Living in Boston, I wake up every morning to an enviable American dilemma: what to do for breakfast? Diner food, the great American breakfast, is a wondrous down-home institution: eggs sunnyside-up or over-easy, crispy bacon, thick pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, maple syrup poured liberally over everything. Served all day and any way you want it. But there’s a new kid on the block: the artisanal coffee house where your day begins with single-estate espresso or a bitter chocolate cappuccino so carefully made it beats the pants off anything you drink in Rome. I am eternally torn between the old and the new.
Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe was established 1927 in Boston’s South End and has never changed. Four children of the first employee, Christi Manjourides, a Greek immigrant who came through Ellis Island as a child, still work there every day. The floor is the original tile; Norman Rockwell red vinyl stools line up along a Formica counter, worn white in places with decades of wiping. On the wall framed memorabilia track American history: a telegram from Duke Ellington asking them to keep the coat he left behind so that he could pick it up next time, Obama on the campaign trail ordering a hamburger to go. The South End used to be a working class neighbourhood of boarding houses and immigrants. It has gentrified, but still, on a frigid February morning, the regulars are much as they have always been, local Boston.
Adam, who works for the municipal sewer and water services, is sitting on the same stool he always sits on, tucking into his usual cranberry pancakes: “Charlie’s is like my living room.” Dan, a self described “irregular regular,” says he’s going to have something different today: “I want two fried eggs with sausage, whole-wheat toast, home fries, yeah, but only a half portion…”
Marie Manjourides briskly writes it down on her pad—“and can we butter your toast for you?” A couple of seats down the counter the Metro editor from the Boston Globe is chatting to a man who has the suit and tie of a councilman. “He comes in every day,” Marie says, pouring me more coffee. “People come in every day and become like family. Sometimes I say we’re kind of stuck in a time warp.”
Her brother, Arthur, works the stove with precise and relaxed concentration, omelettepan- shake, one-handed egg crack, pancake flip. I order the…