In July, twenty-one years ago, after driving 3,000 miles across the country, my sister and I stopped at Berkeley, the terminus. It was late and we were hungry – not to mention confused by the unfamiliar summer cold. Since we were in a university town and also in America, we rolled down the window and asked some passers-by to lead us to the nearest diner.
“Hmm,” said a man perplexed. Misty silence.
“Um, kinda… there aren’t any,” his friend said. And that’s how we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
With come-as-you-are booths, counter service, and satisfyingly cheap hot coffee, classic diners almost everywhere else in this country set the stage for high school, college, hangovers, family treats, famous movie scenes, and every road trip of all time. They’re simple, homey, chrome-hued havens for everyone and everyone, and before the pandemic, they typically offered extensive menus (including an all-day breakfast) morning, noon, and into the wee hours.
But even before COVID, the East Bay was a place where a good restaurant was mysteriously hard to find. An independent, 24-hour eatery like Nikko’s Family Restaurant (RIP) was a local anomaly in a land of fancier cafes. And no, national franchises and faux-retro novelty chains — usually overpriced and over-chromed, with no real heart — don’t really count. If you can’t picture Thelma and Louise at a nearby table, contemplating next steps, or at least a quiet regular in work boots downing biscuits and gravy before his shift, the atmosphere is wrong.
Luckily we have some local spots with diner-like charm — home-style breakfasts, laid-back service, and nostalgic comforts — though not many remain after the last two years. Along with Nikko’s, we ask for a minute’s silence for late favorites Au Coquelet, Emery Bay Cafe, Tribu, Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe and Albany’s still obscure Royal Cafe, among others. Meanwhile, the following consistent guests proudly offer a win-win situation to today’s budget-conscious breakfast customers. And yes, a hearty plate of eggs with a side of old-school charm that costs less than $15 these days is a win.
Enjoy, don’t forget the cup of coffee, and please let us know your East Bay Diner favorites in the comments or by emailing us, we’re at email@example.com.
BUTTERCUP DINER This no-frills, family-owned mini-chain has five East Bay locations, the original established in 1988 on Jack London Square. The restaurant was a campaign stop for Biden in 2020 just before the lockdown, where he ordered a slice of coconut cream pie. Two eggs and bacon: $13.99. Lplaces are listed online.
DREAM FLUFF DONUTS What some may not know is that this popular Elmwood neighborhood has delicious donuts as well as cheap, diner-style breakfasts. Food is mostly take away, but there are a few small tables inside. Two eggs, two pieces of bacon and toast: $6.95. 2637 Ashby Ave. (near college), Berkeley
FATAPPLES There’s a reassuring reliability to Fatapples’ home-style, diner-like vibe at its two restaurants, Berkeley (still only open for takeout, with a limited menu) and El Cerrito. Get a cake to go, trust us. Two eggs and fries at the El Cerrito location: $7.25. 7525 Fairmount Ave. (near Colusa Avenue), El Cerrito and 1346 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (near Rose Street), Berkeley
H&J’S RESTAURANT A descendant of the wonderful Inn Kensington, whose more upscale vibe falls just short of this list (but you should go), H&J’s (in the former Nibs estate, see below) keeps those homemade biscuits and scrambled eggs on family, but adds a touch more down-homeyness. Spacious rear parking lot turned into a simple tent patio in COVID; Friendly service and good food warm things up. Two eggs, homemade potatoes, and your choice of bread, biscuit, or tortilla: $9.95. 10841 San Pablo Ave. (near Orchard Avenue), El Cerrito
HOMEMADE CAFE We love the honest, warm welcome, the nutritious cuisine and the constant little improvements in comfort, such as: B. the updated outdoor seating at this neighborhood corner restaurant. Two eggs with homefries, toast, and your choice of grits or black beans: $12. 2454 Sacramento St. (near Dwight Way), Berkeley
