A Local Breakfast Tradition

Sunrise is one of the day's most exhilarating hours, since it affords us freedoms we don't ordinarily possess.

At 6 a.m., it's possible to jog or skate unimpeded by people or cars; we can tear recklessly about on a bike, leashless mutt in pursuit; or, assuming your neighbors are still snoozing, you can even search for the newspaper dressed in skivvies or clumsily climb fruit trees, tangled in a full-length bathrobe, in an idealistic attempt to put fresh juice on the table.

Another vivid advantage to early morning: a big, hearty breakfast.

The French can keep their continental-style breakfast, which is nothing more than strong coffee and pastry, sometimes accompanied by a shot of liquor. Americans prefer more substantial fare. And at breakfast, restaurants tend to be surprisingly cheap.

Here are a handful of eateries known for their breakfasts:

Skyway Jack's A colorful local institution founded in 1976 by the late Jack Thomas, a retired Navy man who ran the restaurant in the shadow of the Skyway Bridge for decades before it moved a few years ago to its present location in South St. Pete. It's a little neighborhood joint with seating for 100, all crammed together into plain tables and booths.

One of the restaurant's glories is its unusually diverse clientele, from the grubby fishermen who arrive at dawn on their way to their boats anchored in the gulf, to socialites who wheel in at 10 a.m. in their Mercedes-Benzes and designer suits.

Revel in the kitsch: Yes, there is a 6-foot "chicken" statue outside; plus, inside, an unusually junky collection of porcelain pigs, goofy-looking stuffed animals, clocks and weathervanes, and sayings tacked up on the walls like: "If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen."

The food is simple, hearty and satisfying. But the eggs Florentine ($5.35) — two poached eggs on a bed of spinach with Canadian bacon or link sausage, topped with a practical rendition of Hollandaise sauce — is a more complex dish than you'd find at many breakfast joints.

Skyway Jack's also features unusual dishes like scrambled pork brains served with eggs, potatoes, grits and toast or biscuit ($3.50), and Southern French toast made with cream cheese, orange marmalade, pecans and a respectable, if not gourmet-quality, honey-orange sauce ($3.25). Or, try the "Best Old Navy Breakfast," that is to say: baked beans, smoked sausage and a corn muffin ($4.25). The service is friendly, fast and no-frills. On weekends, it's always packed, and you may have to wait for a table.

Best dishes: the creamed chipped beef on toast, served with potatoes or tomato slices ($4.95); sausage gravy over biscuit with potatoes or sliced tomatoes ($3.95); or any of the "eggs anystyle" dishes: egg, fried potatoes or grits, toast, biscuit or corn muffin ($2).

Delimania A plus for the late-night crowd, Delimania serves serious breakfast all day, so you folks just getting up at noon can still order a decent meal. And owner Bruce Spivak and his cheery waitstaff never forget that their sun-sensitive customers might need a friendly greeting and little TLC before they consume their first cup of Joe.

Tucked away in a shopping center nearly invisibly off Dale Mabry, its simple tables seat 94 in a single room with a deli counter at the rear. The surroundings are done in a restful aqua-blue color, the atmosphere is respectfully quiet, and they leave you alone if you want to read the newspaper while you eat. On the menu are all manner of omelets, pancakes, French toast, various incarnations of bagels, lox, nova, matzo Brie scrambled eggs (eggs blended with broken matzo and fried) and even diced salami.

My favorite dish is the homemade corned beef hash, served with two eggs, home fries or grits, bagel or toast ($5.15). The hash is greasy, rough-cut meat grilled with hefty chunks of potato, onion and pepper; I order poached eggs on top for a horrendously gooey but tasty mess.

It arrives with an invariably excellent toasted bagel. I like to switch between the different spreads — butter, cream cheese, chive cheese, veggie cheese, or lox or nova cream cheese. The coffee may be American, but it does the trick, as the waitress keeps pouring your cup full, so when your meal is over, you feel ready to face the world.

Lenny's A Clearwater fixture since 1958. Founded by the late Lenny Farrell, it is now operated by his daughter, Judy Farrell. It sits on perpetually busy U.S. 19 North, difficult to find for newcomers because the restaurant building resides on a service road not directly connected to the highway. It's right next door to an Econo Lodge, between State Road 60 and Drew Street.

Inside, Lenny's buzzes with longtime customers at almost any hour of the day. Like Skyway Jack's, the decor has obviously required decades of accumulation, from the pictures of has-been movie stars like Shelley Berman, to old Coca-Cola trays and baby pictures of the owners' kids. There's a tongue-in-cheek burlesque appeal to Lenny's. All around the place are silly signs on the wall, sarcastic jokes on the ceiling tiles and a spider on a string that moves up and down when the restroom door opens.

There are big, comfy booths and green Formica tables, with seating for 183, and lots of fake hanging plants. It all has a familial air that must be one reason for the eatery's long-lived popularity.

On the huge menu are plain, American coffee, plus dozens and dozens of breakfast dishes, from knishes, blintzes and excellent homemade potato pancakes ($5.25), deep-fried and wonderfully crispy, to peanut butter and jelly pancakes for the kids ($2.25) to big, buff omelets with all sorts of ingredient combinations. Omelets arrive with a complimentary basket of Danish treats, light, crunchy pastries made right on the premises.

Even a short stack of buttermilk pancakes ($2.55) consists of huge, plate-sized creations. They come with good quality meats — crispy bacon, hot sausage and even country-fried steak ($3.25). Or try the fresh bagels, always a treat. The Teaneck ($6.94) is a bagel spread with chopped liver, sporting crispy lettuce, fresh tomato, onion, black olives and cucumber ($6.95).

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