the breakfast dictator [215]

Merry Ann’s Diner | Champaign, IL

Posted in Diner Review, Travel by thebreakfastdictator on October 23, 2009
Victor Munoz | Merry Anns Diner

Victor Munoz | Merry Ann's Diner

Good-byes are sad, you know. And it was a day for good-byes. Nothing here can last and it was time to depart Illinois, the harvest and my dear friends. I thought for sure that I’d get a few more farmers on the way out, especially in Farmer City, but things didn’t play out as expected and I was eager to make it to breakfast. I’d heard about Merry Ann’s from several different people in Bloomington and the anticipation was slowly overwhelming me.

It was a long, cold, drizzled-grey drive across the corn belt and I’d stuffed myself with coffee but breakfast was certainly welcoming. The traffic on the main street of Champaign slightly got on my nerves as the thought of sitting in a warm and welcoming diner while drinking cup after cup of bottom-less coffee flooded my brain. Adding to the irritation was that parking in this area was a premium and I had to round the block a few times (and curse out the out of towner who took up two spaces in the parking lot) til I finally parked in the Wal-Greens across the street, strapped on my camera and found my diner respite.

Walking into this blue and orange clad diner was a step back in time (as many of your typical Americana-type diners are). And it was surprisingly crowded. I snagged the last booth in the far right corner and waited eagerly for the aforementioned coffee. My server (in my exhaustion, I didn’t even catch her name) quickly rattled off that morning’s specials, which I gladly accepted — and ordered the ham+cheese (with a side of pancakes!) omelet for a scant $3.99. She was super-friendly (something that being from the east coast will keep one from being accustomed to) and kept my coffee-cup from ever emptying. Before taking off for the long drive home, I asked her to make her photograph, but she politely and repeatedly declined. She suggested that I photograph Victor, the cook, instead. I made a few frames of him, crossed Neil Street and headed off into the never-ending grey midwestern morning.

Chef Matt O’Neill

Posted in Travel by thebreakfastdictator on October 17, 2009

Just received this email from Matt O’Neill, owner of the Runcible Spoon:

Runcible Spoon

Runcible Spoon


Thank you, you paint true pictures with words as well with the camera. Sorry I missed talking with you, you have probably departed Bloomington by now.
I don’t have my staff wear uniforms, it hides the spirit and depersonalizes people. You are right about Wix and Mary, there is something about them.
Thank you for the gift you left here, the gift of seeing, a real artist does not just take pictures, he or she captures an image that reveals a greater truth and a deeper mystery concurrently, which is not a mere picture, because it plugs its roots into the spirit of a thing, or a person, or a place.
I value your impression and its documentation more than 100 five star reviews on some restaurant blog.


Breakfast does Lunch in Lincoln, Illinois (Hallie’s on the Square)

Posted in Travel by thebreakfastdictator on October 12, 2009
Brian Huffman

Brian Huffman


“How’s it going?”

“Not bad, you?”

“Not too bad myself…”

“Perhaps you could help me. I’m not from around here.”

“I could tell. That’s why I said ‘Hello’. I wanted to be friendly.”

“Do you know of any places to get lunch around here that are open? Seems that after 2, everything is closed.”

“Oh, yeah! Of course! You gotta go to Hallie’s. It’s right down Pulaski and around the corner. It’s in the middle of the block. You can’t miss it. And you gotta get the Schnitzel. It’s famous. People come from all over to get it there. Where are you from anyways?”


“What are you doing here? Trying to hop a train?”

“Ha! No, just meandering around shooting some photos. I’ll be photographing farmers in up near Bloomington the rest of the week.”

“Well that sounds lovely. Nice meeting you.”

“You too. Thanks for the help! Have a good one.”

“And you as well!”



“What’dya like?”

“Well, I’ve been told I need to get the Schnitzel. So I’ll have that. That’s a sandwich, right?”

“Well, ya got two options, that and the horseshoe. That’s what most people get; the horseshoe.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the Schnitzel on top of Texas Toast with fries and cheese.”

“Sounds great. I’ll have it.”

The culture of the Midwest is so fascinating to me. The people and interesting little spots that are here kind of set me in a different world. Things are slower paced, and in a weird way, stuck in time, but an era in which one really cannot place and there’s something rather fantastic and welcoming about that. Like you’re always home — even when you’re not.

The people of this town kinda remind of of those from Quarryville — Hard-working farm-folk. They work hard and dress hard. They probably drink hard too. I love it. There’s an element of Romanticism to that lifestyle for me. In many ways, I envy it — the simplicity of it all.

“How’dya like it?”

“Oh, it was really good. What actually is Schnitzel?”

“It’s a glorified, deep-fried porkchop.”

“Probably not the best thing I could’ve eaten, but, yeah, I liked it a lot.”

“Thank you.”

And thank you, Brian Huffman, for one more fantastic Midwestern experience.

The list continues to grow.

My Server’s Name was Maple

Posted in Breakfast Portraits, Travel by thebreakfastdictator on October 11, 2009


The overnight low was an unseasonably cold thirty-five and it was oh-so-warm in bed. Sleeping another three hours didn’t sound like a bad idea, but there was breakfast to be had. Ice covered my windshield and I scraped it off with an old, too-scratched-to-listen-to Smashing Pumpkins CD.

