Is the restaurant busy?
That’s my No. 1 rule for picking a place to eat.
Sadly, I disregarded that rule not long ago when a friend and I visited a Chinese restaurant for lunch. The place was deserted — unless you count a dozen or so day drinkers in the cocktail lounge.
Sure enough, the food was some of the worst stuff I’d ever put in my mouth.
I’ll bet the drinks were strong, though.
Thus chastened, I’ll never ignore rule No. 1 again.
There’s no danger of breaking my rule at Totem Family Diner, an Everett institution since Ike was in the White House and diner waitresses wore nurselike uniforms. It’s a really busy place — for good reason, as I soon learned.
The diner’s named for a 60-foot-tall pole created by Tulalip carver and cultural leader William Shelton in 1923. The pole stood near the restaurant, at the corner of Rucker Avenue and 44th Street, for decades. By the 1990s, the elements had taken their toll, and the pole was removed and preserved for safekeeping on the Tulalip reservation.
The pole may be gone, but a very cool neon sign with a totem motif greets passersby on Rucker.
In a world where even good restaurants usually die after a few years, the Totem’s a true outlier. My family drove by the place and its striking namesake pole countless times on road trips to Seattle on U.S. 99 in our 1957 Plymouth Fury.
More recently, I’ve been working a short walk from the diner. Despite all this, I’d never eaten there before this week, when I decided to rectify the situation.
Waiting to be seated, I checked out a vintage menu from the diner’s early days, displayed by the door. A clubhouse sandwich cost you 95 cents — about $9 in today’s money.
Not wanting to monopolize one of the four-person booths, I took a seat at the counter, where I watched the staff greet the regulars — they were equally friendly to the newbie.
The place was packed with folks of all ages, from elders reading newspapers to kids Snapchatting their friends across the table.
I enjoyed a close-up view of the busy short-order cooks flying out plates stacked high with omelettes, pancakes, waffles and all kinds of tempting diner chow from the restaurant’s extensive menu (there are 40 breakfast choices, and 10 more on the weekly special list).
Slurping black coffee from a mug as heavy as a cobblestone, I chose the Totem hash off the breakfast specials menu for $13.95. Before long, I was presented with a plate of house-made corned beef hash with potatoes, onions and peppers and topped with a couple of fried eggs. The corned beef banished unhappy memories of the salty canned glop from my youth. That’s because the Totem does its own in-house barbecue and smoked meats. With the eggs, potatoes and two slices of thick toasted sourdough, the hash was a perfect diner breakfast.
The Totem’s lunch menu is as extensive as its breakfast offerings. My neighbor at the counter chowed down on a burger with strips of bacon protruding like pig whiskers from beneath the bun, with a mountainous pile of seasoned fries beside it. Clearly, the portions here will please everybody, except perhaps your personal trainer and your cardiologist.
My breakfast order was followed by another order, this time to go: the Joe’s Special ($12.95), off the breakfast special list. I wanted to bring something back to the office for my deskbound workmates to sample. My professional server was not fazed in the least by the odd request. I’m sure Jack Nicholson would have had no problem getting his plain omelette with toast at the Totem.
The scramble was made with Italian sausage, Parmesan, spinach, bell peppers, onions and garlic. It came with a side of roasted potatoes and toast.
Don’t be fooled by the Average Joe name. The sausage, Parmesan and garlic combination puts this scramble well above average.
“It’s given me a new appreciation for scrambled eggs and reminded me just how hungry I was,” colleague Sara Bruestle said. “You can’t go wrong with eggs and cheese, but there are so many delicious ways to enjoy them. The toast and potatoes were just what you’d hope them to be. Toast: Fresh, crunchy and buttery. Potatoes: Perfectly seasoned and hearty. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside.”
Sara also duly noted that the Joe’s Special would be ideal hangover fare. I concur.
And so too, presumably, would the bar denizens at that Chinese joint.
If you go
What: Totem Family Diner
Where: 4410 Rucker Ave., Everett
When: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
More: 425-252-3277 or www.totemdiner.com