Outside, it is gray--clotted clouds in a sky the color of old nickels. But inside, in the corner of the Silver Fork, a woman is singing gospel music as clear and true as a sunny day.She's not doing it quietly. Not "hiding her light," as the born-agains might say. She's belting it—eyes closed, head tipped gently to one side, face screwed up as she digs down and really reaches, voice climbing a ladder in a crescendo that has everyone hanging and, for just one brief moment, stunned.On the floor, all heads are turned in her direction, basking like lizards. Waiters and waitresses have paused in their rounds, leaning a little in the direction of the short woman in the back of the room as if her voice were iron and they all had magnets in their chests. It is an instant, sweet and frozen in strange, soft juxtaposition to the business of the room and the crowds who swarm in from all over the neighborhood.The only counterpoint to the singing is the hiss and sizzle from the kitchen, the clatter of pans and spatulas rasping the flattop, the heavy clunk of plates hitting the pass. In the kitchen at the Silver Fork, Margie Potts, daughter of owner Estella Potts, never stops spinning and the action never ends. But on the floor, for just this one brief moment, everyone goes slow as one voice, raised in praise, turns the air to clear, thick syrup, sweet and impossible to move through.And then it is done. With a smile and a flash of the gap between her two front teeth, the woman brings it home with a stamp of one foot. She beams like a headlight, and there is actual applause from the booths and tables. I think for a moment how much better everything in life would be if there were always a soundtrack—theme songs and traveling music, something to set or build or cool out the mood. How bizarre but fine would it be if, everywhere, there were an ambient score to every man and woman's most inconsequential days?The singer bends at the table she'd been singing in front of, reaches down and picks up an infant in a carrier. She starts winding her way across the floor, stopping here and there to accept the thanks of strangers, to pass brief words. Now she's in a hurry to get somewhere that isn't here, that isn't a ragged booth in a tumbledown greasy spoon north of Columbia City that became a classic soon after opening, and which today, after more than 20 years in business, is very nearly venerable. She waddles, the baby carrier bumping against her leg as she squeezes through the narrow alleys between tables. People make room for her. Someone is already holding the door. When she passes my table, the waitress (who'd been standing there, waiting, pad out and swaying to some gentle internal metronome tick), steps aside to give her room to pass, then swings right back into the smooth flush of breakfast service."OK, then now. What can I get for you?"If ever I were asked to location-scout for Quentin Tarantino, the Silver Fork is where I'd bring him.We'd go there for breakfast on a Sunday, in the swinging lull between early-early church service and the regular flood of parishioners rolling in all fresh and lively with the fever of the Word: men in stack-heeled shoes and wide-shouldered suits, women in hats and pearls, children in their Sunday bests—still ripe with the threat of damnation and tamping it down with pancakes.Quentin and I would sit in one of the giant corner booths, up against the windows that wrap completely around two sides of the place. This is where I'd take him because the Silver Fork is right in his Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction sweet spot: a perfectly preserved slab of classic Americana, virtually untouched for generations, neither tarted up nor draped in unnecessary airs. It is a diner, as purestrain as they come, with short hours, a simple menu, and a galley kitchen with a single long pass window and a wheel on which the dupes are forever spinning.I'd point to the fish-tank windows, the booth-back upholstery—gray over maroon, like the seats in a late-model Chevelle hardtop, and less-than-lovingly tended—and the dark, cold electric sign moldering slowly in the pissy rain. I'd tell Quentin, "Brother, this is it," because the Silver Fork has an indomitable soul that no set, no matter how lovingly rendered, would ever capture.There is the kind of warmth and comfort and ease that is manufactured by the careful joining of line and form. New restaurants can be made to feel like old restaurants, or can be made to feel like other restaurants (a Left Bank brasserie, a Mexico City taqueria), and they can be designed to soothe and console the unquiet spirit and lusts of all who step inside. But then there is the kind of warmth and comfort and ease that's worn in over decades, beaten in through consistent, never-ending service to a community, worked into a space by the snags and gaps in the low-pile carpets, the chips in the paint, the strange idiosyncrasies like the etched-glass view over the Brooklyn Bridge that dominates the back wall at the Silver Fork, or the framed blowup of the New Yorker cover hung on the back wall.The Silver Fork was new once, many years ago, but it took age to merit the face it has now. To sit here is to be in a place where all the corners have been