From time to time, debates about the merits and downsides of chain restaurants show up in food-centric forums like Chowhound, and they always get me thinking about the little guys — the local businesses that happen to be successful enough to open more than one location.
At what point do you call a place a chain — two spots, three, or more? And is becoming a chain necessarily a bad thing? It doesn't have to be. If it's locally owned and if the quality stays consistently high, I'm all for it. Bring the good stuff to as many people as you can.
Easier said than done, of course. But right now, I wish that Crackers & Co. would go gangbusters and open spots all over the Valley to nudge out Denny's and IHOP.
1285 W. Elliott Rd., Tempe
(two additional locations in Mesa)
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily
Spicy Mexican skillet: $7.89
California eggs Benny: $7.89
Unlike those national mega-chains, the food at Crackers is all made from scratch — and it tastes like it. And somehow the employees here are so much friendlier, from the hostesses to the busboys. Any neighborhood in the city would welcome a reliable spot like this.
Not holding my breath for it, though. Founded in 1984, Crackers took almost 25 years to expand to a whopping three restaurants in the East Valley. The newest one, a freestanding building in a retail plaza at Elliot and Priest in Tempe, opened a little more than a year ago.
Crackers might fool you at first glance, with a bit of that chain-style design blandness. I giggled at the mention of "warm, rural Tuscan ambiance" on the restaurant's Web site, because the place felt so all-American to me — it's a no-frills, country-style spot not unlike the places I knew growing up in the boonies of "Pennsyltucky." You know, a down-home restaurant where people go after church, or where retirees socialize over pancakes and coffee.
Indeed, older folks seem to love Crackers. But the restaurant draws all walks of life — families toting kids and coloring books, young couples, and teens with dyed-black hair and eyeliner, out with mom and dad. They fill up three dining room sections where the tables are draped in plastic tablecloths that look like they were pulled from an '80s time capsule. Silk flower arrangements and lots of painted rooster ceramics serve as décor, and there's an American flag in the corner.
It is as unpretentious as could be and extremely popular. Swing by late Sunday morning and expect a bit of a wait — yes, even with all of that seating.
With an all-day breakfast menu and lunch items available from the late morning onward, there's a lot to consider here. I stuck with breakfast because, let's face it, there's really no bad time for bacon and eggs.
Speaking of, the bacon was crispy, not crunchy, and eggs cooked to order were always well prepared. On one visit, a finicky friend wanted to completely go off-menu and order a customized egg white omelet, and her intricate order didn't faze our cheerful waitress. When the creation arrived at the table, the omelet was just what she wanted. Good to know that they're accommodating on that front.
Another pal ordered a Heart Scram, with chicken, broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, green onions, and bell pepper cooked up with cholesterol-free eggs — healthful, sure, but also flavorful and substantial.
Meanwhile, I went in a splurge-y direction with The Spicy Mexican skillet, a jumble of chorizo, onions, roasted green chiles, and sliced country potatoes (their version of home fries, with golden brown bits), topped with two eggs and melted Cheddar and jack cheese. On the side were salsa, sour cream, and an ordinary warm tortilla. This was a brilliant cure for the previous night's debauchery. Between that and a strong cup of coffee, I completely bounced back to my usual self.
The California eggs benny — a spin on a traditional Benedict, layered with spinach, bacon, avocado, and tomato — was also appealing. I prefer Hollandaise that's more lemon-y than this, but overall, the kitchen did a nice job. The English muffin was fresh, the avocado and tomato were ripe, and the egg yolks were creamy.
Crackers' "222" breakfast was a classic combo of two eggs, two strips of bacon, and two thick, fluffy buttermilk pancakes. The pancakes were decent, but they were outshone by a huge order of excellent cinnamon swirl French toast, made with homemade cinnamon bread dunked in vanilla custard batter. Sizzled until lightly brown, the thick slices were sprinkled with powdered sugar and topped with a blob of honey butter.
I was happy to see blintzes on the menu here, too. One order came with three big ones, filled with a vanilla-orange-spice cottage and cream cheese blend. However, if you want to taste the subtly flavored filling, you'll need to scrape off some of the potently sweet berry topping, as I had to.
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From-scratch baked goods are a house specialty — little signs on each table pimp the mouthwatering bread pudding, even first thing in the morning. A blueberry scone sounded good, so I ordered one as a sort of sweet prelude to my Benedict.
What a treat! For one thing, it was twice the size of an ordinary scone, and it was served warm. Incredibly, it was moist and not-too-crumbly — perfect with a dab of butter. I know it's a simple thing, but this scone put me in a mighty fine mood.
If the folks at Crackers wanted to start an empire, they could build it on great little details like that.