There’s a line just inside the door at Ole’s Waffle Shop, and it’s only ten before 11:00 on a Friday morning. My friends and I came on a weekday to avoid the weekend rush, and I guess we are. We only have to wait five minutes before squeezing into our table, a corner booth with a good view.
Like much of bustling Park Street, Ole’s Waffle Shop looks almost like a movie set, the quintessential small-town diner. The deep room is wide enough for two rows of two-person booths and a counter that stretches back to the short-order station. Latticework arches rimmed with Christmas lights line one of the orange and mustard walls, and a trellis of plastic flowers greets incoming diners. Which includes just about everybody in Alameda.
“My mom and dad bought Ole’s when I was seventeen, which was thirty years ago,” said Vickie Summerfield, who now runs Ole’s with her husband, Court. Vickie has worked in the restaurant for those thirty years, and the couple is now buying the restaurant from her mother. Ole Swanson founded the waffle shop in 1927. After he died, it changed hands twice before Vickie’s father purchased Ole’s “for a hundred dollars and a handshake,” remodeled it, and slowly built up the business. Now Ole’s is an Alameda institution.
But its classic diner breakfast (Ole’s also serves lunch and dinner) doesn’t taste institutional. The “breakfast special” — NO SUBSTITUTIONS — comes with ham steak, two eggs, and three pancakes. The ham steak is thick and pink, not too salty and just juicy enough, and the eggs are cooked just like we ordered. The three pancakes look like they have been poured into a ring mold, so identical and perfectly formed are they. We tackle them last, and twenty minutes after they came off the grill they still taste like clouds.
Tammy’s omelette, made with three eggs that must have been laid by giant monster chickens, is thick and fluffy and topped with underseasoned chunks of ground beef, onions, spinach, and American cheese. It comes with better-than-average hash browns, to which we add a side order of thickly cut smoked bacon.
The pancakes have earned Ole’s some renown, but the waffles are above the marquee, made according to Ole Swanson’s original recipe. Thin but light — egg-white light — and garnished with a perfect sphere of whipped butter, they soak up the heated syrup like a sponge.
The sole disappointment is the biscuits and gravy, with soft but decidedly unflaky biscuits and a lily-white sausage-flecked cream gravy that should have been made with drippings for some meat flavor. It’s a typical Californian fault that reminds me why it took a while for this state to join the union.
Across the room we spy one glamorous waitress in a shiny purple and pink satin shirt with a matching fabric flower in her hair. Our server is cheery in that bright-eyed Midwestern way that terrifies East Coasters and perturbs smug San Franciscans, but it makes the Hoosier in me feel right at home. She and the buser don’t miss a thing, and they leave us to talk just as long as we want. Which, despite the line, is what everyone does at Ole’s.
When I first started asking Alameda residents about their favorite local restaurants, two names kept popping up: Ole’s and Tillie’s. “You can always find a good brunch,” said folks, bemoaning the lack of fine dining. More and more theirs is a false complaint, but the island’s mid-20th-century ambience seems to have resisted the gourmetification that has occurred in its neighboring cities. So I decided to see where all the real Alamedans are eating.
Tillie’s, on the quiet end of the Webster Street business corridor, offers a different kind of 1960s diner charm from Ole’s, cool and sedate rather than brown and bustling. Its ceiling is crisscrossed with aqua-colored beams, from which hang an asymmetrical pattern of inverted martini- and globe-shaped lamps. The booths along the windows — and there are a lot of windows — are upholstered in taupe and beige Naugahyde, and the wood-grained tables are just big enough for four thin close friends.
On weekends, a battered legal pad appears for folks to write down their names and party sizes while they wait for a table. On a second Friday visit, though, two empty tables mark the spaces between customers.
At the heart of the room is a narrow, V-shaped counter of wood-grained linoleum, its apex the cash register near the door. One longtime regular, with enough time to nurse his supersize Coke down to the ice cubes, sits near the point so he can chat up the waitresses as they stop by to ring customers up. Halfway through breakfast, late-1990s drum and bass music, at once skittish and brooding, starts playing over the loudspeakers. No one looks up.
“We never really figured out if there was a real Tillie,” says Adolfo Lazo, whose mother Isidora has owned Tillie’s for the past fifteen years. Before they bought Tillie’s from longtime owner Paul Rider, the Lazo family had owned Albert’s Cafe down the street, which they purchased in 1974; they sold it several years ago to the head cook. Things changed on the Webster Street corridor when the Navy base closed. Business slowed, the street got a little quieter, and Adolfo took over and simplified the menu. Slowly, though, it’s picking up, along with the rest of the neighborhood. “Now we even get lunch customers from Jack London Square.”
According to my friend Dawn, who lives several blocks away, Tillie’s is “a great place to drop in for a burger. When my husband and I were refinishing our floors we couldn’t eat in the house, so we would come over here in our grimy coveralls and no one would bother us.”
Our waitress doesn’t have much time to talk but she breezes by frequently, dangling a coffee pot like a clutch and smiling at all our jokes. She forgets who ordered the corned beef hash but remembers that one friend gets regular and I get decaf, murmuring the type of coffee as she pours it into our mugs so that we don’t have to ask.
Tillie’s menu is tipped further to the side of lunch and dinner — more burgers, more dinner plates. Like Ole’s, it sports a low-cal platter with cottage cheese, but the guacamole on Dawn’s burger attests to Adolfo’s recent revisions.
The guacamole adds a creamy, sensuous note to her straight-up burger. The patty has been griddled until well-done, which is legally appropriate but gastronomically unfortunate, and topped with ripe tomatoes, onions, and green lettuce (not iceberg) in addition to the guac. The fries on the side haven’t lost their crisp.
The rest of us stick to brunch. My omelette is scrambled with tiny cubes of ham until just moist, then folded around a Kraft single. Another Kraft single melts on top, a shiny orange square. The chunky home fries, cooked until tender but not until the edges had browned, need a dose of hot sauce. A banana-nut Belgian waffle is crowned with four two-inch-high swirls of canned whipped cream; we can barely see the waffle underneath, let alone the chopped walnuts and thinly sliced bananas scattered over it. It is cakey rather than light. But a drizzle of heated syrup melds with the cream, nuts, and fruit to make for a decadent first meal of the day. My favorite is an oval-shaped heap of corned beef hash, tiny cubed potatoes, and onions mixed into the soft, rich, salty meat. It comes with a slab of hash browns, crunchy and brown on one side.
“It’s like Denny’s food,” observes one friend, who grew up in a Denny’s town.
“Yeah, Denny’s food, but better,” says another firmly. There’s a qualitative difference, one that sometimes shows through in subtle ways, sometimes quite clearly. In days when chains, both upscale and down, are continuing to proliferate, those differences are making little independent diners like Ole’s and Tillie’s stand out. As Adolfo told me, “When I was a kid, McDonald’s was cool. Now we get little kids telling their parents they want to go to Tillie’s for a burger.”