When I first stepped into Melody Dauphney's roadside café and bakery on the remote and lovely north shore of St. Ann's Bay, N.S., I knew I'd discovered something rare: a friendly eatery with really good home cooking, a place to visit again and again.
At the Clucking Hen, local fishermen and artisans, kids and their parents, Cape Bretoners and tourists - from motorcyclists to well-heeled European travellers - doing the Cabot Trail mingle around wooden tables in the front room. The ocean outside is calm and blue; inside, colourful ceramic roosters, hens and chicks peer out from shelves, and prints with chicken motifs decorate the walls - many are gifts from happy patrons who have become friends.
Today, I'm winding my way up Cape Smokey when I stop in at 7 on a clear morning. I help myself to coffee in my favourite rooster mug at the tea and coffee station, and order my regular: two perfectly poached eggs, toasted homemade porridge bread (buttery crisp on the outside, moist and flavourful on the inside) and crispy bacon. Today, though, I can't resist Mel's famous cinnamon buns and after polishing off one, get another for the road.
Eggs cooked to order, French toast, oatmeal with brown sugar and milk, or a Clucking Bagel: These are the popular breakfast items at the Clucking Hen. It all starts at 4 a.m., when Mel begins baking, readying to open at 7 (and sometimes earlier) when the first coffee-deprived travellers come through the door. On a typical day, which winds down at 8 p.m., Mel and co-worker Lorraine Bona bake 30 loaves of white, whole wheat and porridge bread, as well as dozens of other treats: tender tea biscuits, scones, and oatcakes; fragrant cinnamon rolls; muffins; butter tarts (awarded 10+ out of 10 by a self-proclaimed butter tart connoisseur from Ottawa); traditional cookies and squares; and several pies, often a lemon meringue or a seasonal fruit pie.
Newcomers might complain over the lack of home fries, but this homey kitchen operates without a fryer or grill, so you won't find the standard roadside fare of fries, burgers or hot dogs (but you will find beer and wine on the menu). "Mel's place is rare in a world where the big guys have killed small business," says Charles MacInnis, a regular from nearby Skir Dhu. This is Cape Breton cooking, the real deal.
A few weeks later, I'm back for lunch. The place is bustling. I order the fish chowder and one of Mel's tea biscuits. Behind me, a group of young women from Baddeck ooh and aah over the lunch menu: salads; sandwiches (lobster and crab are favourites); leek and potato soup (the veggie soup changes daily); fish chowder and lobster stew. They eye the display of baked goods beside the order counter.
Jeanie Mulvahill, a retired teacher from Sydney who has holidayed nearby in Jersey Cove for many years, invites me to join her and her grandson, Seamus, for lunch. "It's hard not to fall in love with this place," she says, savouring her chowder and watching Seamus tuck into his mac and cheese. At the table across from us, Ruth and Kendrick Frazier, from Albuquerque, N.M., have just finished their lobster stew. They're chatting with local bricklayer and fisherman Freeman Shaw, when Ruth exclaims, "I ate everything but the rooster on the cup."
Mel seems genuinely puzzled by the praise her food receives from tourists and regulars alike. "We don't think we're doing anything special - just regular home-cooked food. But I really wonder what's happening out there when people tell us we've given them the best restaurant meal they've ever had," she says.
On the spacious screened porch, just off the front room, a group of British tourists is finishing lunch. On the back deck, which looks out to Bird Island and St. Ann's Bay, four friends on a cycling holiday from Montreal relax in the sun before hitting the road again.
It's just past 3 p.m. and indoors, there's a lull in the action. Mel and her daughter, Amelia, take a short break before dinner, when old favourites such as pan-fried haddock sail out of the kitchen. I'd like to stay, but I can't. After a mug of tea, I'll head home. Besides, I'll be back this way soon.
Special to The Globe and Mail