Every June, The Oregonian publishes a guide to upscale Portland-area restaurants called Diner. Last June, Willamette Week published a guide to Portland diners, also called Diner. The Oregonian's lawyer asked us not to do that again. So, as Diner 2014 content begins populating the various streams, verticals and digital reader engagement platforms of OregonLive.com, we present Dinerzâ"¢ 2014, a guide to Portland diners. (Dinerzâ"¢ is not affiliated, and not intended to be confused, with Diner.) Because there are so many diners in Portland, we needed a theme. This year, all five diners in Dinerzâ"¢ are named for a person.
14911 SE McLoughlin Blvd., Oak Grove, 654-6648, lewsdrive-in.com. 9 am-8 pm daily.
Who's Lew? Lew and Betty Johnson began Lew's Dari-Freeze and Drive-In in 1957, and ran the restaurant until 1989. Biographical note: As a child, I once met Betty at one of Lew's many vintage car cruise-ins, but I never met Lew, and pictures of the man predate the Internet. And so "Lew" remains forever bound up with the font on the sign.
Lew's Neighbors: Lew's is situated in a strip-mall corridor with a Fred Meyer, a Safeway, a Baxter's Auto Parts, two bank branches, a tanning salon and a 7-11 all within spitting distance. But its most spiritually aligned neighbor is Mike's Comic Collectibles, which holds family-friendly Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments on Wednesday nights.
Lew's Style: Vintage dressed up as retro. Lew's was once the most bare bones of places, but the new owners (since 2012) understood that no one sees age as a virtue without appropriate branding. And so there's a carnivalesque ice cream cone out front, cheery soaping on the windows, a jukebox playing midcentury hits and a menagerie of kitsch detail—a map of the U.S. formed from license plates, for example.
Lew's Rules: After I ordered a massive sampler meal of a long Coney, a half order of garbage-pail hash and a side pancake, the server told me that if I was able to eat everything on my plates down to the last onion, she'd buy my meal. (I bought my own.)
Lew's Food: Voluminous and cheap. The $6.95 half-order of hash—unless my server rigged the bet and gave me a full—was about two pounds of potato, egg, mushroom, onion, cubed ham, sausage, bacon and bell pepper, plus a pile of slowly melting cheddar cheese on top, with a choice of Sriracha, Texas Pete's or Tabasco as hot-sauce side. Cholula was missing from the usual selection; this was promptly apologized for. The pancake ($2) was a perfect rendition of diner pancake. But as for the Coney dog? Well, there has long been a schism among residents of Oak Grove and Gladstone as to whether one prefers the Coneys at Lew's or at Roake's, an microscopic sweatbox of a roadside diner about three miles south on the same road. Roake's has always been cramped, greasy and smelly—the place looks a little gross, really—and I prefer it immensely. Lew's Coney is a little beany for my tastes; I washed it down with a fine Green River soda. Lew's, however, has the best shakes within any reasonable distance, and still serves up towering cones of soft-serve in vanilla and chocolate.