Cypress Nook in Pompano Beach Masters the Most Important Meal of the Day
Seeing a group of Floridians try to keep warm in a cold wave is like watching the pope perform a bris: We have absolutely no idea what to do with ourselves in such conditions. All those pained expressions, the shivering, the wardrobe problems — it's God's cruel joke on a region ordinarily blessed with the best weather in the world. As soon as the thermometer dips below 50, otherwise-sensible folk are reduced to behaving like Chicken Little. "Help!" we cry out in alarm. "The sky is freezing!"
I had the luxury of witnessing the hilarity on the most frigid day of our recent cold snap. I think it hit all of 40 degrees that Sunday morning. Yet there we were at Cypress Nook — a cozy restaurant hidden away in Pompano Beach — waiting for a table along with several dozen freezing Floridians.
On an ordinary Sunday, people queue outside of the German-themed breakfast spot for an hour or more. They jot their name down on the log and wait in the restaurant's tiled courtyard, banking on the promise of milky white bratwurst with fried eggs, feta and tomato-basil omelets, and thick pork chops slathered with spicy homemade mustard. But on this day, the weather had somehow strengthened these people's resolve.
They were either painfully underdressed or bundled up so tight that their limbs were stuck in place. Their teeth clattered and their feet stomped in protest. Some had decided to wait in their cars with the engine turned on, and every time the restaurant's German owner, Ilse Wettengel, would peek her head out the door to check the log, they'd roll down their windows and listen expectantly.
I'm a firm believer that one of the most important components of a great breakfast place is a line. My favorite spots, whether they're greasy spoons or upscale bruncheries, all feature a lengthy queue of people waiting to get in. I remember lining up early in San Francisco's Tenderloin to eat at a place called Dottie's True Blue Café and thinking that the breakfast that followed was worth at least double the hour and a half I spent fending off panhandlers on the street. Looking back, I can't be certain if the chili corn bread with homemade raspberry jam or the apple-fennel sausage scramble really was that good or if the wait just made it taste that much better.
Here at home, people speak of the line at Lake Worth breakfast institution John G's with either reverence or extreme frustration — sometimes it's an equal mix. But the place remains one of South Florida's most popular breakfast spots, even if it does stop serving at 11:30 sharp and have a famously curt wait staff. (Owner John Giragos passed away after a stroke two weeks ago. Our condolences to the entire family.)
But don't get me wrong: Even though there should be a line, that doesn't give a breakfast place license to treat customers rudely or to provide service slower than grade-A maple syrup. A line works when it's an indication of efficient turnover, not a symptom of a restaurant struggling to tread water. Likewise, a quality eatery shouldn't be looking to bang through customers faster than the Golden Arches does.
Take Cypress Nook. Wettengel has had the chalet's business running smoothly since 1979. During a cold front or in brutish humidity, the petite, blond-haired owner wears a smile like a perfect hostess. Though her business is brisk, she gives you every indication that she needs and wants yours. And after your long wait, she doesn't so much seat you as pass you off to her equally attentive staff, a group of women who balance the steady pace of seasoned diner veterans with the kind of comforting demeanor you'd find at a bed and breakfast.
Those ladies are experts at setting you up and taking your order without delay, and they've nailed one of the most important criteria for breakfast excellence: coffee service. You'll never want for a drop of the rich, bold stuff the Pompano restaurant pours, because no sooner than you've gulped down a fat finger's worth, someone will come along with a freshly brewed pot and fill your mug to its limit. That's a good thing, whether you're trying to keep warm or wash down a mouthful of the fluffiest banana/chocolate-chip pancakes imaginable, another Nook specialty.
After thawing out with a few dozen pints of coffee, our table shared a plate of those pancakes, their sweet, airy dough housing tangy fruit cooked until soft and gooey. Though they come out of the kitchen screeching hot from the griddle, it's impossible not to stuff your mouth with the biggest bite possible, a practice that caused strands of rich melted chocolate to tether from our outsized forkfuls back to the plate. Two such pancakes the size of a vinyl record run less than $6, a price that makes a communal platter just about an inevitability. (Be warned, though: The place is cash-only.)
