Sleepy-eyed Philly, its weekend belly growling after a night on the town, used to know exactly where to answer the call for brunch - the neon-lit beacons of diner goodness like the Melrose, Mayfair, and Country Club.
With that diner culture sliding into an alarmingly steep decline over the last decade, however, an entirely new genre has stepped into the a.m. hunger void. The funky bruncherie - part hipster cafe, part laboratory to explore the creative limits of stuffed French toast - has become to the old-school diner what gastropubs have been to aging corner taverns. These are not simply updates to an aging template (although they are also that), but touchstones of urban renewal, where the new and old residents of gentrifying 'hoods can bond over skillets full of fresh biscuits and sausage gravy and chorizo-stuffed breakfast burritos as big as a piñata.
The latest hotcake to enter the brunch frenzy, Green Eggs Cafe, has only stoked more enthusiasm for the genre, with Sabrina's-like lines in its first few months to prove it. But does it take the category to a new level of Dr. Seussical wonder? Not quite yet, Sam-I-am. But there is plenty here to like.
Set in a handsomely rehabbed corner space at Dickinson and Clarion Streets, the look is a smart blend of old and new. The tired gray Permastone facade has been ripped away to let the sun shine through its cheery dining rooms onto wide butcher-block tables (and walls painted with colors appropriately named "Cream in my Coffee" and "Cafe au lait"). Original pressed tin on the walls and ceiling, meanwhile, preserves a touch of that genuine South Philly rowhouse charm.
The crowd is a largely youthful but diverse mix that mirrors the neighborhood's upscaling flux - with plenty of carefully tended slacker stubble and designer sweats - and faces that are often familiar to co-owner Stephen Slaughter, a veteran Old City barman who once ran the nightclubs Moda and Otium.
That luxe-lounge instinct is no doubt responsible for the cushy black leather couches and flat-screen TVs in the waiting area, where Giada and Bobby Flay and the La Colombe-fueled coffee bar keep the crowds good-humored for those 40-minute waits. It's a slick-yet-comfortable touch that lends Green Eggs a shade more polish than some of the more cramped competition.
The food also has its happy moments, even if it's not quite on par with a more ambitious kitchen such as the standout Cafe Estelle, where everything from the bread to the bacon is made in-house. Still, Alaska native Keith Cleary more than holds his own with most of the rest of the funky brunch field, turning out hearty plates built on good ingredients, fun ideas, and from-scratch building blocks that should satisfy any general brunch urge.
The grits are stone-ground and mixed with Vermont white cheddar, then topped with deep-fried "chips" of Habbersett's scrapple. There's tangerine juice for sweeter citrus mimosas (that's assuming you BYO prosecco). And there's a quinoa porridge virtuously sweetened with agave syrup, cardamom, and berries for any whole-grain aficionados in the house.
As if to reinforce its socially conscious trendiness, this cafe emphasizes the "green" part of its name with a commitment to composting and biodegradable cups and, in theory, as many local ingredients as possible (though I saw few obvious traces of true seasonality or local farm-market produce in any of my meals).
As at most of its brunch brethren, in fact, the best things to eat at Green Eggs Cafe reflect an impulse toward decadence rather than any health-food edict.
The city's mania for inventively stuffed French toast and waffle toppings, for example, finds worthy variations here. There's French toast soaked in crème brûlée batter flecked with real vanilla that comes atop a two-tone puddle of maple syrup and crème anglaise. My favorite French toast, though, came stuffed with the fluffy crunch of peanut butter whipped with sweetened cream cheese, then topped with blueberry coulis and berry compote - a syrup-soaked PB&J fantasy that made a perfect dessert.
Cleary's chicken-and-waffle special, meanwhile, brought a satisfyingly buttermilk-fried breast over waffles layered with sliced white cheddar, butter-roasted Granny Smiths, and a maple-Dijon gravy that was wild but also finely tuned enough in its cacophony of sweet, sharp, and tangy that I happily ate the whole thing.
I can't say the same for a couple of off items on the savory-lunch side of the menu. A beet salad was dressed in vinaigrette that was musty with dried herbs. A heavy hand with Montreal seasoning lent the otherwise tender cheesesteak (already unconventional with its arugula mayo spread) a distractingly salty flavor. And why Cleary half-bakes his grilled cheese inside a ciabatta roll - instead of grilling it - I'll never know. It doesn't always pay to be different.
One case where it does: the outstanding chicken-salad sandwich, which blends house-roasted bird with a Waldorf array of apples, raisins, and walnut, plus a lemony dressing that emphasizes perkier sour cream over mayo. I'd make a lunch date here just for that.
For brunch, though, the breakfast burrito is my go-to favorite, a zesty two-pounder stuffed with cuminy chorizo from the Italian Market, roasted potatoes, pepperjack cheese, eggs, and a black-bean drizzle. Eat it all, and you'll need a little extra slack on the seat belt afterward.
And that isn't even Green Eggs' heftiest offering. That would be the "Kitchen Sink," a clear fan favorite judging from all the cast-iron skillets that landed on tables beside us. It comes piled, not simply with three scrambled eggs, roast peppers and potatoes, but a fresh buttermilk biscuit swimming with creamy ladlefuls of sausage gravy. I'd probably enjoy a slow-roasted hockey puck if it came lathered in that gravy - a throwback of country comfort that is simply impossible to resist.
But this "sink" also reveals Green Eggs' culinary limits. Beneath that white froth of creamy indulgence, the cafe's overused signature roast potatoes were too big and chunky, and the scrambled eggs - which should be an ethereal golden fluff - were merely an overcooked afterthought. A series of omelets, meanwhile, which treated eggs merely as a generic and pliant wrap for mounds of smoked salmon and capers, or as the pedestal for a sloppily broiled lid of cheese, showed a similar disregard for the true possibilities of such a crucial ingredient.
That lack of finesse with eggs, one might say, is ironic given the cafe's name. Because even the persistent Sam-I-am knows that no matter their bright color or where you serve them (in a house! with a mouse! in a box! with a fox! in a boat! with a goat!), eggs can be so much more than simply indestructible filler. Great eggs can be a delicacy of transformative powers when properly served: "Say!" says Dr. Seuss' grump at last on page 59, "I like green eggs and ham! I do!"
I like Green Eggs Cafe, too, I do – even if its kitchen can still improve. The eggs themselves may not be exactly transformative quite yet, but this bright cafe has clearly already given the city's sleepyhead brunchers something to covet: new life for this corner of deep South Philly and another line worth standing in.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Dettera in Ambler. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.