Walking down 6th, I could see the Spoon in the distance and it appeared warm and inviting, much like 312 used to be in Bloomington adventures of years past. I arrived a few minutes past eight, just as it was opening and slowly waking to life. When it’s that early on a Sunday, you can sit where you like. I chose a small nook with wooden benches near the front door where the windows are large and blue morning light was slowly streaming through them.

My server was the same pretty, doe-eyed girl as yesterday, which was fortunate, for in the madness of the morning rush, there was no way I’d’ve been able to make her photograph then. I asked her to sit at the large table in the center of the front dining room and peppered her with questions while cleanly snapping a few frames.



I often forget the power of the camera to break into new people’s lives and though she was not my server, she refilled my coffee a few times. I asked to make her photograph as well, and after dancing around the dining room floor for a few moments to take care of her orders, Wix most certainly obliged. She was clearly comfortable with the camera and I made a few frames of her in a few different spots in the restaurant. She called over Maple and I took a few more of them together. They refilled my coffee and headed back to work as the breakfast crowd began to meander in.

I finished up my coffee and said good-bye. And as I was leaving, Wix told me I should live here.

Don’t tempt me.

The Runcible Spoon | Bloomington, IN

Posted in Diner Review, Travel by thebreakfastdictator on October 11, 2009
Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict | The Runcible Spoon

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict | The Runcible Spoon

I can’t count the number of times I visited Bloomington between 2004 and 2006, when my sister was an All American Field Hockey player at IU. When in town, most of my free time was spent at the Bloomington Bagel Company, which is a fantastic little joint in and of itself. Somehow, though it was right around the corner, we missed the Runcible Spoon, a small house turned restaurant in 1976 (and at the time was the only gourmet coffee roasterie in the entire Midwest) which was named one of America’s 59 Best Breakfasts by Esquire Magazine earlier this year.

We got there “early” for a Saturday morning (11am) and the wait was surprisingly short — about five minutes. Owner and head chef, Matt O’Neill, seated us himself while busy servers gracefully zipped around the maze-like dining room floor carrying massive trays of food over their heads and smiling as they did so.

All of the Spoon’s coffee is imported fair trade and roasted in house. Burlap bags full of raw, green, beans are visible next to the massive bookshelves full of literary classics and contemporary reads. Our server was more than likely an IU student who recommended the Eggs Benedict, and, though I rarely take the server’s recommendation, I jumped all over the Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict (on a Croissant) and added sliced tomatoes. I’m not sure I could have made a better selection (though, perhaps, she made it for me), but that is yet to be decided because the chances of making a return visit early tomorrow are rather likely.

There was some slight confusion over where the term “Runcible” came from, so we asked our server and she gladly handed us a full-menu, complete with a full-description:

A runcible spoon is a utensil that appears in nonsense poetry, which also uses the adjective “runcible” to describe objects other than spoons. It is fundamentally a nonsense word.

Quoted, on said menu, is Edward Lear’s poem The Owl and the Pussycat (the very imagery to adorn the Spoon’s outdoor signage) which reads:

They dined on mince and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.

Unfortunate as it is that I missed out on this fantastic breakfast joint for the most of three years, it was most certainly worth the nearly 700 mile trip from Pennsylvania to Bloomington, not only for the fantastic food, but also for the eclectic atmosphere, which most certainly represents Bloomington well. The total tab including tip was $16, but I’d’ve paid twice that to again experience a breakfast this grand.

Breakfast Portraits {2} | Melissa Choi

Posted in Breakfast Portraits by thebreakfastdictator on October 8, 2009
Melissa Choi | Artisan Boulanger Patissier

Melissa Choi | Artisan Boulanger Patissier

“I feel like somewhere different. How about Frangelli’s? I hear they have great donuts.”

“Sure. Where’s that at?”

“Ritner. Between 8th and 9th.”

“Look at those donuts, made by old Italian women at 3 o’clock this morning. Amazing. I don’t even know what to get.”

“They say the jelly donut is the best.”

“I don’t care for those.”

“Neither do I, but I should probably try it…”

We purchased a few of the best donuts I’ve had since Sunrise Donuts in Idaho Springs, CO and since there was nowhere to sit and make a photograph, we meandered over to 10th and Snyder to try out the 10th St Cafe, which had OPEN signs on the door but was clearly not.

“Now what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Me either. I don’t know the deep South. It’s a different neighborhood down here.”

After seeing the same random guy sitting on two separate blocks and on two different houses’ stoops, we finally ended up at the Artisan Boulanger Pasissier, a French Bakery in Italian South Philly run by an Asian Couple on the corner of 12th and Morris. The coffee wasn’t too bad and after all those donuts, I couldn’t even approach the “Chocolate Bread” that I ordered, saving it for Lunch, which was fast approaching. Warm sunlight was streaming in the giant windows along 12th and I pulled out the Hasselblad, exposing about 4 frames of Tri-X. My goodness, I love that camera and its unmistakable, aggressive shutter sound.

Melissa browsed the Metro while I sipped hot coffee and wished we were part of the the cast of a Tarantino film.

For a minute, it certainly felt like it.