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Friday, September 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Sunny-side up: the diner redefined

Special to The Seattle Times

Geraldine's Counter 3 stars


4872 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-723-2080

American

$

Reservations: not accepted.

Hours: breakfast and lunch 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Prices: breakfast $6-$8.50; lunch $6-$9.95.

Drinks: Two red wines, two white wines, plus a handful of beers, fresh juices, lemonade and pop.

Parking: on street or in nearby pay lot.

Sound: comfortably noisy.

Who should go: Can't think who shouldn't.

Beer and wine / credit cards: Visa, MasterCard / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

It was more than a century ago, in 1897, when the first trolley cars were converted into stationary diners. Counters, stools and booths would come later; jukeboxes and blue-plate specials later still.

Counter cuisine has evolved since then, of course, but nostalgia endears us to a 1950s notion of what a diner should be. For a glimpse of what could be the new paradigm for a 21st-century diner, head for Columbia City and grab a stool at 4-month-old Geraldine's Counter, a diner gone upscale but not too far.

The only thing remotely retro about this clean-lined, cheerful corner cafe is the Fiestaware. Want burgers and fries or macaroni and cheese? A stack of pancakes with sausage or a hunk of homemade coffeecake with a strong cup of Joe?

Come to Geraldine's, but expect the unexpected.

That burger will be a hand-formed, well-seasoned patty flecked with fresh herbs, cooked to order, a spoonful of sweet and tangy onion relish tucked under the Kaiser bun. Those fries might be made from sweet potatoes, hot and crisp, their slender mahogany flanks speckled with coarse salt.

Jalapeños and tomato put an appealing Southwest spin on the bubbling casserole of elbow macaroni and cheese, redolent of garlic and sprinkled with herbed breadcrumbs.

Ethereal pancakes might whisper of orange and honey one morning, something else the next — the flavors rotate daily. So does the topping for the French toast, made with thick slices of Macrina Bakery's sourdough batard perfumed with vanilla. The egg-and-milk-soaked crustless bread is pan-fried and oven-finished, achieving an almost pastrylike texture that is brittle on the edges, soft in the middle. Both the pancakes and the French toast are available in half portions.

Eat breakfast for lunch or lunch for breakfast: The whole menu is available until 3 p.m. Want chicken pot pie or "kick butt chili" for breakfast, it can be yours. Or wake up to an omelet, elegantly rolled in the French manner to envelope mushrooms, Gruyère and chopped fresh tarragon.

At lunch you can assuage a craving for bacon and eggs or have a plump corned beef sandwich. A slice of Gruyère melts over the briny, warm brisket, which is served in classic East Coast deli style with a scoop of fresh coleslaw between it and Columbia City Bakery's pale rye spread with Thousand Island dressing.

At just under $10, the sandwich is the most expensive item on Geraldine's menu.

At these prices you can afford sides ($1.50-$3.50), too. Consider the above-mentioned sweet-potato fries, meaty thick-sliced bacon, lofty cream biscuits (with or without sage-heavy sausage gravy), garlicky grilled chicken sausages or fresh pico de gallo.

Go early if you want that coffee cake: It's good and when it's gone, it's gone. Local roaster Caffé Vita supplies the caffeine jolt, a robust brew kept warm in a thermos, not on a hot plate, and served in colorful mugs that are routinely topped off by mostly attentive servers.

Tea drinkers may choose from half a dozen green, black or herbal loose-leaf teas from Seattle-based Barnes & Watson. It comes to the table steeping in a small teapot.

There is indeed a counter at Geraldine's, with a dozen or so round swivel stools facing a kitchen pass-through. But any resemblance to a greasy spoon ends there. The space is light, bright and comfortable, the apple-green and cherry-red walls accented with natural wood, brick and stainless steel, not to mention the work of local artists.

Proprietors Gary Snyder and Stacey Hettinger, who also own El Greco, the Mediterranean restaurant on Capitol Hill, say they expect to start dinner service at Geraldine's sometime in October, adding entrees like meatloaf, pork chops and fish, priced from $8-$15, to items from the current lunch menu. Along with the hours, they also plan to expand the wine list, which currently offers a couple of reds and a couple of whites.

It's reasonable to expect dinner will offer the same quality ingredients, careful cooking and friendly service that consistently enhances breakfast and lunch at this family friendly spot, where the owners clearly pay attention to details, right down to the vase of fresh flowers at the host stand.

In fact, Snyder is the kind of perfectionist who feels compelled to confess to a customer that a typo he just discovered on the menu is his fault. If you don't find that endearing, consider this: He named the restaurant after his mother.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Sample menu

Three pancakes $7.00
Mushroom omelet $8.50
Macaroni and cheese $8.00
Burger and fries $7.95
Corned beef sandwich with fries $9.95

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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