tl;dr: it’s hard to go wrong here, but a sure bet is always the Monte Cristo or the chicken fried steak sandwich. I’ve also loved the country breakfast, Shay’s eggs, and the breakfast burrito.
There are people and places in our lives that serve as ports in the storm, as stability and security. Every time you’re around them, you instantly feel like your current burden is just a little bit lighter. These are people and places that don’t expect you to put on airs. There’s no pressure or expectation, just a mutual understanding that you’re both trying your best to get through.
I’m lucky enough to have found that person, my husband Steven. After ten years of knowing each other, nothing is unknown. We’re aware of every quirk, tic, and habit that the other has, probably more so than we know about ourselves. This kind of relationship settles into a comfort that is unlike any other. I’ve described it in the past by saying that when you’re with that person, it’s almost the same as being alone. There is no second guessing yourself, no wondering, just pure ease. Given our relationship, it makes sense that our regular breakfast place fulfills all those qualities too.
When I started thinking of how to write about Shay’s, I thought about all of the worst mornings I’ve spent there. Monster hangovers, anxiety attacks, just plain old shitty life stuff. Without pomp or circumstance, Shay’s has helped me through all of it. Regardless of my composure level that day, they never treat me differently. They recognize me and Steven, but they don’t go overboard with the familiarity. Every once in a while they won’t give Steven a menu, since his order is always the same, but that’s about the extent of our back and forth.
And really, that’s what I want out of a diner. Just as much as I want a consistent meal (and we’re getting there, trust me), I want a waitstaff that knows what’s up. They might not be taming their own monster hangovers anymore, but they know enough to treat yours with dignity and a side of hash browns. Everyone involved knows why you’re there, so no one needs to say it out loud. Instead, it’s just a friendliness that you can rely on. A place to call home when you need it the most.
Everyone who’s read my writing knows that none of this would matter if Shay’s didn’t put out the most consistent breakfast I’ve ever had. There’s no point in returning home for breakfast if the meal ain’t worth eating. Hangover breakfasts, in particular, need to be on point every time or the meal might turn into another hurdle in the plodding race of getting back to good.
As I mentioned earlier, Steven’s order is always the same. Monte Cristo with fries and tartar sauce. I think if you asked Steven what his last meal would be, that might be his answer. He is always floored by how good it is, and I’m always floored by how it is exactly the same. The sandwich and fries are worth eating in their own right, but the thing that Steven raves about the most is the strawberries. Unlike other restaurants that give you a disposable Smucker’s cup of jam, Shay’s serves up a bowl of strawberry chunks in a strawberry syrup. It’s a move that conveys much more thought about a Monte Cristo. How annoying is it to spread jam on every bite? Instead, it’s so much more convenient to dip it into a sauce. A sauce with strawberries in it also provides the opportunity for different types of bites. Instead of a boring homogenous jam, you can simply dip a bite in the syrup, or you can include a strawberry piece, or both. I don’t know why Shay’s made the decision they made, but the fact that it was a decision at all is what’s important.
Another item that conveys some thought is their impeccable chicken fried steak sandwich. When I ordered it for the first time, the waitress gave me a look like I’d finally stumbled upon the best item on the menu. And I think she’s right. I’m not really one of those people that thinks bacon or gravy or cheese automatically makes something better, but when she placed the plate in front of me and I saw the generous side of their sausage gravy for dipping, I couldn’t help but become one of those people for just a moment. Their gravy is exactly as good as you would expect sausage gravy from a dive to be. Heavily seasoned, huge chunks of sausage, thick but not so much that you’re cutting through it, it’s a well-made sauce. And the reason the sandwich is automatically made better by it is because it’s just chicken fried steak and a butter-toasted hoagie roll. A sandwich begging for an ample application of condiments. And, of course, the chicken fried steak and roll are as perfect as they can be. The roll has a soft crust that’s easy to bite through, with the sandwich’s crispness coming from the toasty bits, as well as the breading on the steak. That texture is only there because Shay’s understood the need to put the gravy on the side. With each bite, the gravy is only applied immediately before, leaving the steak and bread to be their best selves. Like the strawberries, this is a decision made by people who gave just a little more thought to what they’re putting out.
It’d be enough if Shay’s was just the kind of place that cooked the eggs to the right doneness each time. It’d be enough if they spent their Sundays slinging bacon and eggs to those who were hungry. But instead, Shay’s conveys an unspoken understanding of their customers. They know how to make good food better, and how to create a place where you don’t have to be the best version of yourself. They’ll help you get back there, one plate at a time.