If there were a rule at Leo’s Non-Smoking Café in downtown Portland—other than the obvious one, which state law rendered superfluous in 2009— it would be the virtue of simplicity.
The food is of the no-frills American variety, served up with haste on thick eggshell plates with pale red rims. Fluorescent lighting and dentist-chair-teal upholstery abound in the small corner café, and rectangular blue colorscapes serve as wall art. There is an occasional vase of orchids near the yellowed cash register (no cards, please), and the most expensive menu item is less than $5.
After serving lunch today, this well-loved downtown diner will close its doors after 30 years. Owners Peter and Jane Chen figured this day would come a lot sooner.
“We didn’t expect so long to stay,” said Peter. “Nice people, nice customers. I’m very happy to get along with them.”
At 6:30 on a quiet recent morning, a few patrons read their complimentary papers over breakfast and chatted with Peter, as he refilled cups of coffee and water, which he jokingly refers to “Chinese decaf.”
In 1977, Peter, the friendly, almost painfully deferential face of Leo’s, came to Portland to study chemistry at Portland State. Seven years later, in 1984, the Beijing native and his wife Jane, who is Taiwanese, took over the café to support their new family. For 30 years, they’ve run the place.
Leo’s won its fans with a welcoming atmosphere, affordable prices, and a central location at Southwest 11th and Yamhill—all factors that built a devoted clientele.
“I’ve been coming here for 25 years,” says Mike Wilkins over breakfast. As far as Peter can remember, Wilkins is one of the café’s oldest regulars, a status that does not go unrecognized. “Each year he gives you a bottle of champagne—I have about 18 of these in my office and when people come in they always ask and I say, that’s Leo’s Christmas present.”
Part of the undeniable charm of Leo’s is its resistance to change. It’s not only unconcerned with adhering to the hip diktats that speckle the current crop of Portland restaurants, it seems oblivious to them.
Homes Tupper, who worked down the street in 1974, remembers the café even before Peter and Jane came into the picture. “It hasn’t changed one bit in all the years that I’ve been coming in here. Nothing has changed other than the upholstery,” he says. “Nothing.”
Over the past week, there has been a palpable bittersweet mood in the air as patrons and longtime friends stop in to say their goodbyes. At lunchtime, when the shop is busiest, handfuls of people, from building employees to mailmen, drop in to say hello, give thanks and good lucks even if they don’t sit down to eat.
But invariably they are outdone by Peter, whose habit it is to meet every “thank you” with at least three.
There are rumors that the space will remain open as a restaurant, but the Leo’s legacy will by then have reached its end. The new spot will allegedly serve food of a similar diner style, but it will likely be “more fancy,” as Peter told one customer paying at the register. “Their coffee will be better than mine.”
For some, the end of Leo’s means the loss of a convenient eatery. But for others, it signals something more. “You see people come and go, but there’s an awful lot of regulars. We say hi and know each other,” says Wilkins.
“I’m going to have to look around, and I have been keeping my eyes open. There’s a couple places, but it won’t be the same,” he says. “I’m sad to see it go. It’s an institution—Leo’s.”