Nelson -- Mud Street Café is certainly unique. It won 16 awards between 1997 and 2007, and has been mentioned in publications as diverse as Southern Living and the San Francisco Chronicle. It offers 19 different coffees and 17 different teas, and whips up everything from scones to muffins to Greek omelets to sour cream blueberry pancakes. A large oak bar centers the dining room, local artwork adorns the walls, and the carpet is Victorian. There is nothing here not to like.

The Old Chickahominy House; Williamsburg, VA

Miss Melinda’s pancakes are 10 inches in diameter. The Virginia ham tastes every bit a salty as one of those blocks that horses lick in their stalls. A beverage called the Special Rebel Cocktail is a combination of tomato juice, hot sauce, and beer. The restaurant occupies a white clapboard building that has three stories, three dining rooms, four dormer windows, and is bookended by a pair of chimneys. And there is an antique shop to boot. And Williamsburg’s history-soaked colonial section is just 1½ miles away. When it comes to The Old Chickahominy House, need I say more?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Real Treasure Isle

There really is a place called Treasure Island, and it really does claim to have pirates in its history. On a recent Thursday evening, we sat there on a fourth floor balcony and watched a blue sky melt to orange under the influence of the setting sun.

The next two days were spent swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

And walking on the beach.

And doing whatever else we wanted without a care in the world. It was many people’s idea of the perfect long-weekend getaway, and for me it was also a chance to experience Treasure Island the way tourists do, rather than as just one of the many pieces in the urban puzzle where I grew up.

Treasure Island is one of eleven barrier islands lined up just offshore in the most densely populated county in Florida. From pretty much anywhere in Pinellas County (which includes the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater) all you have to do is drive west and you will eventually find a bridge that takes you across to one of the islands, most of which are linked together by bridges themselves. Situated in the southern half of this chain, Treasure Island is less than four miles long and most of its hot spots are located north of Central Avenue -- in other words, it’s small enough that if you want to walk everywhere and not get back in the car until your trip is over, you can do just that.

As much fun as you can have parasailing and jet skiing here, in my opinion the biggest outdoor attractions are simply being in the water and waking across the beach to get there. The water’s warmth and tranquility make this a superior destination for swimming, and the beach’s soft sand and third-of-a-mile width are enough to make any beach bum drool.

And there is no shortage of places to wine and dine, with Gators claiming to have the longest waterfront bar on earth and The Floridian serving up very satisfying food at very reasonable prices. But Sloppy Joe’s is our favorite, largely because of this Happy Hour special: a 100-ounce beer for $10, served in a tapped tower with floating ice bags to keep it cold. Happy Hour also offers up a fishbowl margarita the size of four regulars, for just $10 as a well drink or $12 as a top-shelf.

Oh, and Sloppy Joe’s also serves food. And it has live music with a small dance floor, which might have been placed there for inebriated adults, but also attracts kids -- which was great for our party of 35, because having the young ones drawn to the dance floor allowed us to have some “grown up time.” And in case you’re wondering, yes, this Sloppy Joe’s is owned by the same folks who own the one in Key West.

On its northern shore, Treasure Island ends at a strait known as John’s Pass, across which sits the island of Madeira Beach. It is worth heading across the short bridge over the pass, because as soon as you reach the other side you will find John’s Pass Village, an eclectic bunch of shops, restaurants, and ice cream parlors centered around a long boardwalk. Once there you can stop by The Friendly Fisherman to eat seafood, and by King’s to buy $10 boogie boards that will come in very handy when the waves are good.

There are plenty of places to stay on Treasure Island but I give my hands-down recommendation to the South Beach Condo Resort, where we and many of our friends have stayed each of the last two years. Its rates are in the ballpark of your average hotel, despite the fact it is much nicer than your average hotel. And because so many of us rent there for our Beach Weekend, the property managers have given us discounts each time, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking of coming for a family reunion or wedding or anything else that will bring a crowd.

As you may already know, most beach hotels tend to be worn down and weathered as a result of all that salt spray and wind, but at South Beach every unit is clean and spacious. Plus, each one has a full kitchen, a washer/dryer, and an oceanfront balcony. Below are pictures of the one we rented this year: two bedrooms branched off the hallway in the top photo, and at the end of that hallway everything opened up to the living room in the bottom photo.

And finally, what was that I said back at the beginning, about Treasure Island claiming to have pirates in its history? Well, as the story goes, back in the 1800’s the island was bigger and a pirate named John LeVeque stopped here and hid a chest filled with Spanish doubloons and Pieces of Eight. In 1848 he decided to put the dangers of piracy behind him, and so he returned here to recover the loot; however, a hurricane arrived first and split the island in two at the exact spot where the treasure was stashed, washing it away forever. The resulting waterway is the same John’s Pass I mentioned above -- and as you might have guessed, it was named after LeVeque and Treasure Island was named after his missing loot.

How much of that story is true and how much is utter BS, I have no idea. But I do know that regardless of whether you are young or old, married or single, with kids or without them, you are sure to enjoy this place when you come.

Note: The "beer tower" photo was taken by Denise.

Update, 6/27/10: We jut returned from our 2010 Beach Weekend, and I am sad to report that Sloppy Joe's no longer has the 100-ounce beer for $10. But Treasure Island is just as fun without it, and Sloppy Joe's is still a good place to spend Happy Hour, with or without the kids.