Dine: Breakfasts bring home the bacon

At a bleary-eyed hour of 6 a.m., customers fill counter seats and booths at Kelly O's in the Strip, a diner that opened in July. Hunched over newspapers or cell phones and plates of bacon, eggs and toast, customers fuel up to face the workday.

Breakfast is the only meal where, after an exchange of pleasantries, silence isn't strange, as diners catch up on emails or read headlines to catch the day's news.

With its checkered-tile floors, cheerful lighting and sunny dispositions from servers, Kelly O's at 100 24th St. is Kelly O'Connor's second restaurant. Her first, opened in Ross 11 years ago, was featured in Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" on the Food Network for creative breakfast fare and Polish haluskis of kielbasa, egg noodles, onions and cabbage.

Ms. O'Connor's new spot is one of two breakfast restaurants added in the Pittsburgh area this past summer. The other is MAC Diner at 4848 William Flinn Highway in Hampton.

The growth of restaurants tending to the morning meal shows that despite its modesty, breakfast is quietly gaining attention.

A strained economy is one reason. As the most inexpensive meal, it's less of an impact on a wallet when the cost per person is often less than $10.

Another is a focus on ingredients. Some places offer artisan breads, farm-fresh eggs, homemade jams and Irish butter. Local and seasonal fruits and vegetables have also crept into the morning meal, along with nods to ethnicity with burritos, Jewish matzo brei or pierogies.

The glorification of eggs is also a driver. The morning centerpiece, eggs transgressed beyond breakfast, as a condiment on burgers, pizza and even french fries. Runny golden yolk has become fetishized as accessible yet luxurious.

"A well-coddled egg is a beautiful thing," wrote former Gourmet editor and food luminary Ruth Reichl this past January when she came upon breakfast from a food truck in Los Angeles called Eggslut.

"This is the perfect way to start the day -- a tender egg, held together with no more than a wish, on top of buttery pureed potatoes. The crunch of salt, the snappy bite of chives. Heaven in a spoon," she wrote.

Chains that push value are seeing an uptick in breakfast sales. At the Pittsburgh-based Eat'n Park, breakfast sales have risen in the past year , said Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing for the company.

"Breakfast offers routine, the basics," he said of weekday breakfasts sold between 5 and 11 a.m. at the chain. "People want more of a sense of discovery on weekends. It's more indulgent."

During the week, the best-seller is the Original Breakfast Smile for $6 -- the same components and choices as those offered at Kelly O's.

But there's another reason Mr. O'Connell says breakfast sales are up. "People are more health-conscious now," he says. With menu additions that offer healthful choices such as egg whites, whole grains and fruit variety, the company has pulled in a new demographic for the morning meal.

Back at Kelly O's, Ms. O'Connor said her second location has more steady traffic than the Ross one because of the density of warehouse businesses in the neighborhood.

She cited breakfast restaurants as offering customers a routine to their day. Her best-seller during the week is the World Famous Breakfast of two eggs, home fries, bacon or sausage and toast for less than $7 or Seana's Favorite of 2 eggs, bacon and either a pancake or French toast for less than $8.

Ms. O'Connor especially values routine. "A widowed mother," as she calls herself, she embraced her work at a diner to keep her away from booze in the restaurant scene. "I want to look out for my kids more than anything," she said. "The best way I could do that and to make a living for my family has been to own my own place."

Breakfast could not be more different from brunch. While breakfast is utilitarian, the every man's meal, brunch is the once-a-week, decadent all-you-can-eat gorging. It's when restaurants trot out freakish-size platters, bacon-bedecked pastries and waffles with mountains of fruit and cream. Unlike brunch with its bubbles and beer, breakfast is not for boozing.

MAC Diner owner Nancy Sukits focuses less on health than on nostalgia of the morning meal. With a mac and cheese-themed diner, she looks at comfort food and '70s decor as the draws. And yet she sees a steady stream of customers ordering breakfast standards and pancake varieties, too. "We can't yet tell what service will be like from day to day," said Ms. Sukits of her restaurant that opened in late summer.

As a diner owner, Ms. O'Connor questions the trend. Pittsburghers will always go out for weekday breakfast.

"People come here because we know them," she said. "A breakfast place is the community hub."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or mmccart@post-gazette.com. Follow on Twitter @melissamccart.


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