On my bookshelf, sandwiched between old high school yearbooks and college-era journals, is a pleather-lined and laminated menu from a diner 3,085 miles from my apartment. I didn’t intend to steal it. On a trip to Boston in 2018, I stuck it in my tote to make room for plates of syrup-saturated French toast and doughnuts coated in cracking glaze. It wasn’t until I returned home that I found it, tucked behind a torn, exhausted copy of the New Yorker. On its cover, above its address and phone number, is a pixelated photo of the diner’s sign — Twin Donuts, written in cursive above a glinting metallic awning, like a set from a Tarantino movie.
Every once in a while, I’ll take my menu off the shelf and fact-check myself: Yes, egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches were $2.25. Yes, a plate of eggs, potatoes, and toast was $4. It feels like an artifact of a period of my life that is inconceivable now: leaving my 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. internship to work a 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift at a pizzeria, rolling out of bed at 6 a.m. to eat a $5 stack of pancakes with the paltry handful of cash yoinked from the tip jar the night before. I’d order at the counter, peering at the baskets of chocolate-frosted rings behind the coffee machine, or grab a menu to take back to a table in the window. I’ve sat in Twin Donuts wearing sweatpants and suit pants; I’ve killed two hours at one of its tables, and I’ve successfully secured a breakfast there in 90 seconds to avoid missing a bus. The diner has witnessed so many versions of me. As I figured out who I was, it stayed exactly the same.
Twin Donuts opened in 1955, a slice of a doughnut shop between Cambridge and Beacon streets in Allston-Brighton. For the majority of its life, it was an on-the-go breakfast stop as opposed to a diner, serving breakfast pastries and microwaved breakfast sandwiches. The space didn’t have a grill until the early 2000s, when the Taing-Pang family took over the business.
Leang Sim Taing and Chiang Sou Pang grew up in Cambodia, escaping as refugees during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. After years working on assembly lines, the family saved enough money to buy the diner in 2001, fulfilling a dream of Leang Sim’s; he died a year later. In 2003 and 2004, Pang and her children — Catherine, Woo, and Wayne Taing — purchased two other diners in the area, Café Mirror and Brighton Cafe. Then, the family started to develop a blended menu of all three businesses: The Taings brought the pancakes and egg plates from Brighton Cafe to Twin, and Twin Donuts supplied the crullers and raised rings for all three. “In the beginning, it was always just a little rough,” Catherine Taing says. “As we added breakfast, things slowly picked up. It took a few months, at least, to get it going, and we kept tweaking it.”
Since then, Chiang Sou Pang and the Taing children have kept the businesses running, in part to honor Leang Sim, but also to keep Twin Donuts’ legacy alive. The diner serves regulars who started visiting in the ’50s, the service workers who rely on Twin Donuts breakfasts before (or after) shifts, and the thousands upon thousands of college students who rotate through the neighborhood. And after a while, Twin Donuts became a fixture among Allston locals for unfussy hangover breakfasts, accruing lines on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
As college students living in Allston, my friends and I would spend entire nights traversing an X in its southwestern corner, where Brighton Avenue crossed Cambridge Street and became North Beacon. We’d eat barbacoa tacos at Lone Star before downing pitchers at the Silhouette Lounge and shredding our vocal cords to ABBA at the Model Cafe.
In the mornings, we would return to that X to recover, crawling through the desert repenting until we landed at the silver awning of Twin Donuts. We’d sit smack in the middle of the action, shaking off our hangovers with mugs of ink-black coffee, plain bagels, and piles of bacon and western omelets.
When the previous night’s vodka-cranberries rendered decision-making impossible, the combo #1 beckoned: a pancake, a piece of French toast, two eggs (scrambled, please), home fries, and corned beef hash for a whopping $7.75. The combination sprawled across two separate plates: one savory, with the eggs, potatoes, and corned beef hash laid out in distinct rows; the other sweet, with the pancake and French toast stacked on top of each other. I would sit across a linoleum table from my roommate, Sarah, and we’d pick at corned beef hash crisped lightly on either side, almost like a hash brown patty; when the savory parts of the plate didn’t do the trick, I’d migrate to the pancakes, the eggy French toast. I’d drench the pancakes and French toast in syrup, smack a bottle of hot sauce over the home fries. Some days, I could only handle an 85-cent glazed doughnut. Regardless, I could always rely on bumping into fellow undergrads in similar states of disarray.
As I got older and started working, the hangover breakfasts at Twin dissipated, and I became one of the morning commuters. I worked on the other side of town, in Dorchester, and it was faster and cheaper for me to grab a doughnut and a coffee at Twin instead of making myself breakfast. Rather than seeing friends from school, I’d smoke cigarettes outside the diner with morning prep cooks finishing shifts, all of us sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups while we waited for a bus; I’d see septuagenarians claiming their rightly earned spot at the red counter wrapped around a column in the center of the space, coffee trembling in their hands. I was starting to look around and see adults, wondering how I had ended up among them.
I left Boston in 2016, but two years later, I flew across the country to visit friends, still living in the same third-floor apartment once lined with cinnamon tequila bottles. We returned to Twin Donuts after an evening of catching up; we got there early, and the coveted red counter was empty. We all grabbed a seat around that column, and I ordered combo #1 — corned beef hash extra crispy — and a black coffee. And to make room for a glazed doughnut, I slipped a menu into my bag, an accidental souvenir from an era of Twin Donuts that no longer exists.
In the years since I left Boston, Twin has quieted down. Many of the original regulars have passed away or moved out of town. The combination of the pandemic and gentrification in Allston has made Sunday mornings slower. More people working from home means fewer people grabbing a pre-work egg muffin, and many of the college students can’t afford Allston anymore. “The dynamics in Allston, especially at Twin, they’re different,” Catherine Taing says. “There is definitely not that crowd of students. Twin Donuts used to be popular with the hippie-punk crowd that used to be prevalent in Allston; it’s just not there anymore. With rents skyrocketing, it’s pushed those regulars out.”
These days, the restaurant opens at 6 a.m. Prices have risen (though not much — the combo is now $11), and it has braved third-party apps for those too hungover to leave their apartments. Still, Twin remains a part of many locals’ morning routines. It doesn’t go for fussy specials; the menu itself hasn’t changed much since the grill went in. Even if the neighborhood or clientele shifts, Twin trusts that its consistency and simplicity will keep its doors open.
“My take is, if you’re looking for fancy, don’t go to Twin Donuts,” Catherine Taing says. “This is what we are, plain and simple.”
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein