What I’m Riding . . . Tampa breakfast

Some of Tampa’s finest

I love breakfast food.  All kinds, any time of day.  I have a few specialties I make for myself at home, one being my version of Florentine Benedict, which is a fried egg, spinach and Tostitos cheese sauce open-faced on a bagel.  I also like to make spinach, tomato and egg white omelettes and home fries with loads of onions.  A late night snack is a bagel with onion and chive spread, capers, cucumber and tomato.  Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, corn flakes, Life–I eat them for dessert like people eat cake.  Pop tarts are my cookies.

My dad liked to cook, and although he wasn’t Gordon Ramsay, he wasn’t half bad.  But I assure you no one could touch his breakfast.  When he made breakfast–mainly down the shore on two hot plates, no easy feat, I assure you–it was an event.  He’d start at seven in the morning and by eight he’d be calling up the stairs everything he made for you:  “Eggs.  Pancakes.  Home fries.  Bacon.  Scrapple.  Toast.  Coffee.  Orange juice.”  Yes, he would do that.  And no matter how tired or hung over some of us were, you better believe we got our asses out of bed for dad’s breakfast.  He was a master of potatoes and breakfast meats.  Any hardcore Philadelphian would have cried over his scrapple, Taylor pork roll, sausage patties, bacon, corned beef hash.

My mom would cook breakfast sometimes, and she’s a master at eggs, but mom’s main contribution to the first meal of the day is her knowledge of diners.  In Northeast Philly, there was The Dining Car, The Country Club, The Red Robin, The Mayfair and Tiffany’s.  Melrose in South Philly, Uncle Lou’s in Wildwood.  Dock Mike’s in Cape May.  West Reading in, well, West Reading.  Some of my favorite times as a kid was when mom would go out and have her dates stop at our apartment at the end of the night to pick me up and take me out to breakfast with them.  Two o’clock in the morning I’d be the only seven-year-old in The Country Club diner eating a cheese omelette, bagel with cream cheese and strawberry jelly, scrapple and hash browns, my eyes rolling back in my head.  And hot chocolate or chocolate milk, depending on the season.  At the age of eight I was ordering hot tea.

There is a reason why I’m giving you this background.  I’m actually listing my credentials.  I need you to know that when it comes to breakfast, beautiful Tampa babies, I know what I’m talking about.  I spent six months going about this town in search of the perfect breakfast spot.  And not just for food.  But for atmosphere.  Because as a writer, atmosphere plays a very big role in where I like to park it for a few hours, grazing the menu items and talking to you.  So listed below, in no particular order, are the places I tried for breakfast and my breakdown for you of what to expect, both food-wise and writer ju-ju-ness.  Some have turned into favorites, some I may give another chance because maybe it was just an off day.  Some I can just leave and say, “Thank you very much for the experience.”  Hopefully I’ll inspire you to wake up and smell the coffee.  And park it for a while to peruse a book, magazine, my blog.  Enjoy!

EINSTEIN BAGELS/CARIBOU COFFEE
Don’t let the inclusion of the Caribou Coffee scare you; it’s still the same Einstein Bagels you know and love.  I first started going to Einstein Bagels in Las Vegas, when Billy and I would have our script meetings.  Located on Warm Springs, it was a very busy location, but still had the kind of vibe like a college lounge.  Billy and I got a lot of work done there, some very creative thinking that really got the ball rolling, which we sadly dropped for one reason or another, someone’s fault or the other, at some location or the other that had nothing to do with Einstein Bagels.  Perhaps if we could have lived there for a good sixth months we might actually have a sitcom on the air right now.  Those times with Billy, working on our writing, talking and laughing over coffee and Spicy Elmos, getting to know each other, are some of my fondest memories of my time in Vegas.  The Einstein’s in Carrollwood has that same kind of feel for me, even though I mainly go alone now to work alone.  My favorite spot is the half booth by the window, with the plug strip behind me.  Einstein’s is extremely writer-friendly, study-friendly, and if you like bagels (no more wraps or rolls–if you want a sandwich, it’s gotta be on a bagel.  And you better want a sandwich, ‘cuz that’s all they got), then this is the place for you.  Most of the time they make the food perfectly, the coffee is fresh and hot, and they don’t care how long you stay.  And they have Wi-Fi.  Einstein’s is a weekly spot for me, sometimes more than once, and it’s the one spot I used to go to with Jess where she always treated to breakfast.  And the true test of their power is that when I go in there, I don’t associate it with her and I don’t cry.  See, I’m crying now just writing that.  Maybe I should have written it in Einstein’s rather than my kitchen table.
RATING:  * * * *
## UPDATE 7/5/17 ##
Well, Einstein’s broke my heart, beautiful babies, on Memorial Day weekend.  While I haven’t completely lost faith in the franchise, I have declared to the manager of the Carrollwood location that he will never see me step foot inside or patronize his establishment again.  Why?  I went with Lisa on Memorial Day at noon.  They had three bagels left because the cashier said they were closing at two and didn’t expect to be so busy.  Then they got Lisa’s bagel wrong.  And overcharged her.  And we waited fifteen minutes for them to get it wrong and overcharge.  And they had snotty attitudes about it all like how dare we come in and make them work today.  They did nothing to make anything right.  I’m making a long story short, because I don’t want to relive the bad behavior on all parts.  But I walked away for the last time feeling as if my patronage didn’t matter.
RATING: ** (because at least the food and coffee were good when we finally got it)

THE BROKEN YOLK
Right next to Einstein Bagels, I was reluctant to try it here, and I don’t know why.  Maybe because it’s at the tail end of a strip of stores and looks congested and small.  But looks can be deceiving, because it’s huge inside.  And the menu: phenomenal.  The first time I went I sat in a booth and ordered the Jack of Hearts, which was an omelette with artichoke hearts, bacon and Monterey Jack cheese.  I know, right?! Delicious.  Biscuits as big as baseballs.  Side choices range from potatoes to grits to Mexican rice.  Loved it here so much, I took my baby bro when he came for a visit and he’s hooked.  Only two glitches:  they’re a little pricey.  My breakfast that first day, with an Arnold Palmer, was $25, so after tip I was out $30.  That’s a lot for breakfast.  Worth it, and if I wanted to pack it up I certainly could have gotten two meals out of it, but not a place I could go to frequently to eat and write.  The other negative is their practice of keeping coffee mugs on the table.  None of us had coffee the one day I went with a group, so after I played with an empty mug for a bit, the server eventually cleared them and put them back into rotation.  Um, what if I sneezed on it?  If I had a kid who licked it?  Sorry.  If something’s on a table and not used but people sit at the table, everything gets washed.  So I’ll never have coffee or tea there.  As a writing option, I never checked out the strength of the Wi-Fi or whether it was even available, and although they definitely would have let me sit as long as I wanted, this is a place better enjoyed with someone else.  So I probably won’t go myself again.
RATING:  * * * *

THE KEYSTONE CAFE
This one’s on Gunn Highway in Odessa and I tried it on a whim after noticing it while driving by one day.  It has a seaside diner feel, and by that I mean it’s the kind of brokedown yet cozy place you picture fisherman sitting around sunburnt and squinty-eyed, telling their stories and drinking too much coffee.  The menu excited me the minute I saw they had skillets (eggs and other goodies slapped on top a pile of potatoes in a skillet), and I almost left skiddies on the seat when I saw they had a corned beef hash skillet.  Then the server informed me they were out of corned beef.  Aw!  Crushed.  So I opted for a veggie skillet, which was spinach, tomatoes, onions and green peppers.  I requested it with scrambled egg whites, home fries and please hold the green peppers.  I got a side of sausage links (that I would cut up and mix in myself) and a glass of apple juice.  When the skillet came it had cheddar cheese in it.  I don’t like cheese with potatoes and veggies.  I didn’t recall seeing cheese in the description.  I know this, because I would have said, hold the peppers and the cheese.  However, if it was my mistake, I would just eat the darn thing and let it go.  The server checks the menu and sure enough, no cheese.  So she takes it back with apologies.  When it comes back, it has mushrooms in it.  WTF.  I’m okay with mushrooms, so I suck it up.  Halfway through I start to see the green peppers.  WTF.  The sausage had some bad gristle, so after a second mouthful ended up in a napkin, I gave up.  The pricing was cheap, staff more than friendly and accommodating, and yes, an awesome spot to sit and write with Wi-Fi, so I’m torn.  Of course Arty is like, never go back there.  I don’t know why I want to give it a second chance, but I do.  I guess I really want to try that corned beef hash skillet.
RATING: * * (and three -quarters)

