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Breakfast in Duluth: Comparing the diners

There are many great places to have breakfast in Duluth, but only a handful fall into the true breakfast diner category. Barrett Chase and Paul Lundgren set out to compare them all and report their findings on Perfect Duluth Day, so readers can admire their astute observations and compliment them publicly, without the briefest passing thought of contradicting any of the information presented.

The Criteria

When beginning any endeavor — particularly one as consequential as breakfast, which is the most important meal of the day — it’s essential to establish a lengthy list of arbitrary rules. We won’t detail all of them here, but will simply list those pertinent to our selection process.

  1. The restaurant must be located in Duluth and locally owned.
  2. The restaurant must have both booth and counter seating.
  3. The restaurant must serve coffee for $1.50 or less

The first rule kept us from driving all over Superior and becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of our task. The second rule is the actual definition of what a “diner” is. The third rule eliminates places that are … how shall we put this? … “fancy.”

For example: While Takk for Maten, Chester Creek Café and Duluth Grill offer exceptional breakfasts, those places are kind of different operations from Jim’s Hamburgers and Mike’s Western Café.

Overview

We anticipated our research would confirm what we’ve always known, that the Sunshine Café is the best. We carried a number of biases into this project, because we live near the Sunshine in West Duluth, know the owners Young and Steve Clement and find them to be awesome, and we agree with the sign out front, which proudly states “best omelets.”

But breakfast is about more than great omelets served with a smile. It’s about being surrounded by old men, pounding down the Arco and seeing lots of photos of children affixed to the walls in collages.

So while we maintain that the Sunshine is still our favorite, we also acknowledge the achievements of its competition, which in some areas actually surpass its greatness.

The Old Man Factor

Let’s face it: breakfast is a man’s meal. It’s about steak and eggs, baby. And a little bacon on the side. It’s literally a sausage party. But most younger men are too busy with their jobs and family obligations to regularly feast on the greasy goodness that is a diner breakfast. That’s what makes it a pastime of old men.

Still, if we were to go to a Perkins Family Restaurant for breakfast we might find ourselves seated next to a nuclear family from Edina, in town for a soccer tournament or something. That’s why we go to diners.

Among the diners we visited, one stood out above the others as an old-man haven: Mike’s Western Café. During our visit, we were the only customers who weren’t old men, and we’re not shy to admit we’re a mere two decades from joining their ranks.

Although Coney Island, Jim’s Hamburgers and Randy’s didn’t manage to perfectly eliminate women and children, the old men still held a strong majority.

We were surprised that the Sunshine Café performed poorly in this category, but we must note that the Sunshine does bring in a lot of old women, which is the next best thing to old men. Maybe it’s the Sunshine’s bright pink exterior that draws in the ladies.

Uncle Loui’s Café in the Hillside tends to have its share of college students, which we frown on, but it’s still better than places with families and their crybaby children who can’t sit still.

Cheap Cups of Mud

We regret to report that you can’t get a cup of coffee for a quarter anymore. It generally costs $1.15 for Arco or whatever brew Sysco Foods is kicking out. For some reason Jim’s Hamburgers is charging considerably more than the competition, at the high-end price of $1.50. (For reference, it’ll top $2 for a cup of Alakef at the fancy joints we skipped.)

Other than the Jim’s Hamburger’s anomaly, there was no significant difference in coffee prices. Uncle Loui’s had the cheapest, at $1.05, but it was also the place it was most likely your cup could go dry before a refill came around.

Show Us Your Grandkids

Uncle Loui’s is the undisputed champion of having photos of children on the walls. While we dislike children in person, we love them in photograph form, because they are adorable and silent.

Coney Island and Randy’s performed the poorest in this category. Perhaps Coney Island’s owner frowns on children in general; there’s a sign in the back of the place that reads: “No teenagers allowed.” Sure, it’s just a novelty sign, but we like to pretend it’s a rule that is strictly enforced.

It might surprise some of you that Coney Island serves breakfast at all, since it’s primarily known for coney dogs. But the breakfasts are much better than the coney dogs, and a banner is flown in front of the joint each morning to remind you of that.

