That salt sea smell, the wood and tar steeped in its brine wafting stickily in the heat--this is the pheromone of Seattle. It lurks at the end of every gust of wind in nearly every neighborhood. Can something smell melancholy? One whiff has me back, a kid pressed up against the glass in the belly of the Ballard Locks.

While my childhood was a happy one, Seattle in the 1970s was a forlorn, depleted place; and it is that smell I remember the most, the salt air. I find myself sniffing every time I smell the sea, sucking in that air. Maybe I like the sensation that creeps around the edges of consciousness, somewhere between melancholy and nostalgia and dread, hovering like a phantom limb. Shilshole Avenue gives way to an unpretty Ballard that I relish, just like that scent. Train tracks absorb bike trails, and any distinction between street, parking lot, and sidewalk is abandoned to cement mixers and dump trucks and massive buildings warehousing sand and gravel. "Quaint" gives way to "work."

The Salmon Bay Cafe is wedged in between a marina and the deep ruts of train tracks. The cafe's exterior speaks volumes about work over quaint. Somebody wisely put up a very large sign advertising the restaurant's presence, or I wouldn't have distinguished it from all the other frank and uncute buildings along the water. Inside, the smoking and non-smoking sections feature comfortable booths and plenty of regulars, coffee cups permanently affixed.

Salmon Bay's pace keeps a steady coffee-slurping rhythm. Bustling even at midweek, it never feels cramped or hurried. And then there's the grub. Abundant avocado is the Salmon Bay signature. Take the Santa Cruz Chicken Sandwich ($5.95)--grilled breast piled high with mushrooms, avocado wedges, and Swiss melted on sourdough: extremely satisfying, in both the flavor and satiation departments. While the fries are straight-ahead diner fries, the onion rings ($1.95) are a force to contend with. Each ring is very big, almost too wide for my noticeably un-small mouth; but with the vast disparity plaguing onion-ring quality, being too wide is a mark of honor. Those enormous, cornmeal-dipped, perfectly executed delights found their way home.

Menu prices average around $5.50 for lunch entrées, but this does not mean skimpy portions or soggy results. This is yet another Ballard diner that serves up the basics done right. Salmon Bay doesn't serve vegan wanna-be sausage, and it doesn't assume the role of "destination diner." Tourists visit, but they don't come for the atmosphere--although it is a lack of atmosphere I enjoy.

There is something kind of Zen about the plainness of Salmon Bay; even my hangover test did not shake its quiet calm. Sure enough, the morning's special happened to be homemade biscuits and sausage gravy, as if the cook had extended his hand with two pills in his palm, looked deep into my eyes, and said, "Everything's going to be all right." The B&G combined with 17 cups of coffee, home fries, poached eggs, and a giant side of bacon worked its niacin-loaded, grease-coated magic, and I was back in the saddle well before 11:00 a.m.

I returned on another day for a comfort lunch, and while treating myself to the beer-battered cod filet sandwich ($6.25), I thought about smell. The frontal lobes of the human brain--the place where association and storing memories and higher mental processes occur--sprout out of the original junction between brain and olfactory nerve. "In a way, then," concludes Harold McGee, who writes about the science of cooking and everyday life, "smell gave birth to the mind." This is why smell so immediately evokes emotion-tinged memory. This is why, while eating a fish sandwich, staring out the window at moored boats, the briny perfume of my city overwhelms me. The edges of my eyes are wet with longing for that lost piece of ourselves.

Salmon Bay Cafe

5109 Shilshole Ave NW, 782-5539. Mon-Fri 6:30 am-2:30 pm; Sat & Sun 7:00 am-3:00 pm. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

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

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