I promptly put Rick & Ann's, a venerable (since 1989!) Berkeley place, on my to-try list, and the opportunity to do so came up very quickly, when my friends Suzanne and Peter drove up from Los Angeles to stay with his parents, who live on the edge of Tilden Park. It's a weekday, midmorning, and we have to wait for only about 10 minutes before we're escorted to a nice window table from which we can keep an eye on their dog Cali (short for, yes, California), who is happily leashed to a tree nearby and enjoying her sidewalk breakfast, thoughtfully brought along by her adoring family. (I am slightly shocked when Suzanne, who dotes on her daughter Rikki, says that she thinks dogs confer many of the benefits of parenthood on their owners. "Except conversation," I say, but I can tell she thinks I just don't know how to speak dog.)
Because it's breakfast, a meal priced reasonably enough that we can afford to be extravagant, we order three egg dishes plus French toast (Peter's favorite) and a plate of chicken-apple sausage to share. We are thrilled with our meal. The eggs are cooked just as we asked, my first requirement for a perfect breakfast: an American-style soft -- that is, not as runny as the French and I prefer -- fresh-spinach-and-cheddar omelet for Suzanne; a Sam I Am Scramble for me, just as custardy as I like it to be, with smoked ham, pesto, sweet peppers, onions, and jack cheese; and two over easy for Peter, with a lovely vegetarian hash of sweet and white potatoes, bell peppers, fresh corn, and apples. Suzanne's and my plates come with home fries made from a mixture of several potato varieties, some cooked crisp, some mealy, with sautéed onions and a bit of sour cream and chopped green onions. We're all offered our choice of toast or freshly baked muffins or scones (today's assortment includes lovely nectarine scones and strawberry or bran muffins). The French toast (called Erica's) is made with thick slices of challah dipped in an unusually fragrant orange-cardamom batter. We like the juicy sausage. We are getting enough to eat.
I grab a bag of reduced-price day-old peach scones for my mom, the tea-with-scone queen. We have had such a good meal and a delightful, relaxed time that I am not surprised when there is a request for brunch when Suzanne and Peter return to the Bay Area a few months later. If Rikki had been with us, I might have taken us back to Rick & Ann's, so she could try her namesake French toast, but she's not, so we decide to try Rose's Cafe in Cow Hollow, after I call and am told we won't have to wait more than 15 minutes.
And it's almost exactly a quarter of an hour before we're offered a sunny sidewalk table (a trifle too sunny; Suzanne has to keep edging her chair around to avoid being broiled by the noontime rays). I'm tempted by the breakfast pizza with fontina, smoked ham, and two sunny-side-up eggs that I see headed for another table, but I've spent the last couple of days breakfasting on leftover linguiça-and-onion pizza, so I choose a similar but more modest offering: a sandwich of smoked ham, fontina, and one egg on ciabatta. It's just what I want. The ingredients are top-notch, especially the fat, crisp-crusted little roll. Suzanne has a pretty plate of creamy yellow polenta topped with chicken-tarragon sausage, poached eggs (whose runny yolks tint the dish an even brighter yellow), and a bit of spicy, fresh tomato sauce, staining the polenta rosy at the edges. Peter's French toast, named after Rose this time, is so thoroughly imbued with its batter that he happily says, "This is like bread pudding!" I think its garnish of fresh strawberries and whipped cream makes it taste delightfully like strawberry shortcake.
Our extravagance takes the form of a plate of assorted baked goods. We choose three from the tempting array on the counter inside: an extraordinarily tender sour cream coffeecake, with a delicate and pale vanilla-scented crumb; an iced orange brioche that elicits murmurs of pleasure; and an almond croissant that would ordinarily be quite satisfactory, but suffers because of its proximity to two such brilliant pastries. They're excellent companions for the terrific beverages (coffee for me, caffe latte in a bowl for Peter, real brewed loose English Breakfast tea for Suzanne). My only complaint as we drive away is that it hadn't occurred to me to order some brioche and coffeecake to go.
While shared breakfasts seem reasonable in price compared to dinner out, solitary breakfasts feel luxurious, even a trifle decadent. When I take myself to the tiny cafe called Desiree, tucked away in one of the Presidio's buildings (otherwise occupied by film offices), I feel like Alice at the tea party -- especially since my feet don't touch the floor once I've tucked myself snugly into the corner of the burgundy-upholstered banquette. (There's room for eight at four tables for two, and another eight at two tables for four, across the room.) You order at the long green marble counter, where the women greet nearly everyone by name, as the place serves as a de facto canteen for the complex and there are lots of orders to go. The coffee is strong and superb, the orange juice freshly squeezed, and, though I usually don't send things back, my eggs are so clearly scrambled hard that I dare to do so. The replacements are perfect, moist and with the extra snipped green onions that I had requested, and they come with generous slices of beautiful buttery house-made gravlax, ripe melon, berries, and grapes, buttered sourdough toast, and raspberry jam so good that I assume it, too, is house-made (but no, explains the waitress, "It's French"). Everything is of such delicacy, such seriousness, that I wonder if I will have the Irish oatmeal with golden raisins and brown sugar or the scrambled egg with goat cheese and Swiss chard sandwich when I return. I linger over my coffee. And this time I leave with an apricot-hazelnut scone and a slice of plum-almond tart, mindful of my earlier error.
As I exit past the alluringly huge black-and-white photographs of directors honored by the San Francisco International Film Festival (Clint Eastwood, Michael Powell, Abbas Kiarostami) that line the hallway, I think that out-of-towners would be charmed by this hidden-away treasure. Not, I recall with a shudder, like the time I invited David and Jeffrey to meet me at Sears Fine Food for breakfast -- a place I remembered with pleasure when, decades ago, my grandma Sara and I would pause from our labors at I. Magnin and the City of Paris and treat ourselves (well, she would treat me) to plates of tiny Swedish pancakes. That day I got there early and was shocked by how grungy and badly cared-for Sears seemed. The multicolored carpet was worn and dingy; there was grimy duct tape patching a telephone booth in the entrance. "Cash only" signs sent tourists fleeing to the dual ATMs outside. I didn't like either the harsh overhead lighting or the clear plastic covering the white tablecloths. When the boys showed up, I whisked them off down the street to the St. Francis, where the breakfast room was windowless but considerably less alarming.
Weeks later, I returned on my own to try the "internationally famous 18 pancakes." They were decent, only $5.75, served with real butter and maple syrup (U.S. Grade A Dark Amber), and the coffee was strong. But as I passed the lineup of breakfasters waiting to serve their time in the charmless setting, I wished I could slip them the addresses of the places where I'd had my blissful morning meals.