It's 8 a.m. at the Double T Diner in Catonsville and there are almost 60 cars in the parking lot. Inside, a pair of businessmen are hunkered down over remnants of home fries and toast, smoothly flipping phrases like "vertically integrated systems" as if they were flapjacks.
At 10 a.m., the counter at Cafe Hon in Hampden is tight with regulars -- jean-clad retirees who leisurely read newspapers and chat over bottomless cups of coffee.
By 11:45 a.m., the morning is almost over, but breakfast isn't at Jimmy's in Fells Point. There are a dozen diners in the restaurant, each of them in various stages of finishing plates of eggs, pancakes and other morning staples.
Breakfast is big in Baltimore. Some find it a convenient setting for business appointments, others a good excuse for meeting friends. For years, Americans have been told it's the most important meal of the day. In this town, that can mean a hearty morning repast, frugal light supper, wee-hour sustenance, or weekend exercise in gluttony.
While Americans are having a love affair with fat-free foods, that trend doesn't extend to breakfast. In the morning, anyway, the egg still rules.
But whether it's eggs or oatmeal, more people seem to be eating breakfast away from home, especially singles, empty-nesters and seniors under age 65. Breakfast orders grew an average of 2 percent per year from 1989 to 1993, according to a survey done for the National Restaurant Association.
A lot of that growth can be attributed to takeout orders during the workweek, when many Americans don't have time for a sit-down meal. As far as breakfast in a restaurant is concerned, Saturday is America's top choice, followed closely by Sunday.
For many, going to breakfast on the weekend isn't breakfast at all. It's brunch. Martin and Shirley Hanley say they've tried all the Sunday brunches in town, and decided Weber's on Boston in Canton is the best. The couple drive from their Pikesville home once or twice a month for a Southern-themed buffet that includes corn fritters, biscuits and gravy, fried green tomatoes, waffles and eggs Benedict for $7.95.
"This one has a nice atmosphere," says Mr. Hanley, sitting in a chair with a view of downtown and the Inner Harbor.
If brunch seems like a weekend indulgence, breakfast during the week can be all business. Professionals like Mark Spence, a broker at the Equitable, find the morning a great time to sit down with clients.
"If they meet you that early in the morning, they're serious about doing business," he says.
Mr. Spence also thinks that breakfast meetings are less likely to be canceled than lunches, because schedules can change more easily during the middle of the day. Sitting in a booth at the Double T Diner before 9 a.m., he has just concluded a breakfast meeting with a couple who backed out of two previous midday appointments.
Another popular diner for breakfast is the Bel Loc at the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road. But the most famous one of all was brought by film director Barry Levinson from Westbury, N.Y., to Fells Point for the pivotal backdrop to his movie "Diner." It is now at the corner of Holliday and East Saratoga streets, and is staffed by students training with the Chesapeake Foundation for Human Development.
While the Hollywood Diner closes at 2:30 p.m., most diners offer breakfast all day -- or night. The Sip & Bite in Canton, open 24 hours, is popular with the late crowd, hungry after the bars close.
Baltimore restaurant consultant Diane Neas says there's a good reason to serve breakfast around the clock. To make money selling low-cost eggs and pancakes, a restaurant needs volume. "If you do breakfast, you do it all day," she says.
Up until 9 p.m., customers can order blueberry-filled pancakes, eggs with scrapple and other breakfast dishes at Jimmy's, a Fells Point breakfast institution. Close to noon, waitress Carolyn Rinker quickly surveys customers seated at tables covered in red-checked vinyl. "I've been selling breakfast all morning and it's lunchtime now," she says. The breakfast orders have not let up.
Some breakfast spots, like Cafe Hon, seem to be the nerve center of the neighborhood. The restaurant is much roomier since it moved from one side of 36th Street to the other, but with mismatched tables, teacup chandeliers and heart pine floors, it still has the same homey atmosphere. Four neighborhood regulars sit side by side at the counter. One, Dick O'Brien, claims to be the first customer Cafe Hon ever had.
That kind of loyalty is typical. Everyone has his favorite breakfast spot: Iggy's Sandwich Kings in Little Italy, the Morning Edition Cafe in Butcher's Hill, the Yellow Bowl in East Baltimore, Calo's in Northeast Baltimore, the Woman's Industrial Exchange downtown, and Fields of Pikesville.