Review: Sunrise Sunset Recalls a Time When It Was Morning in America

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Sunrise Sunset 7400 West 38th Avenue, Wheat Ridge 303-423-8380 Michael Pollan famously proclaimed that we shouldn't eat anything our great-grandparents wouldn't recognize as food. Most of us play along with this theory by reading labels and skipping things that belong in the lab. But there's another way to heed Pollan's advice, and it's a lot more fun: We can roll out of bed and head to Sunrise Sunset, where breakfast skillets are brimming with old-fashioned staples and there's nary a newfangled kale chip in sight.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Sunrise Sunset

Founded in 1984 by Steve Dirks, this humble breakfast-and-lunch spot has grown over the years from one location to three, with numbers two (in Wheat Ridge) and three (in Lakewood) co-owned by Dirks and his kids, who were nine and twelve when the first outpost opened on South Wadsworth Boulevard. I'm partial to the location in Wheat Ridge, which is operated by Steve Dirks's son, Shad. It's closest to my house, which is essential when you're choosing a brunch place, and the decor is as pleasantly retro as the food.

Tucked in an aging strip mall, the restaurant occupies the prime front corner, giving it plenty of windows and natural light. Decorative yellow trim boards and a banner declaring "We serve only Colorado farm-fresh eggs" let you know you're in the right spot, as does the small parking lot, which is frequently full. Even so, you'll rarely see a line here; this isn't a place where people wait two hours for bottomless mimosas. And that's one reason that Sunrise Sunset fits Pollan's prescription. Forget about ingredients like butylated hydroxytoluene: My great-grandparents would've sent me to the lab if I had forced them to wait two hours for brunch.

Inside, walls are covered with wood -- not the reclaimed barn wood so popular these days, but the shiny paneling that lined dens across America in the days before remote controls. Fixtures look like wagon wheels, and tables are wrapped in beige vinyl dotted with tiny blue flowers. Kids' pictures, colored in crayon, hang behind the register, where servers send ladies of a certain age off with a cheery "Have a good day, girls!"

It's easy to be smug, to think that a diner like this doesn't stand a chance against the newer, trendier places where you know the name of every farmer, rancher and chef who had a hand in your meal. And to be honest, Sunrise Sunset doesn't -- not when judged by those standards. Something is sacrificed when potatoes aren't organic fingerlings cut by hand, bacon isn't cured in-house and green chile doesn't start with poblanos roasted in a drum out back. But there are other standards, ones from a kinder, gentler era, when food wasn't as complicated and we didn't fret over the ethics of buying bananas in January because they require a gazillion gallons of fuel to fly them north. Judged by those standards, a meal at Sunrise Sunset may be a relic of days past, but nostalgia can be nourishing every once in a while.

The menu is large, a far cry from the tightly edited boards favored by today's chefs. The laminated, brightly colored affair offers three pages of breakfast and lunch items, with house specialties listed in golden eggs in the margins. If you weren't already grinning after being seated by the server with the million-dollar smile, you will be after you order. Sunrise Sunset's roster is full of dishes with friendly, often goofy names, such as Cheeses Pleases (an omelet), Mt. Mushmore (a burger) and Roll Out-a-Bed (a pecan cinnamon roll), that are all but impossible to say with a straight face.

My favorites dishes here, however, tend to be more straightforward. Corned-beef hash combines skin-on country potatoes, green peppers, onions and plenty of corned beef, extra lean and shredded like pulled pork. The Southern -- one of the dishes highlighted in an egg -- promises a platter of crumbled biscuits smothered with sausage gravy. Unlike at some restaurants where the smother is a light glaze and the sausage is either missing altogether or tightly rationed, the gravy here is thick, amply applied, richly flavored and loaded with meat. Dirks reserves a special sausage just for this, one he developed with Carmine Lonardo's Italian Deli after "going through ten or twelve recipes," he says.

Both platters come with what the menu calls basted eggs, essentially steamed sunny-side-up eggs with an opaque white film covering the runny yolk, and an English muffin, which you can slather with gobs of strawberry jam kept on the table. Also kept on the table: a thermos of coffee. This, too, is something your great-grandparents will recognize as food, even though it tasted like water to me. (If you really want coffee, brew a pot at home or stop on your way to Sunrise Sunset.)

Keep reading for more on Sunrise Sunset. Dishes don't have to get the egg-highlight treatment to be good. Omelets are fluffy, never dry, and loaded with everything from asparagus to zucchini, though they're likely to come out half-heartedly folded, with fillings spilling out. Burgers -- part of the lunch menu served from 10 a.m. to close -- come not with the house aioli we've come to expect, but with Miracle Whip, a spread that's tasty in a campy kind of way. Bacon Benedict arrives with bacon in place of the ham, a trade I'll gladly make since the crispy strips add flavor that's missing from the Hollandaise. "I'm funny about lemon," says Dirks about the citrus commonly added to the sauce. "Sometimes there are things that the owner has a preference for." In his case, it's a preference for lemon-free Hollandaise.

Mario's Sunshine, one of six potato-based breakfasts served in a ceramic skillet, is terrific. Made without meat -- Dirks's daughter is a vegetarian, hence the attention to meat-free, though not vegan, options -- it features country potatoes mixed with black beans, melted cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses and vegetarian green chile, which drips between the spuds to prevent the dreaded Nacho Effect. (You know, when only the outer layer of chips -- or in this case, spuds -- gets a load of the good stuff.) True, the Colorado-style green chile isn't made in-house, but whoever's making it knows what they're doing: This version has plenty of kick and not so much thickener that it's overly goopy.

Unfortunately, not everything is good just because it's retro. Hot cakes, which can be ordered by the stack or à la carte from the Kids Korner (for kids "ages 1-100"), might taste like Great-Grandma's...if Great-Grandma wasn't a very good cook. Although these pancakes are made from scratch, on several occasions they came out thin and tough from over-mixing; at least the berries on the strawberry version were fresh. The country-fried steak in the steak ranchero, cooked on the grill because the restaurant doesn't have a fryer, was mushy both inside and out; the pounded steak had the texture of breakfast sausage, and the flour-based breading peeled away like a wet bathing suit. And our cinnamon roll had been warmed in the microwave, an appliance that should be outlawed given what it does to the texture of baked goods.

In an industry in which restaurants mark anniversaries in increments of one, three and ten, it's clear that Sunrise Sunset is doing something right. Not only is it celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, but November was "the biggest month we've ever had," says Dirks, who'd originally planned to serve dinner, too, but gave that up after he worked for two years without a day off. Part of his mini-chain's success is certainly due to his family's continued involvement. Part of it comes from his ongoing commitment to tweak where necessary, looking for a better hamburger bun here, a better cheese there. But perhaps the most important part stems from the fact that the food isn't trying to be something it's not -- a principle most great-grandparents would recognize, in life as well as in the kitchen.

Select menu items at Sunrise Sunset: Corned beef hash $9.79 Southern special $9.79 Colorado omelet $8.99 Steak ranchero $10.99 Strawberry hot cakes, half order $5.89 Mario's Sunshine $10.49 Bacon Benedict $10.49 Bacon point burger $10.19 Roll Out-a-Bed $4.99

Sunrise Sunset is open 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. daily. Learn more at sunrisebreakfast.com.

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