Marie's Café

3016 University Avenue, North Park




The blue smoke swirls up in front of the window. Beautiful. But it's the flavor wafting into your nostrils that really makes an impression. Lo-ove the smell of ribs in the morning. Actually, it must be, like, one-ish. I only noticed this place because a bumper sticker ("4 out of 3 People have Trouble with Fractions") stopped me on the sidewalk, right where "Breakfast All Day" was written on a window. Huh. "Marie's Café."

It's a small frontage, but inside, the counter has to be 60 feet long. The first half's all kitchen. The second has about a dozen stools and another kitchen in back. Blue-and-white walls, except for some stainless steel behind the counter. Gaps in the wall lead to a plum 'n' peach eatin' area next door, filled with maroon booths and dozens of retro pics. Marilyn, of course, Liz Taylor, Bettie Page -- uh, do we know Bettie Page?

"She was quite a pin-up gal," says this older guy. "Twice as popular as Marilyn Monroe."

But now I'm noticing -- wow! An Oprah Winfrey "Up By Your Bootstraps" Award for Marie Nealson. Must be the Marie of "Marie's."

A slim gal comes up to the counter. Brown hair, pretty. You can tell she would have given Bettie Page a run for the money when she was twentysomething.

"You still serving breakfast?" I ask.

"Oh sure," she says. Turns out this is Marie herself. "But we have really great pork ribs on special today, if you want to skip to lunch."

Hmm. A thought. Still see the blue smoke. Chef's flipping the ruby-coated ribs right up there at the front window. But no. My gut would yell blue murder.

So I order a coffee ($1.35, endless refills, big generous mug), grab the menu, and check out the breakfast side. They have plenty of choices. Three eggs any style is $4.50. With ham steak, or four bacon, or two links, or corned beef hash, it's $5.75. All come with home-style spuds, or hash browns and toast or muffin. A boneless breast of chicken with three eggs is $6.85, New Yawk steak 'n' eggs is $8.50, Benedict is $6.95, and country breakfast (two eggs with biscuits and gravy, plus bacon, sausage, or ham steak) is $6.95.

They also have a rack of omelets, three-eggers, with nearly two dozen stuffin' choices, like Italian sausage, guacamole, peppers. With two items it's $5.95, three, 30 cents more at $6.25, four, $6.95. Looks like three items is the best deal.

I've just about decided on an omelet with Italian sausage, avocado, and olives when this gal Luz at the end of the counter spoils it. "Ribs," she says. "You've gotta have the ribs. They're outstanding today."

Luz is a pastry chef at Heavenly Desserts, across the road. In the trade. Must know what she's talking about. So I listen. Marie tells me they're $7.95, with fries or salad.

"What kind of salad?" I say.

"Like that." She points to a plateload that this guy on my right's eating with his hamburger. The salad teeters, a meal in itself, loaded with romaine, tomatoes, red onion slices, cheese shavings, croutons, bleu cheese dressing, and crumbled Parmesan on top.

"That size?"

"That size, and you get five ribs," says Marie.

Ow. Deal clincher. Breakfast? Objection overruled.

And yes, they are delicious. Two of the ribs are huge. Three are slightly smaller. The salad's a good, fresh contrast.

It does feel strange munching on this stuff for breakfast. But who cares? They'll be lunch too, 'cause I ain't never going to finish.

"You won't be the only one who's had to box it," says this strapping guy, Erik. He's Marie's son. Been working with her all four years since she took over the place. "Mom says, 'If you leave here with an empty stomach, it's your own fault.' She's a workaholic. Since Marie's opened we've had to close down for earthquake retrofitting, for floods from a leaky roof. She's been operated on for breast cancer, but she keeps on working." Man, that explains the Oprah Winfrey Award.

Marie -- really Maria -- used to work in solar energy sales, but when she got divorced, she needed steady money. Saw this place for sale, operating as "Johnny's," open since 1952, making it for sure one of the last true, old-time diners in town.

The guy two stools along sits back. He's been working through the " 1/2 lb. North Park Burger" with bacon, avocado, and cheese ($6.95, also with that gi-normous salad).

"You should have had this," he says to me. "I do. Every time."

"A lot of people here are retired, on fixed income," Maria says. "That's why we have a 'Senior Special' breakfast. Two eggs, bacon or sausage, potatoes and toast -- and coffee -- for $3.95."

And if a non-senior is feeling the pinch?

"Biscuits and gravy, $2.25," Erik says. "That'll fill you. Or, two eggs, for $1.55. Or the salad you had, our 'small' dinner salad, for $2.95. And you'd get garlic bread with that."

Good to know. But for now, forget those Blue Plate deals. I'm coming back for another Blue Smoke special.

Hey, if it's good enough for Oprah...

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