As far as food quality and décor go, well, who really wants to read about that? Flapjacks are flapjacks and wallpaper is wallpaper. Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more we’ve got to say about our breakfast adventures — and more breakfast adventures to be had — so look forward to our next report, which we’ll probably get around to sharing by next winter.

48 Comments

jessige

about 7 years ago

This is the best post of all time.

No Good Bum

about 7 years ago

You know, I've never been there to eat, but Z's Deli in the Holiday Center serves breakfast, I think. I know I've seen they have a counter to eat at, but can't remember if I've seen booths in there...maybe that's what disqualifies them.

Drew

about 7 years ago

You need two additional charts to truly make this the best post of all time. 1.) How many hours do they cook the coffee before it's served. "Value" coffee requires considerable time on a burner to get that diner taste. 2.) Your picture teases the reader that you'll note the odd condiments available at each diner. How many kinds of hot sauce, steak sauce and yellow mustard does each diner offer? (Side note: does the presence of good mustard of any sort eliminate them from the "diner" category? Thank you for the time and commitment required to make this a reality.

john

about 7 years ago

Randy's rules!

bluenewt

about 7 years ago

I had a surprisingly good breakfast at Billy's when I was waiting for the Beargrease finishers to come in. Does a bar count as a counter? Is Billy's within the Duluth city limits?

samh

about 7 years ago

I'm left drooling for more breakfast discussion complete with charts and analysis.

Elden

about 7 years ago

A brilliant post indeed. I was truly bummed when they closed the Jim's Hamburgers on East 4th st. Although it was right by Louie's, it had a better feel. Now it is a Quizno's, which is insulting. Oddly, I have never been to the Jim's in west end because I would need to drive there. Location makes a big difference in which diner I go to. Being a true diner patron also takes a time investment. It is a much better experience when the wait staff takes your order by saying, "The Usual?", from about 15 feet away from your table. You should also award bonus points if the person who takes your order is the person who cooks it.

zra

about 7 years ago

This rawks! Exactly the kind of hard hitting high impact investigative journalism that is sorely lacking in this town... No worries on not repping the 'kef, either. A cup o mud, good or bad, shouldn't be out of proportion to the cost of the food on the menu, and with today's prices, a buck for a cup of coffee is a small price to pay for cheap grub at the counter, and just may be integral in keeping said establishment in business... That said, I wholeheartedly concur with your assesment that the sunshine has it made, though when my mom visits from Texas, she actually prefers the Coney for breakfast. Keep up the awesome work guys!

Paul Lundgren

about 7 years ago

Billy's Supper Club is about one mile outside of Duluth, in Rice Lake Township. Does a bar qualify as a counter? We asked ourselves that question when determining if the Tappa Keg should be included in our report. We decided that a bar is not a counter, because the Tappa Keg only serves breakfast on weekends and for that reason we needed to find an excuse to exclude it without creating another rule.

Lufthansa

about 7 years ago

This list is rendered completely moot due to the existence of the East End Cafe in Superior. It destroys every one of the cafes graded in your charts. It also has the best eggs benedict and omelets the size of your head. Quantity, not quality makes the diner.

Ann Klefstad

about 7 years ago

To the previous commenter: Billy's is darn good, but it's a roadhouse, not a diner. And shame! for not mentioning the Finnish pancakes at Sunshine. They are not "flapjacks." They carry into the future the surviving aura of the lamented Ketola's, which woulda been on your list if it had survived.

Paul Lundgren

about 7 years ago

R.I.P. Ketola's, Streamliner Diner, Joyce Carlson's Kitchen, Lundahl's Coffee Shop, Ray's Grill and so on and so on. I rarely eat pancakes, but I have heard over and over again that the Finnish pancakes at the Sunshine are awesome, so thanks for mentioning that, Ann.

