An observant 10-year-old girl points at a divot in one of Besaw's Cafe's windows: "Is that a bullet hole?" It's more likely the result of errant gravel than gunplay at this Northwest Portland brunch mainstay. But a century ago, it might have been a different story. In pre-Prohibition days, Besaw's was a rockin' beer-and-card joint, bankrolled by Henry Weinhard. Henry went on to make his fortune peddling beer, but Besaw's had better things in store.
It's tempting to dismiss this old-timer as a throwback; even Huber's, predating Besaw's by some 24 years, has "updated" its offerings with Thai peanut sauce. But the rise of food culture-naked chefs, Food (Porn) Network, the Atkins apocalypse-and the coincidental influx of capital into Portland only serve to burnish Besaw's patina. Not everything here shines, but the food, especially in the daytime, is as comfortable and familiar as the stools facing the mellow-hued mahogany bar.
Portland is the land of the square breakfast, and it'd be hard to flub slam-dunks like fluffy buttermilk pancakes ($4.99) and reliably hefty scrambles; the throngs that pack the room on weekends are testament enough. The from-scratch ethos extends to the house-smoked salmon, served in applications including a fulfilling scramble enriched with cream cheese ($8.99).
That self-same salmon is reprised come lunchtime, this time grilled and nestled on sourdough ($11). It joins a star lineup of sandwiches, all of which toe a thankfully conservative line, right down to scoops of a sweetish potato salad on the side. The meatloaf sandwich ($7), swaddled in bacon, is justifiably famous, and the Reuben ($9), offered in pastrami or turkey configurations, unimpeachable. Burgers ($8) are pleasingly old-fashioned, meaning smallish and cooked well-done. There's also a satisfying clutch of protein-rich salads, including a Caesar (small $4.60, large $8) light on the garlic, but punchy nonetheless.
Nightfall transforms the room from a bright, bustling beehive into a den illuminated by a warm, cuprous glow. Foodwise, dinner is less of a sure bet, but only marginally so. One night, a fat pork chop ($15-$17) was nearly overwhelmed by a rich, salty mushroom and blue-cheese stuffing; likewise, the "natural juices" saucing the respectable roast chicken ($14.50) were dosed with a hefty load of sodium. If occasional heavy-handedness mars some entrees, it's an asset when it comes to the desserts, which are as pleasing as they are gargantuan. Picture-perfect cobbler, pies, and rice pudding ($5.60) vie for room in the dessert case; none is worth forsaking. A small, credible wine list, married with enthusiastic service, adds a glow of a different sort.
The comfy, weathered dining room, the unambitious, satisfying food, and the staff-uniformly casual and gracious-could leave you with the impression that Besaw's is an exercise in nostalgia. Better, perhaps, to remember that when mealtime rolls around, some things are simply worth hanging on to.
2301 NW Savier St., 228-2619. 7 am-9 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 7 am-10 pm Friday, 8 am-10 pm Saturday, 8 am-3 pm Sunday.