Brunch has become a verb, and a hated one at that. Once the provenance of bleary-eyed chefs slinging filmy Hollandaise sauce atop rubbery eggs, it is now a moneymaker. Some (RIP, Anthony Bourdain) call it an Instagram cesspool, a Millennial’s hangover paradise, a chance to refashion yesterday’s ingredients into bourbon-soaked waffles and foie gras French toast. It’s a divisive meal if ever there was one. Even the New Yorker ran a recent story: “Are We Done Hating Brunch?” Bon Appetit got more to the point with a first-person essay: “Why I Hate Brunch.” Thrillist weighed in with “Why Brunch Is the Worst,” and Vice, true to form, went a step further: “Your Brunch Server Hates You.”
Which is all to say, sometimes you just want a good, old-fashioned, independently owned coffee shop. Not even a diner — the lines! — but just somewhere to grab a cup of coffee and an egg and cheese sandwich, and maybe a real live printed newspaper for the road.
Nobody does it better than Gail Ann Coffee Shop in Arlington Center, across from the Book Rack (a cozy place to browse tattered, used thrillers with that cup of coffee).
The pine green awning announces 50 years in business, but really it’s longer than that — the shop opened in 1954.
Everything here is old-school, just as a coffee shop should be, from the straight-out-of-1985 gumball machines at the door to the cash-only policy to the collection of locals gabbing at the stools, joking about Facebook (yeah, they don’t use it) and household travails. This spot isn’t trying to elbow its way onto the morning scene: In the window, there’s a framed, slightly yellowing review from the late, lamented Boston Phoenix. The menu, mounted above the register, features a drawing of a woman in a bun and glasses who looks like a cross between Mrs. Claus and Mrs. Doubtfire. Christmas cards from years gone by line the walls.
Current owner Marina Karageorgiou says that the small café was established by two sisters, Gail and Ann. After a series of ownership changes, she and her parents, Georgia and Charlie, took over in 2005 after relocating from Greece. (Another daughter, Katerina, also works there.)
“They said, ‘OK, we should open a pizza store! And I said, ‘No! You can’t stick me in a pizza store,’” says Marina, laughing. “So I told them: Find a coffee shop. Everyone loves coffee. I love coffee, and it’s pretty easy — easier than the pizza place.”
That is, if you consider working overnight to make some of the area’s fluffiest doughnuts easy. Georgia and Charlie (and sometimes a helper) toil overnight to make hand-cut doughnuts from scratch, massaging the dough with a rolling pin. “You have to do it a couple of times to get it all fluffy,” Marina explains. “We make everything the old-school way. Normally a machine does it.”
Butter crunch is the most popular version, but I prefer the chocolate frosted with sprinkles. It’s not too sweet; it’s not overburdened with horns of sugar or glops of frosting. It’s yeasty, springy, and only has a thin layer of frosting. The sprinkles don’t fly everywhere on first bite; no, they stay firmly embedded, adding a satisfying crunch. At $1.65 apiece, the doughnut is also huge, twice the size of those found at your favorite local chain.
Egg and cheese sandwiches ($3.95) don’t come with extras — no avocado or arugula or aioli. Nope, just an English muffin, blackened at the edges, blanketed with melted American cheese and a perfectly fried disc of an egg, portable and succulent.
There is iced coffee year round, from Kahve, bracing and strong. (For non-purists, there are flavors such as Snickerdoodle and French vanilla.)
At lunch, Charlie Karageorgiou makes chicken and tuna salad; Georgia Karageorgiou prepares homemade soups: lentil, chili bean, avgolemono (Greek chicken soup with lemon). They’re written on a dry-erase board propped against the front window.
Service is fast and friendly. The food is delicious. The prices are fair. They aren’t trying to impress anybody. It’s as refreshing as that coffee.
10 Medford St., Arlington, 781-648-9584