If there’s one thing I like, it’s an old school, American eatery. I need all the trappings – formica tables, weak coffee and a predictable menu – even better if there’s no contrived retro theme involving the ubiquitous and endless loop of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Leo’s Nonsmoking Coffee Shop (837 S.W. 11th Ave.) possesses all of these attributes, plus being ridiculously cheap and even serving tasty food; I think I’m in love.
Leo’s is classic without capitalizing on it. Its ordinariness is extraordinary. I would go so far as to say that nothing needs to be said about it – and I mean that in the most flattering way. Unfortunately, it’s my job to say something about it. The caf� has absolutely zero ambience. It’s been remodeled since opening in 1929, so it doesn’t even have much of that kitschy, mid-century charm that Tom Waits fans go nuts over. Outside noises are muted and there isn’t any music playing, leaving you to peacefully enjoy your conversation and the whir of the milkshake machine. The morning Oregonian is placed on each table. I would prefer the Vanguard, of course, but it’s still a nice touch. Convenient bike parking and a streetcar stop are located right outside the door.
The food is simple and straightforward. It’s really good cafeteria fare, which is fitting because Leo’s used to be the cafeteria for the Medical Dental Building in which it resides. There is a variety of menu options, from the standard eggs/meat/potatoes/toast spread to more diminutive choices that make it easy to stick to your budget, accommodate a smaller appetite or complement your meal with a decadent milkshake or root beer float. Dirt-cheap prices take some of the stress out of eating out: Breakfast for two will run you about 15 bucks, including beverages and tip. No, I’m serious. As for lunch, no entr�e is over $5, and that includes fries.
For $3.25 you can get a nice, sweet-salty combo with one giant pancake and three strips of bacon. The pancake is fat, airy and slightly sweet with a barely perceptible, lovely crispiness around the edges. Speaking of crispy, well, this bacon is something else. It is so papery thin and crunchy that it’s almost like potato chips made out of bacon – a dream come true for brittle bacon lovers, but if it’s chewy, greasy chunks of meat you’re after, you’d be better off ordering the sausages. The two-egg breakfast, which in our case involved sausages, scrambled eggs, hash browns and white toast, is a heftier meal that covers all the bases (potatoes are a vegetable, right?) and still only costs $4.75. It has everything it should, with no surprises: The eggs are done right, the toast is pre-buttered, the sausages are chewy and savory. The shredded hash browns – fluffy on the inside with a golden fried crust on the outside – are so good that I ate them off my friend’s plate with my hands. The coffee ($1) and orange juice ($1.10) are both watery, although the hipster in me finds that kind of endearing. And at a place like this that makes you want to linger and read or chat while absently nursing uncounted refills, maybe it’s good that you’re not drinking Stumptown.
The best thing, which I have been thinking about all week, is the chocolate malt ($2.75). The idea of ice cream at breakfast always used to seem wrong to me, but I tried it and nothing bad happened, except for setting a dangerous precedent. The malt, which Peter, the owner, pours joyfully right at your table, is thick and creamy with a rich malt flavor that leaves you pathetically scraping at the bottom of the cup for just one more sip. It’s deliciously excessive with breakfast or a burger, and makes me wish the caf� were open at night for post-bar snack attacks but this is a joint for the early birds: Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 11 a.m. and lunch runs from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
If you want straight up, nothing fancy, American style comfort food in a matching environment, Leo’s is the way to go. If you’re looking for such excitement as goat cheese, tofu scramble, music or waitresses on roller skates, you’ll probably hate it.