It's enough that the Nook can fry up a pair of eggs as well as any interstate diner, but Wettengel's Germanic influence is what really makes breakfast there memorable. On any given day, the whiteboard tacked on the tiny cottage's far wall is filled with intriguing specials. There are eggs accompanied by all manner of meat, from big ol' pork chops ($8.55) and New York strip steaks ($9.45) to juicy brats and griddled kielbasa ($7.95) — the bratwurst in particular is sausage at its finest, sourced locally and bursting with flavor. We also ordered an asparagus omelet that came loaded with tender, bright-green spears and creamy Swiss cheese; other great omelets feature salty feta and fresh basil leaves or sautéed mushrooms ($6.25 each).
On the weekends, breakfast and lunch coincide, so while your hungover friends drown their aches with eggs, you can get a plate of homemade sauerbraten ($11.95), a tart-sweet version of pot roast made with vinegar, raisins, and ginger snaps. Guzzle it down with a frosty Spaten Optimator or any of the half-dozen beers on tap and your mockery will be complete.
My personal favorite, though — what really elevates Cypress Nook to breakfast Valhalla — is the little bowl of mustard the waitresses places on each table along with your schnitzels and brats. As the sun filters in through the cottage's windows, highlighting pictures of Wettengel's grandchildren on the walls, there's nothing that brings me closer to inner peace than that mustard. I slather the horseradish- and hot-sauce-infused stuff unilaterally across everything: those soft, onion-flecked potatoes the Nook makes; the perfectly over-easy eggs bursting with yolk; the crusty rye bread patted gently with butter. I keep dipping that tiny spoon into the mustard until everything is gone. Afterward, I dab a bit on my plate and swipe my finger through it one last time, just so the flavor sticks with me as I walk out the door. That way, the folks still waiting outside for a table can see my smile and know the wait is worth it.
Breakfast is an intimately personal affair, as varied as the many ways to cook an egg. Although Cypress Nook is decidedly homey, some people prefer a classy brunch with a bloody mary in hand. Below is a short list of other South Florida breakfast joints that fit the above criteria.
Dune Deck Café (100 N. Ocean Blvd., Lantana, 561-582-0472), open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, 7 a.m. on weekends. This open-air eatery sits atop Lantana Public Beach, with every seat in the house affording an unobstructed view of the Atlantic. The area's bohemian vibe is reflected in the menu, with Greek and Caribbean influences and some great specialty breakfast items. Lobster Benedict ($17.95) comes with a tail's worth of fresh, Florida spiny draped with a flawlessly poached egg and plenty of creamy hollandaise. The stuffed French toast — graced with a fragrant blend of raisins, apples, figs, and dates — is custardy-sweet, like bread pudding that's been pan-fried. Yum. The café sports a full bar, and though the bloody mary is good, it needs more zing. Bring change for the meters, and be prepared to wait for a table.
Dyan's Country Kitchen (9100 Wiles Road, Coral Springs, 954-755-7590), open 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, 2 p.m. on weekends. This western outpost combines the best elements of the family diner with great Jewish-deli fare. The line can stretch down the block at times, but once you're inside, the service is so swift that there should be a warning like you find on amusement park rides: Keep legs and arms inside the booth at all times. Chicken-fried steak and eggs is a coronary on a plate, served with a doughy bagel, crisp hash browns, and enough sausage gravy to stop a moving bus. Smoked nova, lox, and whitefish platters are all made in-house, and so are huge deli sandwiches filled with corned beef and pastrami. Coffee is refilled so quickly that by the time you're finished, you'll be operating on a three-day buzz. Prices are dirt cheap, and credit cards are accepted.
Atlantique Café (777 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561-272-1170). Francis Touboul's (La Cigale) new Delray Beach breakfast spot is a great place for brunch, maybe a niçoise salad and a glass of wine or a plate of fresh blueberry pancakes and coffee. The big restaurant wraps around the back of Atlantic Plaza, offering sunny views of the courtyard and its gurgling fountains as well as outdoor tables. The food is as vibrant as the colorful restaurant, with an assortment of omelets, short and tall stacks, and fresh-baked croissants stuffed with ham, egg, and cheese. Daily-made soups and deli-counter sandwiches appear for lunch, but breakfast is served all day.
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