First of all, there’s an Oakland, Maine.
It’s just outside Waterville, a small city that marks the beginning of Big Maine, the vast land beyond Augusta that stretches for hundreds of miles and where the people are few and far between.
Oakland, population 6,240, is exactly the kind of New England town where you can expect to find authenticity, though. This is where the food is cheap and good, the people are sharp-witted but friendly, and the furniture is clunky and uncomfortable. Early Bird Restaurant ticks every box.
That name’s no misnomer. Early Bird opens at the apparently real time of 4:45 AM and shuts the doors at 2 PM. Sometimes I’m not even ready for breakfast by 2 PM.
Crucially, it also doesn’t accept credit cards, which probably helps explain why the most expensive item on the menu is an $11.99 steak dinner.
Early Bird is one of the places where you have to say “this adds character” as you peruse a stained and slightly sticky menu. The menu has a few surprises in it. Who is eating a Virginia ham for lunch? Remember, this place closes at 2, so the “steak dinner” isn’t really for dinner, although I guess if you’re a server here, 2 is probably pretty much dinnertime, you’ve got to get back to the restaurant by 5 am.
I almost never see grapefruit on a restaurant menu, so I ordered it on impulse. I like a good grapefruit. I love grapefruit spoons, too, which might sound weird, but there’s something fun about the grapefruit spoon, which is really the original spork.
Or, uh, sure. A steak knife works, too, I suppose.
We arrived Sunday morning a little after church starts and a little before church ends. That’s probably a good time, because we were able to snag a table almost immediately (it’s a seat yourself establishment, so bring your binoculars to find the best seat). If we’d arrived twenty minutes later, we’d have been waiting for quite a while. It isn’t a small restaurant by any means, but it isn’t unusual to see a single person alone at a four-top; the bane of the seat yourself diner.
As far as I could tell, our server was also the server for every other table. That’s … probably not true? But servers at Early Bird seem to work a pretty sizable section. She was a little spacey, forgetting to bring over a drink a few times, but she was friendly and personable. She also kept the coffee flowing, which is critical at a place like this, because boy, is it loud.
There’s not a lot to break up the room. A child having a fit on the other side of the diner might as well be sitting on your lap. That’s possibly part of the charm for some people, of course.
I ordered the Mushroom and Cheese omelet and added ham, or maybe I ordered the Ham and Cheese omelet and added mushroom. It’s thirty cents more if you do it the wrong way.
It came fast, the kind of speed you like a diner like this to have. That wheat toast appeared to be homemade bread. It was thick cut but soft and airy, lightly buttered and toasted. It needed not jelly nor jam nor marmalade.
The omelet? It was an omelet. The ham was good, the mushrooms soft but firm, the egg egg. I opted for Swiss cheese and I got it, which is never a guarantee in any restaurant. It was worth the either $7.94 or $8.29 price tag. I’m still not really sure how much it was.
Another diner at our table opted for the classic Eggs Benedict. We’re willing to bet that Early Bird makes their own Hollandaise and that the recipe is mostly butter. There wasn’t much left by the end of breakfast.
I have a fondness for classic New England diner fare and Early Bird delivers. Whether its worth a pilgrimage is really dependent on whether you have a good classic New England diner closer, but if you don’t – or if you’re in the Oakland area – it doesn’t appear that you can go wrong with Early Bird.