Welcome to Diner 2013—not a guide to the Portland area’s best restaurants, or even to the best Oregonian-operated diners, but a seven-part series where we ate at seven Portland diners we hadn't been to in a while. Over the next week, we hit standbys where you can get eggs and coffee at a counter early or late in the day. Diner 2013: It's the best name for a series about Portland diners published in 2013.
410 SW Broadway, 228-7222, portlandpennydiner.com.
Neighborhood: Southwest Broadway, downtown’s clotted artery, is a mix of hotels, bank buildings, temp offices, the Schnitz, the O and the oldest strip club on the west coast—a stretch simultaneously monumental, impersonal and charmingly quaint. The street is a photograph of itself. And because it belongs to no one—can belong to no one—it belongs to everyone equally.
Vibe: The Penny Diner is less an actual diner than it is an ode to the old-school New York diner as it lives on only in nostalgia-gauzed films set in the ‘50s and in the paintings of Edward Hopper. It is bright and clean and airy, with art-deco “city” wallpaper, and it serves a bottomless cup of alderwood-roasted coffee from Seattle-based Caffe D’Arte. You order from the front counter, and eat at the back counter. The coffee is strangely watery, like someone’s grandma made it. This is a comfort, not an offense; refills are free, and you could drink it all day with little biscuits. On a street that’s a photo of itself, the Penny is a lovely, aestheticized Portland replica of a diner. It’s like the Truman Show, except the server has a nose ring.
The grub: Despite its pedigree as the third leg of
the Vitaly Paley culinary empire (Paley’s Place, Imperial), the Penny is
serious about its dinerhood, and so the prices are negligible.
Burgerville can deliver a bigger hit to the wallet. The breakfast sandwiches are
bizarre high-low hybrids, a bit like what happens when the French try to
wear “punk” leather jackets but wear them far too well, and far too
self-consciously. In the case of the PDXWT (a steal at $4.50), this is
purest genius. Duck bologna, coffee mayo (seriously), sauerkraut
(seriously), egg and American cheese (seriously) combine on fry bread to create the sloppiest, richest, most generous breakfast sandwich I
have heretofore known in this life, all fat and eggy tang and blessed
umami. It doesn’t physically hold together, really—I had to eat a lot of the
ingredients a la carte—but the coffee in the mayo made the flavor open
out like a mouth; the sandwich is now what I imagine the French to eat
at "comme les americains" diners in posher districts of Paris. The “Hipster”
($3.50) is a bit less successful—an all-too-meaty beefsteak tomato
overpowered a fine hazelnut romesco—but at that price it’s a bit like
critiquing the bacon at the Marathon Tavern. A sesame “bagel ball”
($2.50) hid a mound of soft mozzarella within, for a
sort of sidelong novelty, while a sweet marionberry breakfast pastry
($2.50) was as dense and filling as quiche. Now, if they’d only serve
some waffles. I want to see how posh French people would eat waffles. And I want them to be $4.