Fitz

about 7 years ago

While we dislike children in person, we love them in photograph form, because they are adorable and silent.
In one sentence, you have articulated my attitude toward children much more deftly than I have ever managed.

aleasha

about 7 years ago

Brilliant! I can't wait until the next installment -- bar graphs are a must (pie charts a possibility?). The old men and excessive condiments go hand in hand. Great insight about the pink of the Sunshine drawing ladies in. If you've seen their ladies room you may understand a deeper cause for the attraction.

patty

about 7 years ago

Hysterical! And, I loved the same sentence that Fitz quoted: "While we dislike children in person, we love them in photograph form, because they are adorable and silent." Summed it all up for me. Thanks for the reviews. For the record, Z's deli does have booths, and a counter, as Claire noted...so do they qually?

Paul Lundgren

about 7 years ago

The idea of going to Z's Deli never crossed our minds. We can probably disqualify it, though, for for being located in a mall. Barrett and I will have to discuss this ruling over breakfast some time.

adam

about 7 years ago

I think if you can get a Bloody Mary it's not a diner. Or is that just MN?

girlfromnorthcountry

about 7 years ago

Pffft. Z's Deli might be in a mall, but it's the Holiday Mall. I hardly think the Holiday should be considered a mall. If only the Delta Diner were closer!! Puts all these diners to shame! And, I also agree with Fitz. Wholeheartedly.

Chris

about 7 years ago

Re: Coney Island ... "But the breakfasts are much better than the coney dogs"??? So is this a statement on how great their breakfast is or how bad their coneys are? Or some combination of both?

greg cougar conley

about 7 years ago

@lufthansa: if we're going to talk Superior breakfast, East End Cafe can cower and snivel at the feet of the Kitchen. The Kitchen (formerly Kitche's Kitchen) is the utmost for breakfast in Souptown. It probably does not have eggs benny, but that is a rather highfalutin breakfast for that side of the bridge. The Kitchen is delicious, cheap as hell and you get your food in 7 minutes.

Paul Lundgren

about 7 years ago

Coney Island's breakfasts and coneys are both good, but the breakfasts are better. There's something about coney dogs in general that makes them simultaneously awesome and gross. Breakfast is just awesome. When smoking was still allowed in Superior restaurants, the Kitchen had a non-smoking section which consisted of one table. Similar to my issue with coney dogs, I found the single-table non-smoking section to be simultaneously awesome and gross.

c-freak

about 7 years ago

Ditto on the Kitchen. And they do have eggs ben.

lee

about 7 years ago

Big Daddy's in Piedmont Heights serves a pretty darn good breakfast. They seem to have a regular following of locals too.

wildgoose

about 7 years ago

Uncle Loui's is best in my book although at a certain point it becomes splitting hairs, I do love Sunshine. I love Coney Island ... One category that I expect Uncle Loui's to easily win place or show in is the gregarious, boundary blurring wait staff. Or the "Flo" effect for those who grew up w/ 80s sitcoms. While Mrs. Goose was pregnant we would often stop by for lunch after pre-natal Doctors appointments. The server lady encouraged Mrs. Goose to "eat, eat, eat more." One time I think she even brought over a glass of milk and told us we couldn't leave til Mrs. Goose drank it. We love being treated like that. Another factor I think Loui's would win is maybe what you'd call the glad handing effect. As in, the number of familiar people you see on your runs from the table to the john and back. These are people you know well enough to smile and/or nod, possibly shake hands with, but not necessarily talk to. If you need to talk to them then it is more of a barber shop effect, probably Jim's or Randy's would win there.

Lojasmo

about 7 years ago

Total tangent, but alakef is the worst. Coffee. Ever.

