Dottie’s True Blue Cafe is a small place in San Francisco that sits right where the gentrification of Union Square ends and the Tenderloin begins. It is a neighborhood place that has become a destination through well-deserved appearances in every publication that has an opinion on where to eat in San Francisco. As such, you don’t really need me to tell you to go there. But I will anyway.
The next time you are staying the night in downtown SF, you should get up early and get to Dottie’s door by 7:20am so you can get in with the first group. Kurt, the owner and chef, will then serve you the best American breakfast you have ever had. If this does not happen, I will personally pay your bill.
As I have pontificated before, good breakfast is deceivingly simple. All you need to do is combine good eggs, good meat, good starch and good coffee together into a synergistic mix of calorific ecstasy. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly rare to find a place that does all of these things well. Dottie’s is one such place, but it is much more than this.
First, Dottie’s not only gets the basics right, but also manages to keep up a constant stream of interesting specials that are all variations on the eggs, meat and starch theme. Once in a while, one of these may sound overly pretentious (e.g. a scramble with whiskey fennel sausage, spinach, and roasted garlic), but they are universally excellent. Where others pile too many stupid ingredients on top of overcooked eggs, Dottie’s gives you just enough on top of eggs that are cooked perfectly. Not runny, not tough, and not bland. I even had chicken-apple sausage at Dottie’s once before it became a sad Whole Foods cliché. I’d do it again too.
If you want something more down to earth, you can get hamburger, sweet peppers, onions and salsa. Or smoked trout. Or get your eggs next to those black bean cakes with a couple of tortillas. Not only is there toast, but also the wonderful grilled jalapeno corn bread, or muffins, or coffee cake. In addition to the transcendent buttermilk pancakes (with just a touch of ginger and cinnamon), there were also cornmeal blueberry pancakes when we were in there last week. The list goes on and on.
Second, not only is all the food executed perfectly, but this ballet of short order cooking perfection happens in a space that is no larger than your master bathroom, only stuffed with a full cook top and griddle. Get lucky enough to sit at the counter, and you can watch miracles happen in this tiny space. One minute the stove is empty. The next, there are two pans of omelet fillings, and one with sunny side eggs on the stove next to three pancakes on the griddle. Next, the eggs go into the omelets, there is some stirring, some mixing, some shuffling of pans. Then, one by one the eggs, omelets and pancakes are off the stove and on to plates next to a scoop of home fries off the grill and whatever other sides belong in the order. All at once, four plates of food are ready for a single table, all finished and delivered at precisely the right time. Kurt and his crew do this hundreds of times a day, six days a week for as long as I can remember. It’s simply inspiring to watch if you are any kind of food dork.
Third, and finally, Dottie’s is a place and an experience. A lot of little things go into this. The coffee mugs are a pleasing shape and neither too big nor too small. There are interesting things to look at on the walls. The service protocol is well defined and well understood by the staff, so you always know where you stand. The music never sucks. In fact, the music is always excellent. I think it’s one of two restaurants on Earth where I have actually enjoyed the background music after I started paying attention to it.
Put all these things together and you get a place that you will go back to repeatedly over the long haul. We’ve been going every time we are in San Francisco for about the last 15 years. We stay in hotels that are close by so we can get there at opening to get the counter seats. Of all the places we love in SF, there are only two places that we absolutely cannot miss whenever we visit: Dottie’s for breakfast and Yank Sing for Dim Sum.
If forced to choose, I’d probably go to Dottie’s first. I know how to make good pot stickers, but I can’t make breakfast as well as Kurt. Not even close.