B.J. looked like he had something to say.

He motioned for me to follow him, so I did, from the front porch on through to the back porch, through the chicken coop and around the oil-drum barbecue. He threw back big slugs of the thickest double-brewed coffee sludge known to humankind, letting out an occasional grunt. It takes a lot to excite B.J., a well-traveled greasy-spoon enthusiast with an eye on his wallet. Today, he waited until he was certain he had my attention: "Have you been to the Dish?"

I shook my head, ashamed. I knew about the place. Right next to the Vac Shack, which is identifiable by its rainbow assortment of vacuum cleaners lining the sidewalk. People had been talking up the Dish to me for months. But it was so far away. Ballard... the neighborhood I always get pulled over in for expired tabs, no seat belts, driving too slow.

B.J. stared me straight in the eye. "Best breakfast in the city." I nodded solemnly. My assignment was understood.

Next day, bright and early, I loaded Ruby, my nearly two-year-old pancake eater, into the station wagon for our treacherous journey. As we staggered in the Dish's door, a giant gust of wind off Leary Way announced our entrance by blowing newspapers up around mugs of coffee. The smallish diner crackled with boisterous morning chatter, home fries sizzling on the griddle, and the smack of plates. Where did all these people eating breakfast at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday come from?

All of Ballard was there, it seemed, planted before colorful plates of steaming omelets and biscuits, waitresses buzzing around like caffeine fairies: aging gigolos with their shirts unbuttoned to reveal gold medallions and orange-hued chest tans; outdoor types awash in hair and polar fleece; hungry families; old folks. After obsessing over the vast array of egg-and-meat combinations, I settled on biscuits and gravy with home fries and two poached eggs ($7.25). Ruby ordered pancakes ($2.95). Since Sammie Sue's (Capitol Hill) closed and Ms. Helen's (Central District) was destroyed by the earthquake, that rare beast on the Seattle breakfast scene--biscuits and gravy done right--had been considered nearly extinct, except for occasional sightings as a special at Glo's on Olive Way. I am delighted to report that the Dish has taken up the fallen baton, and provides a competent biscuits and gravy: floury biscuits, flaky yet dense enough to stand up to the excellent sausage gravy. (This is the real deal, not some thick white glue that clogs up the pipes.) The well-seasoned home fries didn't excite me, though; they could have been slightly crispier, although they were perfectly acceptable red potatoes and would have been perfect for corned beef hash. (I realized it wasn't the potatoes that I didn't like. It was the absence of hash browns that bothered me. Oh well.)

The gentleman next to us appeared to be heartily relishing his sandwich, accompanied by a bright, light-looking coleslaw and a genuine deli pickle, sliced into four long wedges. The kids' pancake plate is reason enough to stop by. The Dish's classic mouse-head-shaped cake--with a crown of honeydew melon dotted with blueberries, Bing cherries for eyes, a long banana nose, and a cantaloupe mouth--charmed Ruby into busily rearranging facial features until she suddenly ceased and bit off one of the mouse's ears.

Ballard is lucky to have such a genuine diner. In addition to griddle classics, the Dish has updated diner food to include color and fresh vegetables while staying true to the Diner Code of simple, wholesome food done right. People flock to this place, and understandably so. Weekend breakfast waits are long enough to contemplate and learn more about vacuum cleaners than any door-to-door salesman.

The Dish

4358 Leary Way NW (8th Ave), 782-9985. Breakfast and lunch Tues-Sat 7 am-2 pm, Sun 8 am-2 pm. Closed Mondays. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

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

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