Claire

about 7 years ago

I love me some Alakef Highland Grog!

tom

about 7 years ago

Another vote for Big Daddy's. Art created by Piedmont Elem kids is typically displayed, yet I have no memory of seeing any actual children within.

dbrewing

about 7 years ago

@lojasmo So too think Alakef is worse than generic coffee? I think it's excellent and would rather pay $2 + for it than $1 for Sysco swill. Do you like coffee? What are your favorite coffees? Are you thinking of Arco?

mlatsch

about 7 years ago

I really appreciate the work that went into this post, all you need now is some chi-squared tests for significance of difference, a few citations, and off to the journals.

wildgoose

about 7 years ago

The best thing about Alakef, besides the excellent taste and aroma, is the impact it has had on the local scene, bringing in jobs to an area that was in sharp decline in the 1980s. Speaking of 80s decline and that Endion area, The original Louis' Cafes, including one down there on London Road where Plush Pippin used to be, were my favorite food place in the 80s-90s. I was sad to see them go. Would they fit this diner category? Certainly not Perkin's, but definitely not Jim's Hamburgers either.

MJH

about 7 years ago

Went to Billy's for breakfast last saturday. The one element that is missing from all the breakfast discussion is the ability to have a beer/bloody mary with your breakfast. A pint of Summit Pale Ale and a big ol breakfast burrito was a great way to start the day.

jessige

about 7 years ago

The mention of pie charts makes me think that the next topic ought to be pie. Because pie is the best dessert. And wildgoose is right--the Louie's on London Road was crazy good. Their pancakes were out of this world...pumpkinny goodness.

Taxidancer

about 7 years ago

Does anyone remember that diner in the Meierhoff building? I ate there a number of times in the early 1990s. It had lots of retro decor. I cannot remember the name of it. They had some great breakfasts.

bluenewt

about 7 years ago

Big Daddy's also has really good skin-on fries that appear to be homemade. Which has nothing to do with breakfast but is worth telling the world about.

tom

about 7 years ago

@bluenewt - yep, you can watch them putting whole potatoes into a dicer contraption while sitting at the counter. They do the same with sweet potatoes too.

sgizas

about 7 years ago

This kind of foolishness is right up my alley.

Vicarious

about 7 years ago

This is probably not the place, but...I'm gonna plant the seed for a PDD discussion of the TOTALLY INSANE popularity (especially on weekends) of the Duluth Grill.

Danny G

about 7 years ago

Vicarious...I think I may be on your side on that one.

Lufthansa

about 7 years ago

Duluth Grill is overrated. Vastly overrated. The Kitchen doesn't even hold a candle to the EEC. Knowing the family that owns tK, I wouldn't step foot in that joint. Holy unsanitary people, batman.

Bad Cat!

about 7 years ago

I love the Duluth Grill - I'm glad they are getting the attention they deserve. What's EEC?

Paul Lundgren

about 7 years ago

My favorite is LM and KH. KYI is terrible. LPR is not bad. Wait, what the hell are we discussing?

Merino

about 7 years ago

Yeah, Big Daddy's would fit right in! Good place.

Barrett Chase

about 7 years ago

As long as I get my RDA of B, C, and E, I don't care if the owner is on PCP.

Bad Cat!

about 7 years ago

Big Daddies reminds me of a christian version of the Anchor Bar.

Bill

about 7 years ago

Ever since they banned smoking, diners are not what they used to be. I know I'm home when some ruff lookin' lady with a lipstick-smeared cig stuck to her lip comes up and leans two well-tattooed arms on my table and says in a voice two octaves too low for a gal, "whada ya want, sonny?" You know, a comfortable place where you maybe only need your smaller handgun. Think Mickey's Diner in St. Paul at 4 in the morning. Now that's the way a real breakfast should go down. Sadly Duluth has become too gentrified.

tamara

about 7 years ago

@BadCat: LOLS! @Vicarious: I totally agree with you. I love their food (especially the red flannel hash with sour cream) but I don't enjoy the wait. It's fine when it's just me and the Z, but when we've got little kids along, waiting a 1/2 hour or 45 minutes is just not feasible, and that seems to happen more often than not. I'm surprised they let you in without pants.

rhetor!

about 7 years ago

This should have been submitted to a print publication and you should have been paid for it, it's that entertaining a read.

MonaE

about 7 years ago

It's been many years since I've lived in Duluth but was happy to hear that the Sunshine Cafe is still there. We always ate there on weekends & loved the food & the wonderful service Young gave us. Kudos to Young & Steve!

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