It was insomnia that first led me to the Fairview Bar & Grill. After a night of long-distance phone calls, infomercials, and very little sleep, I walked from my First Hill apartment down to Lake Union. On the way back, I stopped for breakfast at this modest diner across the street from the Seattle Times building.

It's hard to resist the place when you're cold and tired. The old-fashioned windows are often fogged up, and the outdoor specials board ("Eggs Benedict special, $5.95") catches your eye instantly. I've been back a few times since, and there are now Christmas lights framing those steamy windows, and the board has promised things like vegetable-beef soup, spaghetti, or ham 'n' cheese on a croissant (very buttery and delicious, especially when dipped into a cup of tomato-rice soup).

There are certain places I go--my favorite hotel bar, or Tai Tung in the I.D.--when I want to eat alone. I knew the Fairview was one of those places as soon as I walked in. If it's early enough, the room will be blissfully empty, except for maybe some cops at the corner table. The gumball machine by the door and brown linoleum counter remind me of all the roadside restaurants I've ever stopped in with my dad during our long, silent drives through Nevada.

My favorite cook has a silver pompadour and rock-star eyebrows, with handsome lines on his face and a tired but not unkind expression. There are hanging lamps, each covered with fitted floral-print fabric, over the tables. Plastic flowers abound. More specials are written on plates hanging on the wall: Swedish meatballs on Thursdays, prime rib on Fridays. The walls are painted grasshopper green (the drink, not the insect) with brighter green trim.

Breakfast is classic. Two eggs, hash browns, toast, $4.50; with bacon, sausage, or ham, $5.95; with beef patty, chicken-fried steak, or corned beef, $6.95; with sirloin steak, $7.95. There are also omelets, pancakes, French toast, oatmeal, and biscuits. Cottage cheese with fruit is $3.50.

Eggs are expertly cooked to order, potatoes are pressed against a griddle, and coffee arrives right away. Slightly stale biscuits are softened by a quilt of gravy that's studded with peppery bits of sausage and padded with a dense roux. The brown gravy at lunchtime is good too, over a side of mashed potatoes ($2.75) I can never resist ordering, even though sandwiches and burgers already come with fries or soup (the split pea is tasty, with bits of bacon and carrots).

I keep meaning to get the Swiss-and-pineapple burger (there are eight different burgers), just because I'm curious; I also keep meaning to try the meatloaf. But I usually stick to favorites: the patty melt ($6.50), the turkey club ($6.50, with alternating layers of sourdough toast), and the French dip ($6.50)--juicy sliced beef within pillowy bread, slammed into a robust au jus.

The lettuce is always iceberg, tomato slices are always firm and cold, and the cheese is from my childhood--super-salty, super-processed, and totally gratifying, the kind that melts smoothly and effortlessly in a way that is virtually impossible for Roquefort or Asiago. You'll want to end your meal with a wedge of pie, heated up ($3)--I've had the apple, bourbon-pecan, and blueberry, and they were all excellent.

You can get cocktails from the bar in the back, and since it's a separate room, you can smoke while you eat back there. Just don't talk to the nice lady working Sunday breakfast about smoking. The last time I saw her, she was trying to quit. "I hope it works," she said, slapping the nicotine patch on her arm.

"I broke into tears the other night," she continued. "Now, I'm not a religious person. But I figure I have to pray to get me through this. And I was praying, and I started tearing up a bit. And I said to my husband, 'Even God can't hear me. He can't see me or get to me, because it's too smoky in here! It's too smoky for God.'"

Fairview Bar & Grill

234 Fairview Ave N, 264-7842. Open daily 6 am-7 pm, call for varying bar hours.

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