By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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It's not that the corporate flaks in Illinois (where a trio of Clarke's already exists) haven't cooked up a design formula that tries to effect the proper look; it's more that they didn't cook it up right. The minimalist retro-Fifties rooms are punctuated by plastic pink-and-turquoise banquette seats, red-and-white laminated table tops, and teal walls adorned with framed black-and-white photos upon which corny maxims like "Drink your milk!" have been written. That's it. Did I say minimalist? Slapdash is more like it; this is a Fifties diner in the sense that an accountant who combs his hair in a pompadour is Elvis. Yet in spite of its superficiality, the space is undeniably clean and not unpleasant to dine in. Umbrella-shaded outdoor tables are even more pleasant.
Clarke's fared poorly in our recent flapjack flip-off, potential pancake points lost on notably bad service. They were new then, however, and have since had time to work out the kinks; or, as it turns out, hone bad habits. The Illinois formula concerning operational procedures apparently calls for handing over the keys to a poorly trained waitstaff, then coming to collect the cash at day's end. Management personnel, if they exist at all, are invisible. On one breakfast visit, while sitting outdoors, I waited ten minutes before someone came to see whether I had been given a menu. I received my royal Kona coffee -- a good, strong brew -- a few minutes later. Evidently so strong one cup per customer is deemed enough, as I was never offered a second (they did bring some upon request after the meal). More specifically, ten minutes after the meal, which is how long it took for a waiter to clear the table and check on things.
"Northshore potatoes" are a big item at Clarke's. They come as a starch option with breakfasts, burgers, sandwiches, entrées, and even warrant their own à la carte section on the menu, where they're offered straight up, with melted cheese, or Mexican-style. Although described as "fresh-cut potatoes grilled in a unique homestyle way with our tip-top secret recipe," I was able to decode the process and will gladly pass it on in case you wish to attempt making these at home: Dice potatoes. Boil. Season with salt and pepper.
A mound of these duds, er, spuds forms the base of skillet eggs. That would be a Pyrex skillet, with, besides potatoes, two eggs and various additions, depending on which version you order. I went with "the Classic," which includes pieces of slab bacon and melted cheese. Put it together and you've got two eggs with bacon, cheese, potatoes, and toast for $6.50; with coffee, tax, and automatic gratuity, that's just under $10 -- not exactly a breakfast bargain. For the same price, I suggest the more involved "South of the Border" skillet, with hot peppers, salsa, and sour cream, which at least offers some bang for the buck. Omelets, waffles, pancakes, and Frenchy toast provide a wide array of alternative breakfast selections.
Northshore potatoes at dinnertime are the same as at breakfast -- I mean literally left over, the white cubes gray and dead as Buddy Holly. They were served alongside the catch of the day, a fresh eight-ounce grouper adeptly broiled with a little paprika and garlic powder on top. The plate also contained a generous portion of steamed vegetables: unseasoned, undercooked, and obviously prepared by someone who doesn't like vegetables. The fish, like all entrées, comes with a cup of soup or salad, making the $9.99 price tag worthwhile, even if, like me, you leave the starch and vegetables uneaten. A better idea would be to substitute crisply cooked steak fries instead.
Soup and salad, at $5.75, is likewise a good deal; especially if you like Campbell's chicken noodle. I'm not saying that's what they use (indeed the menu claims that soups are made from scratch), but this tasted just like that canned childhood favorite, especially the soggy noodles (though chunky pieces of chicken and vegetables obviously were added in). Vegetarian chili resembled a bland and gloppy tomato soup. Whoops! They brought the cream of tomato by accident. The actual vegetarian chili was barely less lackluster; choose the chicken-noodle.
Not all is dark at Clarke's. A big, fat burrito was delectable, accompanied by guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, salsa, and Spanish rice. Juicy burgers also were solid, as were the sandwiches, especially a moistly roasted chicken salad. Thin-crusted individual pizzas are available as well, for those who fail to heed the little-known adage: Never eat pizza in a diner.
The food is inconsistent and service discombobulated, but Clarke's offers decent breakfasts and affordable American fare 24/7. And there aren't many eateries on South Beach that do, so you might want to go ahead and give it a try. Just choose carefully. And be very patient.