There we were, enjoying our eggs benny and huevos rancheros, when we came to the most heartwarming conclusion: Nothing of note has changed. It’s been one year since the longtime owners of the Inn on Coventry sold their iconic diner and the sky has yet to fall. That’s great news for an indie-minded neighborhood that recently suffered the loss of iconic spots like La Cave du Vin and Big Fun. Who knows, if not for Eddie and Erica Zalar, the loveable Inn might have followed those local shops into the great beyond.
After more than 35 years of running the Inn, founders Debra Duirk and Mary Haley were ready to move on to the next phase of their lives. Since 1981, with the help of Haley's mother Amy, who cooked here until the ripe old-age of 96, the pair has provided a warm space for everybody and anybody in search of a homestyle breakfast and lunch.
As it happens, when the time came to put the business on the market, the Zalars were in a shopping mood. After a little more than three years of running the fine-dining Italian bistro Nora in Little Italy, Eddie was eager to trade in the onerous existence of running a chef-driven bistro with razor-thin margins for a less demanding venture with shorter hours, higher volume and simpler food.
"I'm not going to say that we struggled at Nora, but we worked really, really, really hard there," Zalar explains.
For the first few months, all Zalar did was observe. For starters, the longtime kitchen crew and service staff knew more about the operation than he did, and almost all of them agreed to stay on.
The new owner also wanted to get a handle on the menu to sort out the winners and losers. For most establishments, that would be as simple as running a sales report on the POS system, the technology that owners use to track transactions. But the Inn never had one. Servers here still put pen to paper and hand the little green slips to the short order cooks, who have the uncanny ability to translate cryptic code into three-dimensional food.
"I wish I could tell you what our best sellers are, I really do," says Zalar. "I wish I could tell you how many people we serve on a given day. There are a lot of things I'd like to change, but for now, we don't want to scare anybody."
Low-hanging fruit like setting up social media accounts came first, followed by a pretty extensive redo of the dining room. Guests now enjoy fresh carpeting, new paint, different artwork and a little more breathing room between tables. On busy weekend days, the Inn can fly through up to 400 customers, but wait times rarely climb above 20 minutes thanks to swift service, efficient cook times and steady turnover.
The Inn has long been adored for its roster of eggs Benedicts, offering a dozen different makes and models. The eggs Mando ($10) is your standard-issue stack of buttery toasted English muffins, Canadian bacon and expertly poached eggs, all bathed in a sunny Hollandaise sauce. The twist here is the addition of ripe avocado. Also on the plate was a generous mound of hash browns that, while hot, featured few crispy bits. You won't have to search too far to find a better version of huevos rancheros ($9), but most of the elements are here. A plate-size flour tortilla serves as a base for cheese, refried beans and scrambled eggs. Salsa and sour cream are served on the side.
Other breakfast staples include corned beef hash, biscuits and sausage gravy, omelets, French toast and the famed lemon ricotta pancakes. The Inn also dishes up a quiche and crepe of the day. The low-key possession of a liquor license means that brunch diners can wash down those meals with Bloody Marys ($5.25), mimosas and beer.
The "Burger Shop" is still open. That's the name for the mix-and-match system that allows diners to select from a choice of treatments, toppings and patties (beef, black bean, grilled chicken, fried chicken). At six ounces, the beef burgers ($9) are large enough that servers ask how you'd like them prepared, but small enough that in the end it doesn't matter: They all arrive medium-well. But that's just fine on a slim patty capped with American cheese, lettuce and tomato. Hot, crisp fries are included in the bargain.
The picture-perfect double-decker club ($11) looked so appealing, sectioned into four pointy corners held together by frilly toothpicks, that I hated to dissect it. But that's exactly what needed to be done to slather on the mayonnaise that for some vexing reason comes on the side.
For Zalar, who graduated from the distinguished Culinary Institute of America, slinging hash is a bit of a departure from his former career path. But with one young child and another on the way, having afternoons and evenings off to be with family far outweighs his ego and ambition.
"It's humbling," he admits. "I've worked at really nice places in New York where there's like 30 cooks for about 100 guests. I think that fine-dining is really hard to do in a city that's not New York or San Francisco. But I've always liked to stay busy. If I can get another 30 years out of this, that would be great."