A few months ago, the national website LocalEats.com unveiled its list of the top 20 breakfast restaurants in America. It may surprise you to learn that upon that distinguished directory landed a longstanding, nondescript diner on a weary stretch of Leavenworth Street west of downtown.
Tony Caniglia's 11-Worth Cafe has been serving breakfast and lunch since 1976, and it shows. One of my favorite things about the restaurant — and there was a lot I liked during two recent breakfasts — is the lack of any pretense or gimmickry. This is not a diner peddling faux-1950s nostalgia.
If the untouched aesthetic of the 11-Worth evokes any particular era, it's more like stepping into spring 1988. Danny Manning and the Miracles from the University of Kansas have just upended Oklahoma for the NCAA championship. People are increasingly obsessed with John Gotti. “Beetlejuice” just came out.
It's a place for crossword puzzles to be done and conversations to be had, where food comes fast, hot and cheap, and where the veteran waitstaff know how to get you seated, served and back into the world as quickly as you want without ever making you feel rushed.
A few weeks ago I met a friend there for an early weekday breakfast, and I'm fairly certain time stood still. We ate at a leisurely pace, talked a considerable amount of politics, football, then more politics, and by the time we parted ways, a mere 45 minutes had passed. I've been trapped in the drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant longer than that.
Not only did I leave with the pleasant buzz of a good conversation to start my day, I had a meal for $5.49 that carried me through lunch. I ordered about as straightforward a breakfast as there is: the 11-Worth's “2 x 2 x 2” (two eggs over easy, two strips of bacon, two slices of toast and hash browns) and, because there's a part of me that will always be 12 years old, I substituted a pancake for my toast.
What can I say about such a classic breakfast? Every item was hot and delicious. The eggs were cooked perfectly and possessed the greasy kitchen-grill foundation no home-cooked egg can mimic. Given the choice of crispy or less crispy bacon, I ordered less crispy, despite the fact that even as I said it I preferred the former. The bacon that arrived, though, wasn't the least bit flimsy.
If it's silly to say the hash browns stole the show, so be it. I once worked at a slimy, poorly lit restaurant where the hash browns were cooked in a mass quantity every Sunday morning and then distributed until they ran out, often as late as Wednesday. To this day, when someone references the law of diminishing returns, I think of those hazardous potato shreds.
The hashbrowns served at the 11-Worth were made to order, or at least fooled me into thinking so. They were crispy on the outside and cooked through without being overly greasy or mushy on the inside. I didn't even reach for ketchup.
My friend opted for the breakfast quesadilla, filled with two scrambled eggs, shredded cheese, diced onions, tomato and sausage, and served with toast and hashbrowns. For a breakfast traditionalist like me, his was a bold order, but I was impressed with the wedge I tried.
As coffee goes, I prefer black, narcotic-grade, tremor-inducing brew, so the slightly watery mug I got was weak for my taste. But that was pretty much it for complaints. As I looked around the room, I couldn't help but notice how well-kept the place looked. Tables were turned over quickly, the floors were kept clean. It might have felt like 1988 in there, but it was a fresh 1988.
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As restaurants go, greasy spoons get a lot of leeway, and so when one clearly demonstrates a pride in their day-to-day operations, it's worth noting. At the 11-Worth Cafe, that pride stems from the family-owned nature of the business, making its way into a third generation.
About 15 years ago, Tony Caniglia Sr. handed the restaurant off to his son Tony Jr., whose daughter Christine, 30, now a manager, figures to take the reins when the time comes.
“I was brought up in this,” she said. “I was busing tables at age 5. I've been in this my whole life.”
There are staff members who have been in it her whole life, too. On my second visit, I was fortunate enough to be served by Linda, one of the cafe's most tenured servers, who had a preternatural knack for knowing exactly when something at my table should be removed or replenished. By the time I said “thank you” for a refilled water or check delivery, Linda was already on her way back to the kitchen, answering “you're welcome” over-her-shoulder with an emphasis on “you're” that made me feel inexplicably special.
I ordered the Everything Omelette, based almost entirely on the totality of its name, and for the most part liked what I got. The one misfire was a slice of American cheese melted on top, which I slid off. The inside was stuffed with diced ham, tomatoes, mushrooms and more cheese. I consumed three-fourths of the omelette and half an order of toast before calling it quits.
As you'd expect, there are regulars the Caniglias see every morning for breakfast, and then there's even a subset who return for lunch. There are also people who walk in for the first time after years of driving by the restaurant on their way downtown.
“I hear that at least once a week,” Christine Caniglia said.
So it was with me. I did the math, and in the past six years I'd probably driven by the place close to 700 times. Never thought of eating there. Now that I finally stopped, I'll be back.
Breakfast comes hot and cheap and it's 1988 all over again. George Harrison is making music videos with saxophone-playing squirrels, the California Raisins exist and Michael Keaton is a box-office draw.
“You're welcome,” Linda says, and I believe her.
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