Just steps away from Bethlehem's Historic District, Billy's Downtown Diner buzzes with life. The small restaurant was crowded, even cramped, when I visited; it was loud noisy enough that, at times, it was difficult to carry on a conversation.
But that's part of this restaurant's charm.
Take all its energy, toss in good food and a neighborly atmosphere, and the synergy that's created here adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Repeated recommendations about breakfast at Billy's convinced me to investigate the veracity of my sources, hence three recent visits to the downtown destination for sampling its morning fare.
At each visit, owner Billy Kounoupis, who bought the restaurant in 2000, was proudly omnipresent greeting customers with his sincere grin, taking names for tables, pouring coffee, clearing tables, running the cash register.
As he made his way through the restaurant, he stopped to ask table after table about the food. ''Was it satisfactory?'' he queried. ''Is that the way you like your bacon?'' he asked one young woman. Pleasure rippled across his face at her satisfied reply.
The down-to-earth decor echoes Kounoupis' warmth: ''Welcome'' painted on the entry door partners with a hand-drawn cup of steaming coffee. The small interior, mostly booths, gets a homey touch from sponge-painted walls, wainscoting and Formica-topped tables. Tasteful prints adorn the walls with style.
Billy's serves breakfast and lunch. At first glance, the fare appears standard: Lunch features salads, burgers, wraps, melts and sandwiches; breakfast includes the usual omelets, waffles, French toast, pancakes and eggs with assorted breakfast meats.
A closer look, however, uncovers dishes with hollandaise and tzatziki sauces, banana peppers, basil pesto, Gouda cheese, mesclun greens, Oriental sesame dressing, roasted red peppers, health bread and ciabatta rolls. This is not ordinary diner fare.
Even the breakfast menu offers interesting selections, such as a breakfast sundae (vanilla yogurt with granola, blueberries, fresh strawberries and sliced bananas), banana nut French toast (raisin French toast topped with walnuts, bananas, more raisins, a dusting of cinnamon and whipped cream) and California oatmeal (oatmeal topped with blueberries, bananas and strawberries).
The menu also proudly offers Froot Loops, announcing, ''Our only cereal and why not?'' How refreshing to find a restaurant with a sense of humor.
Over the course of my three visits, I sampled a mix of traditional and not-so-traditional selections, starting with Billy's Glam Glam Omelet from the specials list a lively combination of three eggs, sausage, Swiss cheese and sliced banana peppers, topped with marinara and Louisiana hot sauce, then cooled with creamy Ranch dressing. This tasty breakfast entree offered layers of flavor, but was a little spicy for my taste.
Traditional creamed chipped beef, from the standard menu, was creamy as creamy gets, with mild, rich flavor. I was disappointed that it wasn't hot, and the presence of shredded dried beef seemed lacking. The creamed beef topped buttered Texas toast, thick slices of bread that added a bit more and much appreciated texture than usual to this dish.
Billy's breakfast quesadilla was excellent. A crisped flour tortilla, folded like an omelet, was stuffed with scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, and melted Jack and cheddar cheeses, then topped with diced tomatoes and scallions, and served with sour cream and salsa. The combination, a study in textural contrasts, offered fine flavor.
Green Eggs 'n Ham, a breakfast sandwich from the specials list, was another winner. Even though my vegetarian companion ordered the sandwich without ham, eggs mixed with spinach and basil pesto, then combined with melted mozzarella cheese and sliced tomatoes on a grilled ciabatta roll, created lots of flavor on its own.
Smoked ham in the house omelet, which also included mushrooms and Swiss and American cheeses, gave this rather standard breakfast entree exceptional flavor. Blue's Berry Blueberry Pancakes, loaded with blueberries, were light buttermilk cakes garnished with confectioners' sugar and whipped cream.
Could Billy's do basic breakfast as well? I ordered two eggs, over easy, and home fries with sauteed onion and green pepper. The eggs were perfectly cooked, but I was disappointed that the onion and limp green pepper topped the potatoes, rather than having been grilled with them.
A steady stream of people came and went each time I visited. At my Saturday visit, we waited about 10 minutes for a table. On Sunday, the small waiting area, overflowing with people, was crowded and cramped, and it took more than 15 minutes to get seated. Be aware, as well, that finding a downtown parking spot on Sunday was particularly challenging.
The average cost of breakfast for two, including tax, tip and nonalcoholic beverages, totaled $17.25.
Susan Gottshall is a freelance restaurant reviewer for Go Guide. Gottshall, who tells it like it is, attempts to remain anonymous during restaurant visits. All meals are paid for by The Morning Call.
Linda O'Connell, Assistant
Managing Editor, Features
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