Usually the answer to Ty Dolla $ign’s famous query ("You gon' make them eggs cheesy with them grits, or nah?") would be—at least here in Seattle—a resounding “nah.” Grits aren’t exactly a Seattle breakfast thing. Overpriced crab benedicts or smoked salmon omelettes, perhaps, but not grits.
That said, while they might not be a menu fixture, there are plenty of places to grab a bowl. Roux, Hudson, and even the tiny Both Ways Cafe all come to mind. However, if you’re living the commuter lifestyle, those aren’t exactly convenient. I mean, I live in South Park and Hudson is right across the bridge, but getting there means driving, and driving to work is the ultimate misery. Now, I’m thrilled to report, we have a very awesome, very centrally located, and very Southern place to get grits: Cycene.
Cycene occupies one of the teensy restaurant slots on the 1st Avenue side of the Sanitary Public Market building, wedging itself in between El Borracho and Old Stove Brewing Co. They’re a breakfast and lunch affair, being open from 6am-2pm every weekday except Wednesday (their day off), and 8am-3pm weekends. If you’re, say, transferring buses at Westlake during an ungodly hour, you can pop into Cycene and be out in half an hour.
It’s the brainchild of husband and wife team Hassan Chebaro and Patsy Williams, both longtime restaurant industry folks who moved here from Chicago to chase the dream of owning one of their own, and the Southern theme comes from Chebaro’s time spent working in his family’s restaurants across the South. It is also, as he told Eater upon opening, the food he likes to eat. Given my early experiences there, it’s not hard to see why.
The first time I visited was, given the constraints of my commute, at an ungodly hour. Though your body will not reward you for waking up at 5:30am, Cycene will. Their early bird special, served 6-8am, is a bowl of grits with a fried egg and your choice of bacon or sausage for a mere $6. This is ridiculously good value. Even if the cost of your labor is a mere $15/hour, it's likely you cannot make grits, breakfast meat, and an egg quickly enough to justify not shelling out $6. Also, nothing makes you feel like an old-timey businessperson like stopping to eat breakfast and read the paper before work.
If you needed any further incentive, the grits are texturally perfect, which is the whole point of grits. Grits are essentially porridge, and there’s a reason Goldilocks was so picky when she was burglarizing those bears. It needs to be just right.
According to The Stranger’s new managing editor Leilani Polk, who is an actual Southerner and therefore an expert in grits, texturally perfect means “smooth, creamy, buttery rich, and (if they’re really good), plenty of cheese (sharp cheddar is good—white or orange—but gruyere adds a nice richness); bad grits are chunky/gloppy or runny and flavorless.”
Over the course of two visits, I only encountered a single, barely noticeable chunk, and the grits were otherwise smoother than Trump’s bald spot. I don’t believe the humble salaryman’s special has cheese in it, but the thing I had on my second visit definitely did, and it was delightful.
Chebaro and Williams love the Kentucky Hot Brown, a broiled open-faced sandwich native to Louisville. However, they build and serve all the dishes in paper boats, meaning broiling a sandwich is out of the question. As a workaround, they came up with a grits version. The grits are studded with big, perfectly cooked chunks of turkey breast, topped with two strips of crispy bacon and quartered Roma tomatoes, and then bathed in their superlatively good pimento mornay. The fresh tomatoes have just the right amount of acid to balance out all the fatty delights, the turkey is a major force multiplier on the texture front, and the pimento mornay integrates perfectly with the grits.
So far, I’ve only had their grits—perhaps because I’ve had “Or Nah” stuck in my head for a full six weeks and can’t stop thinking about grits—but they also have an impressive array of sandwiches for the lunchtime crowd. I’ll likely go back for the shrimp ’n’ grits before anything else, but the blackened chicken with Alabama white barbecue sauce is particularly intriguing. Chebaro clearly knows his Southern food—the man makes boudin (and all his sausages) in house—and I’m excited to go back and educate my tastebuds.
Food aside, they’ve also created a place that’s warm and inviting in a way that Seattle often isn’t. We natives love to complain about transplants, but I’ve found that—so long as they aren’t tasteless techies colonizing Capitol Hill—I love transplants. Cycene reminds me why. The music piping overhead is uncompromisingly twangy, which is not the type of stuff I'd ever listen to, but fits the place perfectly. The space is clean and modern, but more functional than fussy. And Williams is perhaps the nicest, most genuine person to take my order in the last two years.
Indeed, if you sit at the counter, you will very likely find yourself engaged in conversation with the couple, as the tiny restaurant sports an open kitchen. After devouring my Kentucky Hot Brown, I found myself roped into an impromptu focus group with the gentleman next to me about whether it should remain on the menu, as he’d had the same thing. For the record, it absolutely should.
Then, by virtue of Chebaro’s post-shift Rainier pale ale, this transitioned very naturally into a lively discussion of regional shit beers, culminating in introductions, handshakes, and broad smiles all around. As a lifelong Seattleite, this is not something I’m used to. But, given the grits, it's definitely something I could get used to.