DUNKIN’ DONUTS
How could I not?  Seriously, they do have the best coffee.  I only drink flavored and I was reluctant to try DD because they add syrup rather than flavor-roast the bean.  But it is the smoothest, most delicious coffee I’ve ever tasted.  The hype is true, the coffee is the bomb.  I’ve tried various locations in the Tampa area, my favorite being on Gunn and Van Dyke in the Winn Dixie parking lot.  Great atmosphere, cozy, friendly staff and you can sit for days.  Arty and I hold Art Wednesdays there, a new practice that is working nicely.  Their breakfast options are good, and I rotate a variety, from the Wake-Up Wrap to the croissant sandwich to the bacon egg and cheese on toast (strangely enough, I never get a donut).  The quality of the food is hit or miss–they never burn the bacon like I request, the cheese is sometimes not melted, the hash browns are overcooked and cold–but who really goes to Dunkin’ for the food?  Of course they have Wi-Fi, silly.  They may not be as notorious as Starbucks among the writing set, but I’m grateful for that, as it provides a non-crowded atmosphere for the characters in my head to bounce about freely.
RATING: * * * (and three quarters)

FIRST WATCH
This one is a little pretentious among the “healthy eating” set, and the food was good enough, but I had a hard time picking something off the menu.  I went with Arty after a Pilates class, so I’m not sure how it would fare as a writing spot, but it didn’t hit me enough that I would go back there by myself with my computer.  Not while Panera is in the same shopping center.  But it did have the feel that it belonged in the Shops at Carpenter Square in Cape May, so I still kinda liked it.
RATING: * * *

VILLAGE INN
A favorite.  Not all are created equal, though, and I find the best one is on Racetrack.  They have Wi-Fi, plenty of booths, and free pie on Wednesdays.  They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I’ve sampled both breakfast and lunch, but my fave–of course–is breakfast.  My standard is the country skillet, modified without the ham, cheese, green pepper or mushrooms.  Yes, I take out half the ingredients, but they always get it right, even if most of the servers smell like stale cigarettes.  Imagine what they smell like at the other locations.
RATING: * * * *

IHOP
Had to include it here, and like VI, not all are created equal, as I’m sure you already have your favorite IHOP location.  Mine is Westshore, mainly because it reminds me of my first trip to Tampa when I fell in love with the city.  It’s where I had my first breakfast and my last, just before boarding the plane back to Vegas.  It’s a little more expensive than other IHOPs because it is close to the airport, and it’s almost always crowded which makes the scarce parking situation even more vexing, but the food is fresh and I just feel very relaxed there.  I don’t like to write at IHOP, but I’ve eaten there with practically everyone whose ever come to visit me here, so it holds a special place.  If you’re a fan of IHOP, go to this one.  If you’re not, give this one a chance.  And yes, the tables smell like a baby playing in pancake syrup.
RATING: * * * *

KEKE’S BREAKFAST CAFE
Another one I had to try twice, this one a different location.  I tried the one in Carrollwood a couple years ago when it first opened.  Crunchy, undercooked potatoes, slow service, dirty silverware, flavorless.  Vowed I’d never go back and I didn’t.  They must have found their legs, because they opened a second location last year in Citrus Park.  I decided to give this location a chance, chalking up my first bad experience to keke’s needing some time to hire a competent staff and figure things out.  After all, how bad could they be if their business was growing so fast?  I went around noon and there were people waiting outside.  As I’m alone, I walked in and tried my luck.  I got seated right away, a little table against the wall.  I ordered a scramble, which is another name for a skillet, with tomatoes and spinach, eggs over medium.  Ironically, my first bite of potato was a little crunchy.  Oh no!  Turns out it was just a fluke; the rest was soft and delicious.  Silverware clean.  I even wrote a little; the atmosphere is busy, but in a way that reminded me of the diners in Los Angeles, where Hollywood people share ideas and make deals.  Pricing was reasonable, not sure if they have Wi-Fi.  But I’m glad I gave it a second chance; this location I’ll definitely be returning to.
RATING: * * * (and three quarters)

