Breakfast plates are famously huge at this Tempe institution.
Breakfast plates are famously huge at this Tempe institution.
Patricia Escarcega

The Classic Tempe Diner Where It Always Feels Like Saturday Morning

Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe

What's the best-loved breakfast spot in Tempe? It might be Harlow's Cafe, a classic neighborhood diner where the wood-paneled dining room feels as comfortable and familiar as your grandmother's kitchen.

Harlow's has been a landmark on University Drive for decades (the restaurant just celebrated its 38th birthday). It's still a family-owned spot, and the loose, informal ambiance inside the always-crowded dining room can make Harlow's feel a little bit like Tempe's unofficial living room.

The restaurant's slightly faded and eclectic decorating scheme includes framed classic movie posters, glittering chandeliers hung next to workaday ceiling fans, and big shiny booths. It's affably old-fashioned. The best seat in the house is probably at the bar, where the sound of bacon crackling to life on the grill whets your appetite in a hurry.

The lively dining room at Harlow's Cafe feels like Tempe's unofficial living room.
The lively dining room at Harlow's Cafe feels like Tempe's unofficial living room.
Patricia Escarcega

There is absolutely nothing fussy or novel about the food, but that's kind of the point of eating at Harlow's. The restaurant's Hollywood-meets-Old-West aesthetic is writ large across the menu, where you'll find breakfast plates with names like the Gary Cooper (two eggs, your choice of bacon or sausage, hash browns) and the Tom Mix (corned beef hash with two eggs, hash browns, and toast).

This is one of the last remaining places around town where you can start off your day with vintage military-inspired fare like creamed chipped beef on toast, the leathery slices of beef shooting your insides with enough butter and salt to carry you through a long, cold winter. For lunch, sandwiches, burgers, and cheese-topped chili bowls are dispatched into the dining room with regularity.

At its heart, though, Harlow's is a place to indulge in a big, old-fashioned breakfast. It's the place to go for a dish like Eggs Maximilian, which looks and tastes like something a bored and ravenous teenager whipped up in the kitchen on a Saturday morning. It features a thick flour tortilla layered with homemade hash browns and a buttery, wobbly mound of freshly beaten eggs. It's embedded with mild hunks of green chile, doused in fresh salsa, and crowned with a big scoop of sour cream.

Is this the most economical breakfast spot in Tempe? Is the food so singularly good that you simply won't find anything else like it around town? No, not really. But it's hard to be in a sour mood when you eat at Harlow's. Service is reliably fast and upbeat, the coffee refills come fast and free, and the smell of butter melting over hard toast permeates the air. In other words, at Harlow's, it always feels like Saturday morning.

Harlow's Cafe. 1021 West University Drive, Tempe; 480-829-9444.
Open daily 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe

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