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Clayton's Coffee Shop

979 Orange Avenue, Coronado

“I’m a cook, not a chef,” says Mary. “There’s a difference?” says Carla, looking up from her dinner. She’s diving into her turkey, cranberry sauce, mash, and peas. Totally standard, but it’s been so long since she’s had it, it’s like “Taste it again for the first time.”

I see what Mary’s getting at. This is Clayton’s, the diner that she’s just taken over, not the Hotel Del. Like Clayton himself for 50 years before her, she makes no-nonsense food for the real world. Hey, I’m happy. I’ve got pork chops with applesauce, peas and carrots, and mashed potatoes with a brown gravy over the top, plus a rich, red veggie soup stuffed with lentils, corn, zucchini, you name it. This sort of meal is what your grandma cooked. And the byword is: don’t skimp. Like, my chops have a patty of bread stuffing hidden under them and a mini dinner-roll loaf with a pat of butter beside it. And Carla has a salad that she’s drowning right now in bleu cheese dressing from a syrup jug. It’s all part of the deal. Hers cost $7.25, mine $7.95. Not bad, ’specially for Coronado.

This is the second time in two days we’ve been here at Clayton’s. Correction: Third, if you count Friday night when we came to the Mexican Takeout, which is, like, the annex at the back of Clayton’s on Tenth. They have the dreamiest shrimp burritos. Mary introduced that, too. Oh man. Cost $6.25. Ate it right outside on the concrete bench, reading the newspapers in their pay boxes. Don’t get any better.

We’ve been staying two nights in Paradise with Carla’s buddy Patty. There’s a big dinner tonight, but meanwhile, Carla rediscovered Clayton’s. Part of her childhood.

’Course, Mary’s facing an awesome challenge. I mean, Clayton’s in Coronado is an icon, like Harry’s in La Jolla. Only smaller. And older. Harry’s dates to about 1960. Clayton’s (and there was a Mr. Clayton, who ran the place for maybe 50 years) has been serving joe and chow since 1947. Now, as then, it’s a bricky little East Coast–style café at the corner of Tenth and Orange, with a full-length U-shaped counter inside and half a dozen booths against the wall. In a way, Clayton’s seems to anchor the entire town. You see Navy captains, judges, plumbers, and can collectors all sitting side-by-side here, yakkin’ away.

Mary’s given it a facelift (vertical beige-and-cream–striped walls, new acoustic ceiling), but the ancient wooden phone booth’s still there at the back, plus a genuine 1940s mechanical NCR cash register’s still what they ring you up with, and the Seeburg jukebox is alive and well, with remote push-button selectors scattered around the counter and at each table booth, playing a time warp of tunes.

Right now it’s “Moon River.” And it was “Moon River” yesterday when we came in for breakfast. (Though Carla wanted an early lunch. Here, no problem: They serve everything, all the time.) We swung aboard the maroon counter seats and collected menus from the waitress, Maria.

Carla scanned “sandwiches,” from hamburger and fries or coleslaw for $6.25, to roast beef sandwich (same sides) for $5.50, to patty melt and onions on rye ($5.95). They had hot sandwiches like the meat loaf for $6.50 and a bunch of “chef’s specials,” such as spaghetti and meat sauce with salad and cheese bread ($6.95) or fish and chips with dinner salad ($7.25). Carla ends up taking a “chili size,” which is like the $7.95 chili cheeseburger, only this is a “hamburger patty on English muffin with chili, cheese, and onion, served with fries.” It’s $6.95.

Me: no hesitation. Sometimes you gotta eschew to chew. Heh heh. That is, sacrifice the ordinaries and go straight for the most outrageous. I could have the one-egg any style with potatoes and toast ($4.50). I could have the 6-oz. steak and two eggs ($7.75). I could experiment with the, uh, jelly omelet for $5.95. But no. The last choice is my first choice: “The Garbage Omelet” ($7.95).

“That means it has everything,” Maria says. “Three eggs, ham, bacon, spicy sausage patty and links, mushrooms, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and Swiss, cheddar, and American. With hash browns and toast.”

Somehow I make it through this delicious, salty colossus and come out the other end to find that Carla has, like, eviscerated her burger — and gone one better. Uh, make that one batter: she’s ordered a bowl of onion rings $3.95. I have to help her out, of course, and I’m here to say these are the wickedest, freshest, lightest onion rings I can remember having. Damn, they’re good.

So that was yesterday. Today, after finishing the turkey and pork chops, our moment of sin comes when Mary points to an apple pie sitting under glass on the center island. “I bake it each morning,” she says. “Southern-style…”

We cave. It comes with two large balls of peach-colored vanilla ice cream. It’s so fresh, so sweet, but tangy (she uses Granny Smith apples). Honestly, the dang thing’s dee-vine. If I were a chef (not a cook), I’d do that finger-kiss thing. Mwaah.

“I’m from Tennessee,” says Mary. “We take our cooking seriously in the South.”

“Now all we’ve got to do is fit through that door,” I say.

“And make it through Patty’s dinner tonight,” Carla says. “Are we crazy?”

“We’ll say we’re on a diet,” I say. “The Tennessee diet.”

  • The Place: Clayton’s Coffee Shop, 979 Orange Avenue (at Tenth), Coronado, 619-435-5425
  • Type of Food: American, Mexican
  • Prices: Short-stack breakfast (two pancakes), $3.75; egg, potatoes, toast, $4.50; bacon, two eggs (same sides), $6.50; cheese omelet, $6.25; jelly omelet, $5.95; “Garbage” omelet (ham, bacon, spicy sausage patty, links, veggies, cheeses), $7.95; hamburger (fries or coleslaw), $6.25; roast beef sandwich (same sides), $5.50; patty melt, $5.95; hot meat-loaf sandwich (with mash, gravy), $6.50; spaghetti, meat sauce (with salad, cheese bread), $6.45; fish and chips, salad, $7.25; chili size (hamburger patty on muffin with chili, cheese, onion, fries), $6.95; pork chops (with veggies, mash, gravy, soup or salad), $7.95; onion rings, $3.95; apple pie, $3.25
  • Hours: 6:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily (closes 8:00 p.m. Sunday)
  • Buses: 901, 904
  • Nearest Bus Stop: Tenth and Orange
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