Your mom and the government say it's the most important meal of the day. But for travelers, breakfast is often an afterthought, something to be microwaved at the chain-motel morning buffet or fetched from a doughnut or bagel shop.
Breaking away for a local breakfast is one of the best ways to experience the real food of regions across the United States. Here are a few of my favorite spots from years of mornings croaking "coffee, please" on the road.
Perly's, Richmond, Va. It's all about the biscuits at Perly's. Eggs are great. Bacon is great. Southern (salty) ham is good. Pancakes are great. But the biscuits - what is it about the South that can turn out these little white lumps of heaven with a golden top like nowhere else? 111 E. Grace St.; 804-649-2779.
Mama Dip's, Chapel Hill, N.C. It's almost worth becoming a Tarheel just to be able to go to Mama Dip's whenever you want for sweet-potato biscuits and grits for breakfast. Mama Dip is the nickname of Mildred Council, 81, who started cooking in local homes in 1939 and eventually opened her own place. The restaurant's slogan is "Put a taste of the South in your mouth." 408 W. Rosemary St.; www.mamadips.com, 919-942-5837.
Duran's Central Pharmacy, Albuquerque, N.M. You can get your nasal spray or deodorant up front, but most of the people head toward the restaurant in back. The breakfast special is cheese enchiladas topped with a fried egg. You'll find plenty of Mexican specialties here, along with the usual "American" breakfast regulars. 1815 Central Ave. NW, Old Town; 505-247-4141.
The Original Pantry, Los Angeles. The landmark downtown diner is owned by former mayor Richard Riordan. It's a leftover of Raymond Chandler-era Los Angeles and is beloved by everyone from Lakers fans heading to Staples Center to working guys at the counter. It's primarily a steak spot, so mornings are meaty, too. You can eat here any time: the Pantry brags, "We never close." 877 S. Figueroa St.; www.pantrycafe.com, 213-972-9279.
It's Tops Coffee Shop, San Francisco. Like a lot of great travel finds, this place was stumbled upon - I got very lost driving too far up Market Street one morning. I saw the 1935-vintage, blue-and-white art deco sign and had to pull over. Inside the cramped, colorful diner were huge, fluffy pancakes, bacon waffles, and strong coffee. In a town with more than its share of overpriced, chic eateries, Top's is so out of it, it's in again. 1801 Market St.; 415-431-6395.
Athenian Inn, Seattle. Pike Place Market is tourist central, but there are still a few old spots tucked into the place from the days before Starbucks opened its first store across the street. Enjoy a big plate of eggs and bacon while gazing out picture windows at the ships plying Puget Sound. Come anytime - breakfast is served all day. 1517 Pike Place Market; www.athenianinn.com, 206-624-7166.
Lamb's Grill Cafe, Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake Tribune skipped out of the neighborhood, but the oldest restaurant business in Utah still holds down the block. Lamb's tasty omelets and pancakes have been drawing them in since 1919. Look for the 1920s sign proclaiming "Trout and Chicken Dinners," and another promising "Quality, Service, Sanitation." Diners at the back tables eat under a portrait of George Washington. 169 S. Main St.; www.lambsgrill.com, 801-364-7166.
Lou Mitchell's, Chicago. The King of Cholesterol sits near Union Station, so you have a bit of a trek. You'll know you are there when you see the line out the door under the ancient but beautiful neon sign. The staff still sometimes hands out small boxes of Milk Duds to those in line. Breakfast is fried eggs and coffee with real cream in thick, 1950s-style mugs. 565 W. Jackson Blvd.; www.loumitchellsrestaurant.com, 312-939-3111.
Veselka, New York City. Manhattan is to breakfast what Epcot Center is to world travel - a way to visit an American version of other lands without leaving home. My favorite is the Veselka, which boasts it sells "Ukrainian soul food" in the heart of the East Village. Tuck yourself into a table underneath a 1930s-style mural of New York. I go for the challah-bread French toast and a side of juicy kielbasa. 144 Second Ave.; www.veselka.com, 212-228-9682.
Green's Pharmacy, Palm Beach, Fla. This pharmacy coffee shop is an antidote to the soaking-rich scene and attitude that radiates from the Breakers hotel nearby. Well off the beach, Green's has a black-and-white checkerboard floor and a formica-topped counter. You'll eat pigs in a blanket and hash browns served just beyond shelves full of Dixie cups, Tylenol, and Band-Aids. If your stomach can handle it, try one of the legendary rich milkshakes - there are antacids for sale a few steps away. 151 N. County Rd.; 561-832-0304.