It’s a brief and predictable walk to get there, down Charles Street, across Fayette, left on Water. On the way, you pass the ubiquitous beacons of modern culinary commerce, including the oh-so-tempting Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner, beckoning you seductively to come inside to get your daily refined sugar and ground floor sweepings coffee fix. (America’s Favorite Coffee!) You’ve been told “America Runs on Dunkin’” so many times that you almost feel unpatriotic not going inside but, after inconspicuously side-glancing to check for the hidden Homeland Security “subversive eating” street surveillance cams, you successfully circumnavigate the hypnotically bubbly orange and pink DUNKIN’ DONUTS marquee and doggedly push forth toward this morning’s breakfast destination.
For a moment, you think you might have gone the wrong way, since Water Street turns into an alley just east of Light Street. Just when you’re about to turn back, though, you spot the hand-scrawled placard indicating that the unmarked door ahead and to your right is, in fact, the magical portal to the place for which you’ve been searching: The Cheapside Wharf.
Upon entering, you are immediately and warmly greeted by a stout and smiling woman who motions to you, from the tiny kitchen in the back, to belly up to the breakfast counter on one of the 10-or-so available stools. Shortly she emerges, pencil and order slip in hand, and reminds you not to forget about the Seafood Omelet Special which, since it is printed at the very top of the ragged coffee, grease, and egg yolk stained menu, appears to have been the daily special for a very, very long time. It also happens to be the most expensive item in the Cheapside lineup at $6. The undercard includes everything you want for anachronistically low prices – 2 eggs for $1.50, French toast for $2, grits for $1. Need endless cups of organic, fair trade coffee with your meal? That’ll set you back $1.25.
The order slip, once completed, is walked roughly 7.5 feet from counter to kitchen and handed to the affable chef – the only other employee on hand this morning. He immediately goes to work with the masterful multitasking capacity exclusive to those who have done their time as line cooks and, within a few short minutes, has your Seafood Omelet Special sizzling along with your sides of potatoes, bacon, and crab cakes (yes, you ordered crab cakes, too). Your grits are boiling merrily nearby. With the deliciously commingling cooking aromas filling your nostrils and your hot cup of coffee cradled gently in your hands, you turn at the sound of the swinging front door to see the delivery guy step inside carrying a giant plastic pallet holding about 30 bags of celery to accompany the 9 different kinds of chicken wings they make at the Cheapside. Clearly a regular, he calls the cook out of the kitchen to jaw about Saturday’s Ravens vs. Broncos playoff game while scrolling through photos of his 1-year-old on his phone with your charming hostess. His delivery made and conversations had, he then makes his exit – but not before shouting one last “GO RAVENS!” on his way out the door.
Your breakfast makes the 7.5-foot journey from kitchen to counter and is placed lovingly in front of you. Fighting through your initial bout of too-many-choices-induced indecision, you hit the Special first (good choice), then rotate through heaping forkfuls of the rest, spiraling your way inward toward the center of the plate, jutting your spoon out to scoop the grits in rhythmic fashion, like the John Bonham of breakfasts working the ride cymbal. In the middle of your greasy-spoon reverie another delivery guy arrives – this one with a towering pile of Wonderish-looking bread loaves which he proceeds to count out with both the cook and the hostess. Obligatory Ravens-related bantering ensues before he departs with the standard (you have now figured out) “GO RAVENS!” salutation.
Before returning to his kitchen duties, the cook stops to ask you where you’re from and, to your reply, shares that he’s been there, but only in the airport. A spirited discussion follows about whether or not you can really say you’ve “been somewhere” if you never left the airport. He claims his ride on the tram between terminals has to count for something. You say you’ll give him some credit for that, but you still don’t really think it counts. In an attempt to shore up his argument, he also shares that he has a friend who teaches at the university in your town and is pleased at your excitement about this fact. The hostess chimes in to ask how your food is and, in response to your enthusiastic assessment that the crab cakes, in particular, were amazing proceeds to tell you about a different restaurant that you HAVE to go to because they make the BEST crab cakes (“as big as baseballs!) Then, plate cleaned, tab squared, you slide off your stool, head back out into the street, just now starting to become aware that you may have just had one of the best meals of your life. And, though you can’t quite force the words “GO RAVENS!” to come out of your other-team-loving mouth, you do toss a hearty “THANKS SO MUCH!” their way before you go.
Though all of this might seem mundane and unimportant on the surface of it, there’s a deeper version of you who knows it’s not – who can feel the difference between this and the hundreds of other Egg McWhatevertheheckthatmeatisMuffin and “try our NEW WAKE-UP WRAP” breakfasts you’ve had in all kinds of cities around the country including this one. You realize that what you just experienced could only have occurred in this particular city at this particular time. Free from the spatial disassociation caused by the calculated sameness of chain franchise America, you can actually feel, taste, and hear where you are on the Google map. You can truly know where you are in the world.
You walk back up through the streets of the city – this city – now squinting your eyes to make the billboards blur and all the familiar landmarks disappear. Peeking under dirty awnings and searching dark alleys for hidden doorways, you never know what you’ll find. It may not be the same thing twice. It may not be what you already know or even what you ever wanted to know. But, it will be real. And that’s the beauty of it.