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.)