On paper First Watch and Sweet Dough Hot Beans Café are nearly identical. Both are expansions on their individual breakfast-and-lunch-place mini-empires: First Watch, an up-and-coming national chain with outposts as far-reaching as California, Florida and West Virginia, recently debuted its fourth St. Louis location in Clayton, while a couple of months ago Sweet Dough Hot Beans became the second restaurant feather in local entrepreneur Troy Williams' cap, following in the footsteps of his year-old Breakfast Tools in south city.
Both have weird names. First Watch sounds alternately like a savings and loan and an NBC cop drama. Sweet Dough Hot Beans can be almost embarrassing to say out loud, and it's only on third or fourth thought that the meaning behind it (sweet dough = waffles/French toast/pancakes; hot beans = coffee) clicks in.
The two menus each take expected a.m. eats and put signature spins on the staples. First Watch could easily turn its bill of fare into a cookbook called 1001 Things to Do with an Egg. Besides straight-up fried and scrambled, there are ten omelets, three variations on eggs Benedict, a breakfast scramble (eggs, spinach, ham, cheese and hollandaise piled atop a croissant), a chickichanga (whipped eggs -- what's a whipped egg? -- with chicken, chorizo, green chiles, onion and avocado rolled into a tortilla) and crèpeggs (more whipped eggs, jacketed in crèpes). Running amok among these platters are loads of untraditional ingredients, such as roasted red peppers, a ranch-based "Santa Fe" dressing spiced up with a pinch of cayenne pepper and a dab of habanero sauce, and slices of avocado. Not to be outdone, Sweet Dough saves the flamboyance for the pancakes. There are three batters -- buttermilk, "healthy" (made from buckwheat) and Troy's Mix (with vanilla and cinnamon) -- plus optional batter mix-ins, including pineapple, white chocolate, kiwi, almonds, oatmeal, dried apricots, Reese's Pieces, granola and Fuji peaches, making you feel like you're standing at the Maggie Moo's counter pondering your ice cream cone rather than ordering your breakfast in a café.
But even with so much the same, and so much of it praiseworthy, First Watch and Sweet Dough could learn a couple things from one another.
Sweet Dough is so laid-back it's almost as if it's not even there. This is both a good and bad thing. Brick-walled and tiny, it's a great place to lounge with a friend (especially on the sink-right-in black leather couch), to nurse a hangover or to read a book (choose one from the shelf if you forget to bring your own). The coffee is self-serve, and you'll never, ever feel rushed. That's because chances are it'll be just you and Brandy, Troy's sister and seemingly Sweet Dough's lone employee. She's always in a good mood, and she can shoot the breeze about the day's headlines or the latest Adam Sandler movie. Plus, her bacon strips and sausage patties are so great we ordered more, and she makes freakin' delicious pancakes. Despite all the sweet-tooth dingbats you can pour into a pancake here, Brandy prefers the plain buttermilk ones herself. She believes in doling out the syrup dollop by dollop on each bite as you go along, to avoid sogginess. So you know she's got high standards. (Also, she and Troy disagree on whether the Troy's Mix batter was invented by their mom or by Troy.) Brandy's Frisbee-size flapjacks taste like mild perfection, and it's easy to work your way through a half-stack (don't get a full stack unless you're sharing -- even Brandy will tell you that) without getting the urge for syrup.
Brandy, however, is only one woman. She can't do everything, a fact that became sadly apparent on one visit when four breakfast orders took 40 minutes. She must abandon her cooking duties to refill coffee and cream, which might explain why an order of waffles arrived slightly burnt, tough and at room temperature. Troy, be nice to your sister!
First Watch is the exact opposite -- a speedy-footed fleet of teenagers, older cooks and managers buzzing about in spiffy polo shirts. People are here to stuff their pie holes and leave, as evidenced by the fact that a decanter of coffee and a pitcher of water are left at every table so customers needn't wait for refills, and the fact that the food comes cartoonishly fast, with the check dropped not 60 seconds later. The ambiance isn't unpleasant, but it is purposeful.
Eggs are to First Watch what pancakes are to Sweet Dough Hot Beans -- its magnum opus and raison d'être. Any of the egg dishes make a visit worthwhile. Avocado is a wonderful omelet ingredient, and First Watch plays that to the hilt. The joint has an especially great thing going with its untraditional eggs Benedict, which aren't drowned in hollandaise as they too often are at greasy spoons, and which come with ham and tomatoes, smoked turkey and avocado or Florentine style (with spinach, avocado and tomato). But a few of First Watch's other breakfast items falter. Most notably, the house-named home-fried potatoes are wholly unspectacular -- not exceptionally crunchy, greasy, chewy or tasty. Same goes for the biscuits and gravy, both of which are made with too much flour.
One more trait shared by Troy Williams and First Watch, Inc.: They're both growth-happy. Williams already has another opening under his belt, the Egg Gallery Café in the Central West End, while First Watch plans to double its number of Gateway-area outposts, putting it on par with the eight already operating in the Kansas City region. If I may make a suggestion, then: Moving into the Loop may not be a bad idea. I would especially love to see a Sweet Dough there, because other than bagels and pastries at the Saint Louis Bread Co., Starbucks and Meshuggah, or else the blue-collar eggs and weak coffee at that greasiest of spoons, the U City Grill, there is, sadly and inexplicably, no place to eat breakfast on Delmar. Unless you count Blueberry Hill, which serves "breakfast anytime" -- except breakfast time, because it doesn't open until 11 a.m.