Iris's Family Restaurant is one of those friendly joints where the waitress calls you "Hon" and you can dally for a couple of hours over a hearty breakfast, guzzling coffee and scanning the newspaper.
It's the kind of comfy, cheap and endearing restaurant that I have sought over the years in practically every state in the U.S., from foggy San Francisco street corners to sun-baked Mississippi farm towns. With all that practice, I've learned to spot one faster than you can say "over easy."
Whether you're doing 75 miles per hour down I-10 or meandering around a sleepy Dunedin suburb where Iris's thrives, terrific homestyle restaurants have certain characteristics in common:
1. At 7 a.m., the parking lot is full and sprinkled with vehicles belonging to Serious Breakfast Eaters such as plumbers, painters, cops or electricians.
2. Service is predictably fast because the waitresses can balance plates on both arms and both hands.
3. $10 generally covers the meal.
4. The coffee is hot and plentiful.
5. The quality of the food is proportional to the number of different kinds of homemade pie listed on the menu.
6. Locals make up its regular clientele.
Caveat: The number of years the restaurant has been operated by the same family statistically influences the fare too.
Iris's flawless pedigree certainly entails all that and more. Operated by owner Tamara Helms with help from various family members, including her brother and sister-in-law, the restaurant has hummed along in the same location across from Grant Field for 18 years.
Helms learned to cook at the knee of her grandmother, Iris Tinlin, the restaurant's namesake, who ran a similar restaurant in Canton, Ohio. "I started out peeling potatoes. That was more than 30 years ago," Helms recalled.
Even at the crack of dawn, the parking lot is jammed with cars. On my way in during a recent visit I passed two housepainters dressed in spattered jeans coming out. I sighed; it was a good sign. Inside, the eatery is recently renovated, its decor clean and bright in faint peach, contrasted with blue-green and accented with light wood. Valances of white lace frame long, wide windows. Seat yourself at a booth or table, and a speedy waitress is there before you even get settled. Just as fast, a cup of coffee is exhaling its aroma at your elbow, along with a Thermos of more, so you don't run out.
I ordered the No. 5 special — two eggs, bacon or sausage, home fries or grits, and toast ($3.79). (It costs 29 cents more for squares of fresh green peppers and onions added to the potatoes.) The plate came loaded with scrambled eggs, three strips of good-quality bacon cooked exactly right, a mountain of home fries and two pieces of whole-wheat toast with butter. Oh, maybe if I were cooking at home, I might have left the home fries in the pan longer, so they could sizzle to a crunchy brown, but it was still a damn fine breakfast.
The menu lists everything from create-your-own omelets ($4.99) to country biscuits served with white sausage gravy ($2.99). And there's a nice assortment of English muffins, bagels, French toast, waffles, pancakes, corned beef hash, fruit and cereals. On the blackboard is a list of homemade muffins whose flavors change each day. A blueberry one ($1.29) dipped in coffee provided a sweet finish.
Though I have been a regular patron of Iris's over the years, breakfast was the only meal I had ever eaten there. I began to wonder: What sort of grub do they put out later in the day? We made a special trip at dinnertime, even though it meant negotiating U.S. 19 during Friday evening rush hour. The clog of traffic made us particularly thankful to once again be sitting in a restaurant doing something as inconsequential as pondering a dinner menu.
We were surprised to find simple American fare like fried chicken ($7.29) and meatloaf ($6.29) dinners alongside more complex ethnic dishes, like Caribbean-glazed ham with pumpkin mashed potatoes ($6.59), or teriyaki beef stir-fry ($8.99).
We started with Caesar salad ($4.29) and the soup of the day ($1.49 a la carte for a cup, or choose it as a side dish with a dinner). The salad was nothing special — it could have been crisper, its romaine bore a few dings, and it carried too much heavy dressing. The croutons tasted flat and were stale.
However, the soup scored serious points with a hot, heavy tomato broth laden with rice, fresh vegetables and topped with melted cheese. Similar in taste to classic beef-vegetable soup, it was called "hamburger soup," because the chef had used ground beef, rather than more typical shards of chuck, as its main ingredient.
My dinner companion's Sloppy Joe sandwich ($2.79) turned out to be a paragon of its ilk, its burnished red meat sauce, flecked with bits of onion and green pepper, staining the freshest white bun. "It's my aunt's recipe," reported Helms. Accompanied by a huge oval platter of steamy fries and a sweating glass of iced Coke, you could hardly do better.
The only real disappointment during two visits involved the hot, open-faced roast beef sandwich ($5.79, including mashed potatoes, gravy and the cup of soup). The meat was tough and stringy, its gravy forgettable, if plentiful. And though the accompanying mashed potatoes were freshly made, they were practically tasteless and failed to ignite my usual passion for the dish.
Still, that left plenty of room for dessert. We had been debating the topic from the moment we arrived, since we sat directly in front of a blackboard listing no fewer than eight kinds of homemade pie ($1.79 a slice): coconut, chocolate and banana cream; peanut butter, Dutch apple, pumpkin, red raspberry and pecan.
My companion went for the Dutch apple, cinnamon-flavored fruit set in a tangy filling and topped with buttery crumbs, browned in the oven, a drift of real whipped cream set atop it. Its pastry was pretty close to perfect — crisp, firm and flavorful. A piece of pecan pie was equally accomplished, its sticky-sweet filling pocked with great brown nuts that gleamed like woody jewels on the plate.
Simple, tidy, friendly. Iris's is one of those low-profile, unsung businesses that are worth a little search, because day after day, they do it right.
Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected]planet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.