COOL MO’S COFFEE
More kramped than a Kardashian’s kloset (speaking of which, I really think Kim and Kanye totes missed the boat on naming their first-born.  They should have named her Key; not only does that keep with the “K” theme, but how awesome would it be to have your name be Key West?  Instead they tried to be Klever by naming her North, which I’m sure they thought was so kool.  Getting tired of the “K” theme yet?  Yeah, me too), I walked in, looked at the menu and walked out.  Just two tables in here, one of which was occupied, and a kounter, um, counter.  Food consisted of huevos, sandwiches and wraps.  They might be quite delicious, but clearly are more of a takeout joint.  Not the best atmosphere for a writer or even someone looking to relax.  So I’m not rating them; they’re just not for me.

THE LIBERTY CAFE
I tried it in its first incarnation as Hattie’s and found it lacking in all areas.  Not enough seating, not cozy, too bright and chairs were hard, food was healthy but all tasted like they just picked it and rinsed it and rolled it in a flour tortilla.  I had to douse it with salsa and sour cream.  I was so disappointed.  It changed hands, was renamed The Liberty Café, so I decided to give it a second chance.  And so glad I did.  They filled it up with more tables, put in some wood paneling, and even put raised booths against one wall so you can look out over the room, and a counter lining the opposite glass wall so you can look outside.  I brought flavored cream but didn’t need it; I ordered the Turtle, which is coffee with caramel, hazelnut and whipped cream.  OMG.  Delicious.  For my meal I had a veggie skillet with egg whites and turkey sausage.  The menu was chock full of possibilities and I will definitely be going back here.  The pricing is writer-budget friendly, as is the atmosphere (Wi-Fi!).
RATING: * * * * (and a half)

BRUNCHIES
At Brunchies I did something I never do–I sat at the counter.  Great for writing.  I got the Florentine Benedict, which was a lot of food, and tasty, but the breakfast potatoes were too salty.  Which is something coming from me, as I add salt to practically everything (I have been known to add salt to my spaghetti if it’s not seasoned enough and there’s no garlic salt or shredded romano in the joint).  Yes, they have Wi-Fi, and this is a place that has a neighborhood café feel, the kind you see writers clustering around on slice-of-America television shows.
RATING:  * * * (and three quarters)

RIVIERA RESTAURANT
This one’s also in Carrollwood, in the Michael’s parking lot (I speak in crafts).  The interior is adorable; looks like you’re sitting in a garden, which is quite unexpected considering it’s in a busy shopping center along Dale Mabry.  I expected it to have shredded booths lining the walls and smell like month-old Crisco, which is why despite living here for almost six years now and visiting this particular shopping center on a virtual weekly basis I never ate here.  Am I glad I changed my mind?  Sort of.  After standing in the foyer for a decent while, the owner finally came over and huffed, “Follow me,” and slapped mine and Arty’s menus on the table like it was a burden.  The food was fresh, but a little flavorless.  I got the corned beef hash with egg whites and home fries.  Our server was cool, a college girl who bonded with me on the challenge of working with a Greek boss with all his “young lady!” indignant declarations and viewing you as sub-standard.  “Yep,” I told her after I’d witnessed him dressing her down.  “I worked for one of those.”  I wouldn’t say I’ll never go back, but I certainly won’t be rushing there with all these other fine options I’ve listed.  I’d never go there and write, that’s for sure.
RATING:  * * (and three-quarters; the owner forfeits a third star because of his attitude)

Well, that about does it, beautiful babies.  Bon appetit, Tampa!

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About whatimriding

Born and raised in Philly, I spent several years in Las Vegas, working at the House of Blues and writing about the city. I now reside in Tampa, where I continue to work on novels, scripts and short stories and tearfully await former Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier's return to the bay area.
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