I tend to be skeptical about retro restaurants, diners in particular. Even if their heart is in the right place, all too often the food is not. Repeat visits to Bette’s over the years have disabused me of prejudice.
Here is a modern restaurant with classic values … and really good pancakes. I don’t only mean the special souffle pancakes, which are oven-baked, and terrific. I’m also talking about regular buttermilk pancakes, usually available in a special flavor each day; about sourdough pancakes, cottage-cheese pancakes, buckwheat cakes, and banana sour cream pancakes. Savory potato pancakes are a wonder: coarse grated and redolent of spuddy flavor, grilled to a crunch and served with extraordinary apple sauce. (Bette’s pancake prowess — and all its pancake recipes — are featured in a precious volume titled, The Pancake Handbook, available from the restaurant’s website.)
Around Christmas, the day’s pancake (and waffle) often is egg nog. Wonderful! The extra egginess is subtle, adding intangible richness to the cakes, all the better when drizzled with real maple syrup that comes alongside. An egg nog waffle is the thin-tread type, but egg nog does tend to diminish its crispness.
Bette’s breakfast goodness goes way beyond pancakes. Among highlights is some of the best scrapple I have had anywhere, including the Delaware Valley. Part of a “Philadelphia breakfast” with poached eggs, this oinky meat is made from pork butt, cornmeal, sage, and plenty of pepper. It is sliced thick enough that while the outside gets brittle, the interior still wants to melt into nothing but flavor. A “Maryland breakfast” features rugged, crisp-edged corned beef hash. The “Mexican scramble” includes house-made chorizo sausage.
When I visit, I try to arrive early in order to find a counter seat with a view of the kitchen staff at work. Beware, though, Bette’s is famous, and famously crowded. So at most normal meal times, expect to wait.
Bette’s offers a great two-for-one deal. On the right side is a perfect breakfast and brunch spot with the atmosphere of a classic American diner. On the left side is Bette’s To Go, which offers a wide variety of foods for take-out, including exceptional baked goods. If you cannot get into the diner at least pop in for one vanilla macaroon; these are the best I have ever had.
Opinions differ on whether the place is cozy or cramped. Everyone seems to agree that the wait can be very long for a booth or table, but people keep waiting, and the time spent in line is worth it. Bette’s serves up classic breakfast items as well as some not so traditional morning fare such as huevos rancheros or lox and eggs. Pancakes are one of the major claims to fame here. There are several varieties of perfect pancakes to choose from (buttermilk and buckwheat are local favorites) and if you adore them, you can buy the pancake mix to take home with you. If you want something just a little bit lighter try the California Breakfast: toast, two eggs, perfect homefries, and avocado slices.
For lunch and brunch, there is an array of sandwiches from meatloaf to tuna salad. The sandwiches are served with your choice of four types of fresh bread. There is something good for everyone here.
The interior is classic diner: checkered floors, red vinyl booths, and plenty of art deco ambiance. The staff is friendly and enjoys helping you make a selection from among the many tough choices on the menu. This is a dining destination in Berkley that you should not miss. If you arrive early in the week, you can minimize the wait. If you do have to wait for your table or need to work off a big meal, fill your time by wandering along 4th Street.