Used to be, the best rule of thumb for finding the best sort of diner that served the best sort of breakfast was to look for a windsock.
A windsock was a subtle banner hailing some outpost or remnant of the Hippie Nation where a diner breakfast was more of a meditation on joy than a mere commercial transaction. In Anacortes, Ellensburg, Port Townsend, on Whidbey Island near the ferry terminal stood diners -- tiny on the outside -- whose interiors were vast reservoirs of animated conversation awash in dark, strong coffee, sizzling potatoes and Denver omelets stuffed with peppers, onions and salsa as brilliant as jewels.
Stepping through the door of these outwardly unassuming joints was like walking right into a Tom Robbins novel, sidling into a table and joining the fun.
The spicy, java-humid air carried sizzles from the grill, frank talks about sex and relationships from the next table and a complete rundown who did what to who last night and the deeper meanings therein.
The cooks were always wiry longhairs with sharp grins, the wait staff always beautiful in a can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it exotic way. And the women among them always seemed to be terrifically pregnant. It wasn't breakfast as much as it was a healthy dose of fertility. No wonder the eggs were always so good.
I mentioned this windsock strategy aloud not long ago in a sort of nostalgia. Where have these places gone? They don't seem to exist in Spokane.
A colleague sent an e-mail shortly after, saying, "Hey, there's this place ... and it has a windsock."
This led me to Moose Crossing, a relatively new diner on Nevada, just north of Francis. Pulling up to a parking spot, the windsock is clearly visible. Alarmingly, however, it is in the shape of Bullwinkle.
The place was friendly, but full of the sort of moose cuteness you'd never find in the pages of Tom Robbins. The staff was friendly, the customers tended to be elderly and the Denver, while good, was nothing to sing hosannas about. It's like so many diners in Spokane -- solid but nothing that will appear in a novel.
A few days later, my pickup truck was aimed at Ritzville for a high-speed drive in the hour before dawn. Pulling up to Jakes Caf & eacute; in the emerging gray of daylight revealed a weary, hard-edged looking place almost lost behind the wall of full-sized pickup trucks parked hubcap to hubcap out front. Plus there was a bright red Toyota Prius belonging to the front man for a congressional candidate (a Democrat -- how'd you guess?) that stood out like somebody's thumb freshly hit with a hammer.
Farmers being polite, nobody inside held it against him. The talk gets to be insidery, but you can butt in if you know something about small-town football. And the food was great.
The Denver was big and fluffy and the insides looked like real food.
A drive along conifer-lined roads led to the View Caf & eacute;, a tiny steep-roofed place that sits at the head of a sloping gravel parking lot just off U.S. Highway 95 on the way to Sandpoint. If this place ever had a windsock, it was undoubtedly put up as a midnight prank and taken down immediately upon discovery.
But don't let that stop you. The drive is pretty in all seasons. The caf & eacute; windows overlook Cocolalla Lake, and Wolf People is just down the road if interspecies canoodling is your thing. It's even a good bet there are some honest-to-Gaia hippies out in the woods, though you will have to stand very quietly before they show themselves.
The food? Mercy! Even during a sudden cascade of customers, the Denver (here it's a Western) omelet came out pillow-fluffy and stuffed with identifiable grilled hunks of ham, onions and green peppers. It took up half the plate and a big double-fold of steaming hash browns covered the rest.
The salsa appeared to be from a jug, but so it is at most places these days, and the coffee won't kick your behind, but the View is a pleasant place to tuck into a meal. The floors are well-worn hardwood, the walls covered with tongue-in-groove pine and the roomy tables are filled with folks who seem to know each other and are willing to chat from one end of the joint to the other.
Plus, you get a raffle ticket. Fill out your name and number, toss it into a bucket on the counter and you could be the winner of a free breakfast during the drawings every Friday.