WHITE CENTER is real close to the West Seattle dump--hence its nickname, Rat City. A little scruffy, but a place where working people can still afford to live and eat. Richard Hugo grew up there. He wrote poems chronicling the landscape of fishermen and drunks, tracking the industry and decay of places like West Marginal Way with melancholy affection. It's eerie to stand next to the Duwamish, a river that once boiled with salmon but now "curves... slow and sick. Water knocks/at mills and concrete plants, and crud/compounds the gray."

As industrial monuments collapse, giving way to waterfront views built over dirt compacted with ominous mystery, White Center appears unshaken by growth. "He should have come here for no reason," Hugo instructs, "or for silly reasons: to eat bad food/or learn the way to break a heavy load/from the foreman high on muscatel/and beer." Following his lead, we visited the main drag downtown, absorbed some ennui, and ate.

Cookbook Cafe advertises "country cookin'" and outdoor seating in a parking lot. Inside, this cozy diner bursts with knickknacks, floral patterns, and a display of old cookbooks (such as House Husbands of Uppity Women). The lady in charge, Judy, knows everyone by name. Retirees gather by the television, knocking back cup after cup of controversial Tully's. When Judy delivered our carafe, she lamented the loss of the hallowed Rainier Brewery "R." "It just looks silly," she declared of Tully's green "T." "I haven't been over there (she waved in the direction of Seattle) in seven years. I don't need it."

I intended to order the Early Bird Special ($1.99). The Big Mess ($6.25) appeared instead. The Big Mess and the Really Big Mess ($6.75) feature superb potatoes, fried up and flavored with plenty of thyme, eggs, a biscuit with country gravy, homemade bread, and, for the "Really" folks, a heap of sausage topped off with cheese and more gravy. The Cookbook Scramble ($5.75) pooh-poohs food-item separation (something I cherish), and piles potatoes, cheese, and Italian sausage together, garnished with two eggs. Thanks to Judy, eating at Cookbook Cafe feels like hanging out in Aunt Audrey's kitchen, a pie beckoning from the counter and lots of love flowing via the coffeepot.

Across the street from Stan's Super Adult Store and Jubily [sic] Club Cardroom, Flapjacks Too beckoned. Our intention was to eat breakfast at Flapjacks, burp, and dip into Joe's Diner for cocktails and lunch. What happened instead was Flapjacks' notorious "R'U' Hungry" (all $6.25) breakfast challenge.

Flapjacks' dining room is composed of booths and banks of fluorescent lights. Daily specials, obscured by the partial fog emitted from everyone's cigarettes, are a superfluous gesture in light of the menu's gracious expanse. On most breakfast menus, the meat choices are separated by commas and the word "or"--as in "bacon, sausage patty, OR links." At Flapjacks, the menu lists meat after meat connected by the word "AND." "R'U' Hungry I" illustrates this philosophy with two inedible, rubbery eggs, two pieces of bacon, two sausages, two pancakes, mealy hash browns, AND a biscuit with sausage gravy. "R'U' Hungry II" substitutes with French toast and ham. "R'U' Hungry III" involves pork chops and applesauce. Flapjacks' menu also waxes poetic with "Jeanie-Marie" ($4.25), another example of the AND meat list: two eggs with bacon, sausage, and pancakes. The omelet selection borders on baroque with the "Tropicana Omelet" ($5.95): essentially piña colada-flavored eggs.

We stumbled next door and peered into Joe's Diner. It was 8:00 a.m., Wednesday morning, and one elderly lady sat, smoking. Nine people, mostly men, silently quenched their mighty thirsts in the dim bar. We gulped cocktails, clutched our bellies, and lurched toward the car. Sitting in morning traffic headed back to Seattle, I stumbled onto Hugo's lines: "Home. The word is dirty/Home is where/the dirty river dies. Dogfish come/to eat the fat from the fat man's eyes."

Cookbook Cafe 9614 14th Ave SW, 763-5229. Mon-Sat 7 am-9 pm; Sun 7 am-3 pm. $

Flapjacks Too 9655 16th Ave SW, 762-4073. Open daily 6 am-9 pm. $

Joe's Diner 9635 16th Ave SW, 764-3946. Open daily 6 am-2 am. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up