The clue to Penny Cluse: plan ahead

img_5311

Photo BY PHOEBE LAIDLEY-COLLIAS

Fresh chocolate chip pancakes, two poached eggs, a side of homefries and a fresh cup of coffee at  the Penny Cluse cafe.

By Amelia Weeks
Staff Writer

Amelia Weeks is a junior Media Studies, Journalism & Digital Arts major.

“You’re looking at about an hour wait” is the first thing I heard as I set foot inside Penny Cluse, a local breakfast and lunch hot spot.  The couple shrugged at each other, considered joining the other “hungry” customers that stood eyeing the occupied tables, willing the other diners to eat faster, then they responded, “Thanks but I think we’ll find somewhere else.” I was up next, “How long for four?” “Should be about an hour and 20 to 30 minutes.” I put my name down, sent my friends a text with our time and headed for the door weaving through the line that formed behind me within minutes.
Weeks earlier I was one of those who slunk away, but today I came prepared knowing that 10:30 AM on a Saturday is one of their busiest times.  What should I do with and hour and a half? With Church Street only a block away from the restaurant I easily killed the time running errands, then met my friends back at Penny Cluse at the hour and 20 minute mark. We thought we could cleverly waltz in and they would have our table ready, but we ended up waiting for 20 minutes. I can’t imagine what an hour and a half would feel like in the stuffy, overcrowded waiting area, the only relief of fresh air creeping in from the routinely opened door. The constant shuffling of people arriving and leaving felt like an overcrowded game of Twister, with everyone trying to move out of each other’s way but having nowhere to go.
After what felt like eternity she called our name and led us to a table tucked against the side of the room. Our waiter promptly arrived holding a fresh pot of coffee. I opted for a small grapefruit juice and was not disappointed. The flavor and the color both popped while the pulp gently floating on the surface and a rogue seed hinted that it was most likely freshly squeezed as I was deciding between the baja fish tacos and the huevos rancheros.
Our food arrived in just over 15 minutes; after waiting close to two hours that was greatly appreciated. She placed down colorful dishes in front of us and the conversation lulled as our food became the center of our attention. Penny Cluse was not stingy with the portions. The fish tacos came close to overflowing off the plate, with twice as much beer-battered pollock as one might have expected. I took one of the lime wedges and squeezed it over the whole dish, grabbed a warm tortilla and set to work assembling my first taco with spiced black beans, sour cream, fresh pico de gallo, slivers of red radishes, vibrant guacamole, and small cubes of bright orange mango. It was messy, but worth licking off my fingers. The last time I had fish tacos I remember them as light and crisp. This Pollock was very rich, and bordered on being almost too fatty for my taste buds, but the flavor was brilliant.
We wrapped up our meal and sat for a minute fully satisfied and enjoyed the energetic atmosphere around us. The constant buzz and motion of waiters taking orders, clearing tables, topping off coffee cups and presenting plates in front of wide-eyed diners was like a busy bee hive in the spring. It would be an ideal atmosphere to chat, sip on a beverage, or relax after a full meal if only the beady eyes of other hungry customer weren’t staring us down, willing us to levitate and exit. Though the wait staff clearly was trying to turn the tables over as fast as possible, they did a great job concealing this goal and treating us diners like cherished guests. Nevertheless, I intended to go out for a leisurely brunch, and couldn’t help feeling rushed and stressed. The good news is that I have the secret ingredient to making the experience flawless. Hint: Penny Cluse opens weekdays at 6:45 AM.
Walking in the door at 7:20 AM is the way to go. As we entered, the hostess smiled and held up two fingers questioningly, we nodded and barely came to a stop before she led us into the dining room. “Sit wherever you’d like.” A quaint table right next to the tall windows called our name. Part of me expected us to be the first ones there but a few early birds beat us to it.
Our waiter arrived just as we sat down and offered us coffee. We Seattle -raised sisters nodded eagerly, and he picked up the saucer with the face down cup and in one fluid motion with one hand holding both, flipped the cup over and gracefully filled it to the brim. A trick like that caught me by surprise at 7:20 in the morning, but I loved it, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many broken cups he had in his past.
Our food arrived halfway though our first cup of coffee, which is a tribute to its speed considering our incredibly attentive waiter refilled our cups close to four times during our meal. I opted for a more traditional breakfast and went with the Bellber Combo: two slices of French toast or pancakes, two eggs any style and a choice of a side of meat or homefries. Again our food arrived as an overwhelming, yet excitingly large portion, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in the presentation. I looked across the table to see the vibrant green Huevos Verdes with the melted cheese and bright red pico de gallo, then I looked back at my two golden pancakes on a plate with a sad wedge of grapefruit that felt plopped down as an afterthought.
Penny Cluse’s menu offers bananas or blueberry pancakes, however they kindly agreed to accommodate my special request of chocolate chips. After drizzling some Vermont Maple Syrup I bit into the cloud of a pancake. They were somehow gooey yet not underdone, while at the same time delivering a slightly crispy exterior. It was magical.
The other half of the meal included a plate of home fries with a little white bowl containing two poached eggs. There wasn’t anything unappealing about the appearance, but a small white bowl next to a mountain of potatoes doesn’t exactly scream “special” or worth a two hour wait. Presentation is key, but in the end what really matters is the taste, and they nailed it. I gently placed the poached eggs atop the rustic potatoes that came in all shapes, sizes and colors, and with the blade of my knife gliding smoothly though the yoke, I smiled to find the eggs perfectly cooked and the bright orange yoke poured down over and between the potatoes like a stream rushing over rocks.
After finishing our coffee we meandered out with happy stomachs. That was the pleasant and leisurely experience I was looking for. It’s a great, family friendly place, but it’s best to catch it at off-peak hours, because It was not worth a long of a wait.