rubbed smooth, all the rough edges sanded by decades passing and 10,000 gentle touches. In the morning, when there's not someone else singing, old-school soul and funk and R&B melt from the speakers, almost too low to hear, until—over eggs and thick-cut bacon, waffles, or pork chops—you suddenly find yourself humming along to some bizarre gospel cover of "Imagine" or "Son of a Preacher Man," hands down the sexiest song that has been sung by anyone, ever.You find yourself imagining some end-of-the-dial AM station DJ, locked in the booth for 30 years, hunched up, chain-smoking under the red glow of the ON AIR light, surrounded by teetering stacks of vinyl arranged like skyscrapers, and spinning some of the greatest songs ever recorded for an audience of precisely you. No one would need any make-believe K Billy "Super Sounds of the '70s" weekends here. It's like you can't even walk in or out of this place without hearing George Baker's "Little Green Bag."A good egg cook is one of God's most special creatures, rare and valuable. Doing eggs in the middle of a busy breakfast rush is like trying to juggle during a hurricane or build a house of cards in the middle of a street fight. It's delicate business, done most often under less-than-delicate circumstances. A good cook manages it with style—able to watch and coddle and know 10 or 12 or 15 different orders at once without losing a single one. A great one doesn't even use her brain, just 20 kitchen timers wired directly to her hand. In the early years of my career, I used to get jobs from some lanky, all-balls wheelman handing me one pan and two eggs and telling me to flip an order over. Do it right, job was mine. Fuck it up and goodbye-and-good-luck. Eggs are that important.The Silver Fork's egg cook is one of the great ones. I can smell it on the air (50/50 oil and cooking eggs, with bacon holding in a steamer insert like perfume), feel it in my bones, taste it on every plate I order. I'm in there one day—Tarantino Sunday—to watch the church-rush hammer come down, and I order pork chops and eggs, over real easy, with pancakes and grits. My order is one of maybe 30 working in the galley—every one of them a breakfast. And when my eggs come, they are beautiful, trembling and white, kissed by the heat, still warm and greasy from the pan, the yolks so richly, beautifully yellow they're like liquid gold.The pancakes come off an overheated flattop—brown as fresh bread, stiff on the surface like I could bounce a quarter off the top, moist and cakey inside. They can hold a pat of butter without falling to pieces, soak up syrup like a sponge. Two of them together are enough for an entire meal, and that's just a short stack, a side dish to the main event.My pork chop is small, as though cut from the world's tiniest hog, and overcooked to such a degree that it almost feels like spite. But the grits are white and soft and bleed butter like a wound. They are cheapside perfect—not fancy as they so often are today, not upscale, not jumped-up or retro. Just grits, as good as they always have been, even in the years when nobody thought of grits as anything but a poverty staple or something to be laughed at. They are the American polenta—as essential to the understanding of Southern cuisine as crawfish or pig's feet or hoppin' john. And here, on Rainier Avenue, about as far from the American South as one can get without jumping the border and fleeing to a foreign land, they are perfect and beautiful, and I eat them with a coffee spoon because they are just that good.That was Sunday, early. On a Saturday, I'd come for waffles—thin as a cheap blanket, crushed in a press that might just as well have WAFFLE HOUSE stamped into the iron, because they're indistinguishable from that Apollonian ideal of diner waffles. Golden-brown, slathered in butter, drowned in syrup from a jug on the table, it is a good waffle—a model waffle of a certain variety, a textbook diagram or something like it: not fat, soft, or steamy but crunchy, small, and sweet even before being doctored by the butter and the jug.On Saturday, my waiter calls me brother and stops twice to refill my tea because the floor is all out of pots for hot water, all of them in rotation on the floor and being used to hold hot coffee. "You wanna wake up drinking hot water, that's your business," he says to me. "I just wanna make sure you got enough."On Tuesday, I hear the woman singing. On another day (late by Silver Fork standards, maybe 2 in the afternoon), I come for a Soul Burger—a hamburger patty with bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a hot link—which is just as overwhelming and big and bad for you as it sounds. The lunches are merely good; it is breakfast here that truly moves me—that makes it worth getting out the door early and into the neighborhood to slide into a savaged vinyl booth and get called honey by my waitress and watch the egg cook email@example.comPrice Check
Silver Fork 3800 Rainier Ave. S., 721-5171. 7 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Tues. & Thurs.–Fri., 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Closed Wed.
Pork chops and eggs $10.50
Eggs, bacon, and a waffle $8.45
Just a waffle $4.20
Soul Burger $10.35
Two eggs, bacon, and grits $7.65