Keeping It Simple

Toni's Family Restaurant draws a crowd thanks to its fast, friendly service and cheap eats

It was a bright and sunny Saturday morning. Garrett and I had just finished working out at the gym, and we were hungry. I had a single $20 bill in my wallet, which I knew would be more than enough money to pay for our meals at Toni's Family Restaurant, so we decided to stop there for a quick meal.

The only problem: There was a line of hungry patrons that extended out the door. Toni's was packed.

You can probably stop reading now; there's enough information within those previous five sentences to tell you everything you need to know about Toni's Family Restaurant. However, you may want more detail, and I have a lot more space, so I'll break things down a bit:

· Since we were willing to go straight there after the gym, Toni's is obviously a casual place. It's a diner through and through--a place where you don't feel out of place in a T-shirt and shorts, and a place where you can sit at the counter and read the paper with a bottomless cup of coffee. Heck, it's so casual that you seat yourself, and if you need to use the bathroom, you have to walk outside and head to the rear of the restaurant, kind of like you do at some roadside gas stations. The walls are plastered with signs announcing the specials, accompanied by all sorts of random objects, from an Arizona flag to old-school signs promoting coffee to a Corvette poster to a snow shovel marked with a place (Elgin, Ill.) and date (Jan. 21, 2007).

· Toni's is obviously a very inexpensive place to eat, considering that a meal for two can be covered--tax and ample tip included--with a single yuppie food coupon. The most expensive thing on the menu is the two-pork-chop lunch special, which will set you back $7.49. Most dishes run in the $4 to $6 range.

· The service at Toni's is super-friendly, super-competent and super-fast. We visited twice, and it took less than five minutes for us to get our food after ordering each time.

· As for that line of people ... if people are willing to mull around Toni's and wait to get in, especially with so many other good breakfast/lunch spots nearby (Gus Balon's, Taco Giro, etc.), you know that Toni's must be doing something right.

One of the things Toni does right: It offers a wide variety of breakfast and lunch standards, as you'd expect at a good diner. All the normal meat-and-egg breakfast options are here, along with omelettes, pancakes and waffles; you can even get breakfasts with chorizo and tamales. (One thing you can't get is real maple syrup; all they have is the processed fake stuff.) For lunch, the requisite sandwiches and simple salads are supplemented by cod, catfish, Angus burgers and those staples of diners all across America, chicken-fried steak and meatloaf.

Keep in mind where you are (a "family restaurant") and what you're paying (not much): The food here won't be winning any James Beard awards anytime soon; the fare is simple and unspectacular. On visit No. 1, on a weekday morning, my ham, bacon and sausage omelette with cheese ($6.19), accompanied by home fries and wheat toast, was prepared with no special touches, no garnishes and no surprising seasonings. Garrett's meatloaf lunch ($5.09) came with two sides, and he chose the mixed vegetables and corn over mashed potatoes, cole slaw, french fries, green beans, fried okra and soup or salad. The piece of meatloaf came on a plate with a small bowl of what looked like standard-issue corn, and a small bowl of standard-issue mixed veggies. The meatloaf had a decent flavor, but its mushy consistency indicated that a lot of breading--maybe a bit too much--was mixed with the meat. After learning that the pies aren't made in-house, we decided to skip dessert.

On visit No. 2--we returned a couple of hours after we encountered that Saturday line, and had no problems getting a table--I countered the healthy effects of my workout by ingesting the chicken-fried steak and eggs ($6.29), while Garrett ordered the french dip with fries ($5.59). My chicken-fried steak was a little tough--par for the course--and was slathered with a simple white gravy that benefitted from the presence of a lot of black pepper. Overall, it hit the spot, with the eggs, hash browns and toast playing their supporting roles perfectly. Garrett's french dip was just fine, although some of the seasoned fries were undercooked.

As we ate, we examined the placemats, which are made up of business-card-size ads. The smiling face of a Realtor peered up at me from a corner of the placemat as I sopped my toast in the egg-yolk/white-gravy concoction that had developed on my plate.

Cheap eats, friendly service and a casual atmosphere: That's Toni's Family Restaurant in a nutshell.

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