JIM’S Alameda has an undeniably old-school family vibe, so it’s no wonder some of the area’s classic diners are found here. Jim’s is one of the warmest, no-frills establishments on this list. Two eggs with hash browns and your choice of toast: $10.69. 2333 Lincoln Ave. (near Park Street), Alameda
LAMA BEANS This little cafe on Gilman is on the IYKYK list for savvy diners looking for comfort food. Two Eggs with Homefries and Toast: $9.75. 1290 Sixth St. (on Gilman Street), Berkeley
MAMA’S ROYAL Such a favourite, Mama’s cozy wooden nooks and diner-like interiors win all nostalgia awards. Though the vibe is homey, the breakfast, brunch, and lunch fare here is simply better. Two eggs with your choice of homemade potatoes, grits or fresh fruit and toast: $11. 4012 Broadway (near 40th Street), Oakland
NIBS This pioneering diner served guests in El Cerrito until a kitchen fire closed it in 2013. It moved to West Oakland during the pandemic and has established itself as a warm, welcoming place in the neighborhood. Two eggs with grits, home fries or rice, your choice of fresh fruit and bread: $8.45. 3112 Market St. 9 near 31st Street), Oakland
OCEANVIEW DINER One of this year’s happier stories, the Oceanview Diner, formerly Bette’s Oceanview, was saved from closure and became a worker-owned business – and is becoming all the more popular for it. We know it’s on swanky Fourth Street and often has the same prices, but this pretty, shiny Berkeley diner has a big heart. Two eggs, homefries, and a choice of toast or pastry: $13.50. 1807 Fourth St. (near Delaware Street), Berkeley
OLE’S WAFFLE SHOP Ole’s opened in Alameda in 1927, as old fashioned as it gets on the Bay. era Breakfast and lunch on the covered terrace at Wine & Waffles next door. Waffles, hotcakes, freshly squeezed juice and good coffee are touchstones here. Two eggs, hash browns or grits, and toast: $10.25. 1507 Park St. (near Santa Clara Avenue), Alameda
ORIGINAL POLLO Certainly a classic, old-fashioned diner The Original Pollo (to locals “Pollo” or “Pollo’s”) has been the anchor point of downtown Shattuck and Addison since 1986, with its low ceilings, friendly service and big plates Berkeley comfort cooking, street tables, and all-day breakfast (though the budget-friendly burritos and chicken might be the bigger stars here). Two Eggs, Homefries, and Toast or Muffin: $9.45. 100A Berkeley Square, Berkeley
PARADISE PARK CAFE Hearty cuisine, comfortable sidewalk seating and a welcoming, neighborly vibe have kept this breezy corner cafe busy for the past several years. Two eggs, bacon, and potato dumplings: $8.95. 6334 San Pablo Ave. (near Alcatraz Avenue), Oakland
RICK AND ANN’S Rick and Ann are among the greats – often voted among the best – when it comes to home cooking. Rick and Ann started their Oakland restaurant in 1989 when they realized how few old-fashioned eateries were around. Keyword endless rows of fans — the same fans who eventually helped the restaurant endure the pandemic. Sole remaining owner Ann Lauer also owns Ann’s Catering. Two eggs with home fries and your choice of bread: $10. 2922 Domingo Ave. (near Ashby Avenue), Berkeley
SAM’S LOG CABIN The delightful diner interior of this Albany mainstay is undersized for COVID safety, so customers can now enjoy their homestyle specials on the extended, heated and overall pretty garden patio. A long wait on San Pablo Avenue is part of the experience here and well worth it. Two eggs, potatoes and toast: $11. 945 San Pablo Ave. (near Solano Avenue), Albany
SEQUOIA DINER Certainly a swankier diner — seasonal California-style fare, stylish digs, they even make their own bacon — but coveted in the Laurel District for its welcoming, community-focused ambience. Two eggs, potatoes, homemade sourdough and… arugula salad: $13. 3719 MacArthur Blvd. (near Loma Vista Avenue), Oakland
Featured image: Breakfast at the Oceanview Diner. Credit: Quinn Dombrowski