Alameda Does Old School

Diner culture is alive and well on the Island.


Photo by Pat Mazzera

Do you prefer nonartisanal coffee brewed in a Bunn-O-Matic with free refills, chicken-fried steak served with country gravy and without irony, and filling up on eggs, potatoes, toast, fruit, and a side of old-school extra-thin, extra-crispy bacon at any hour and walking away with change from your $10 bill? Fortunately for connoisseurs of cheap, filling, and unpretentious dining experiences, something of an endangered species in the Bay Area, Alameda is still home to great examples of the classic American diner.

You’ll think you’re back into the ’50s when you sidle up to the counter at the tiny Albert’s Cafe, squeezed unassumingly between a tattoo parlor and lighting store. The menu offers a mix of classic diner fare (The Hippie, a huge mound of hash browns topped with stir-fried veggies and eggs, could feed three) and real-deal Mexican specialties (try the tomales with spicy rojo sauce). The prices could be from the ’50s as well.

The chalkboard is as jam-packed with specials as the shelves are with country farmhouse décor (think oversized wooden cutlery and multiple ceramic roosters) at quaint Marti’s Place. Eggs, bacon, and sandwiches are rock solid, but the star attraction is the crepe-like Swedish pancakes sprinkled with lemony powdered sugar. Roll them up with syrup; wash them down with fresh-squeezed OJ.

Jim’s Coffee Shop flexes a more masculine feel, between an entire wall devoted to images of Marilyn Monroe and a menu that practically dares you to go big or go home. Fried chicken, homemade meatloaf and corned beef, and chicken-fried steak, all of which come in under $15, are a few favorites. But the best deal might be the chile verde omelet, a monster concoction that stuffs heaping chunks of succulent marinated pork loin inside a light omelet topped with cheese and tangy tomatillo sauce.

Ultimately, there may be no better personification of the classic diner than Ole’s Waffle Shop. This sweet little 1927-era spot has all the vintage touches — old neon sign, a long and low counter overlooking the grill, waiters with folded paper hats. Maybe it’s those delicious light-and-crispy Lego-style waffles, the friendly longtime wait staff, or the fact that it gracefully accommodates a customer base that spans all generations and backgrounds, but Ole’s shines with a vibrant, optimistic, and, yes, American spirit. Plus, the Waffle Combo is just $9.95.

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