Not many people name their daughters Claire anymore. Ditto Esther, Ethel, Wilma, Lydia, Hazel, Dorothy, Clementine, Barbara, Beatrice, and Lou Anne. These are what you call grandma names (two of them are actually my grandmothers' names), shackled by the strictures of a generational gap. But grandma names live on in the arena of restaurant nomenclature, conveying an ambience of safety and comfort. Here, the cuisine does not often push the envelope—nor should it, really. Think about it: Grandma Bea never broke out the water bong and rented Caligula when moms and pops were at the PTA meeting; she fed you Jolly Ranchers and taught you how to play cribbage. That's what grandmas are for. Fittingly, Claire's Pantry is a haven for seniors and the offspring who love them. Pantry—there's another word you don't hear much anymore. My grandma Dorothy had a walk-in pantry, its shelves chockablock with cookies and sugary cereal that my mother tended to withhold as chore bait at home. With Grandma Dorothy, it was an all-hours free-for-all. But I digress. Housed in a large space on the ground floor of a Lake City Way office building, Claire's is the sort of place where Elks, Lions, and Eagles meet over Manhattans and French onion soup to determine who's going to don the Santa suit at the orphanage this Christmas, and slices of pie are a de rigueur postscript to every meal. With the hardscrabble environs of Lake Shitty beckoning outside a westerly window, Claire's looks and feels like a grunge-rock version of Denny's, with pancakes the size of Herman Munster's cranium. One charming peculiarity about Claire's is that it boasts a larger-than-average clientele of physically and developmentally disabled people. This is the sign of a sweet, nonjudgmental place, like the dream sequence in Happy Gilmore where the midget rides around on a tricycle in cowboy garb while Carl Weathers plays piano with a wooden hand. Incidentally, I defy anyone to find back-to-back slapstick comedies from the same production house/star more layered than Gilmore and its predecessor, Billy Madison. That Sandler's come nowhere close in the last decade to equaling these stunning works of comedic ingenuity is testament to their relative greatness. Claire's, meanwhile, continues to live up to its own modest, gut-filling standards. Actually, more Americans probably prefer their out-of-kitchen ventures to be modest and gut-filling than expensive and innovative. Yet there's one dish at Claire's that defies expectation: the biscuits and gravy. At most diners, biscuits and gravy are served on a smaller plate than other breakfast items—relegated to second-class status as a glorified side dish. Meanwhile, Claire's biscuits and gravy are served in an enormous soup bowl with a spoon, fork, and enough gravy to wholly submerge the bready pucks in the sausagey depths. Simply put, it's an absolutely irresistible overindulgence at a place that otherwise plays it pretty straight. Which reminds us: Some Republicans smoke pot. Some gay guys love football and Budweiser. Some frat boys play Chopin. Some cats like dogs. Some princesses like frogs. And some grandmas like a nip of Bushmills in their morning coffee. firstname.lastname@example.org
Claire's Pantry 12360 Lake City Way N.E., 365-4542. Open 6 a.m.–10 p.m. every day. Full bar.