I'm pretty sure that the first cheeseburger I ever ate was at downtown Portland's Red Coach Restaurant.
And I'm pretty sure that it was while I was still in the womb.
My mother worked down the street from the longtime Portland diner as a saleswoman at Zell Bros. Jewelers
back in the late 1970s and at least a couple times a week she'd waddle her pregnant self down to Red Coach's original location at Southwest Morrison St. between 4th and 5th Avenue. And order a Karl's Special (cheeseburger, fries and a soda).
Thirty years later, I'm back in one of Red Coach's deep red booths, at the hideaway Southwest Broadway location they've called home since 1985, with a Karl's Special in front of me. And it's still good, a delicious gut bomb of gooey American cheese, bacon and burger; crinkle cut fries and a cherry Coke, straight from the old school soda fountain. Best of all, it was served to me by Jeanne Durkheimer, who has run Red Coach with her husband, Bob, since 1965.
A spry 74-year-old with honest-to-god twinkly eyes, it's rumored she's got a photographic memory. She zips through the aisle of the dim restaurant, rattling off orders for her regulars before they open their mouths. She knows I like my cheeseburger with mayo only and my fries extra-crispy. Just like I did when I was six.
Bob is 78 and credits uncountable trips up and down Red Coach's tall stairway as the key to his ability to still think and walk at the same time. He runs the cash register up front. Red Coach is still cash-only, but he'll let you run down the street to an ATM if you can't pay your bill.
Today is Jeanne and Bob's last lunch. The pair, who've been in the Portland restaurant biz for 54 years, retired today.
Their daughter Kim will take over the family business, which is open for lunch 11 am-3:30 pm every Monday-Friday without fail.
Of course, I came to pay my respects. As did my mother, and the friends and co-workers we've sucked into the Red Coach clique over the years. But what was amazing was the crowds of other Portlanders that have shown up the past two days since the Durkheimers let it slip that they were leaving to say goodbye as well. "I can't get anything done, well, with all the hugs," Jeanne gripes with a smile. An Oregonian
reporter put her an hour behind schedule on Monday with all his questions. She says she barely had time to hand-form all the patties for the hamburgers after he left.
"Don't do that Lauren... And why
don't we do that..." Jeanne scolds her granddaughter/employee Lauren when she asks me if I'm done with my fries. "It's rude. You're encouraging [the diner] to leave." Lauren just smiles and promises to do better. Daughter and brand-new Red Coach owner Kim is over at another table delivering a pair of burgers. "Now, remember, after today you'll have to tell me
what you want to order," she cautions another regular. "Just for a while..."
Jeanne doesn't seem too upset by this end of an era, or, at least, not nearly upset as her fans. She says it was time to retire. She's got a house in Southeast Portland to unclutter, a garden to dig in and, well, stuff to not
do. "I might just laze around until dinner," she tells me.
After all, she says she hasn't had all that many days off since she went to Europe—and that was back in 2001. So what's she going to do tomorrow?
She's got a plan: "I'm going out
Red Coach Restaurant (615 SW Broadway, 227-4840) is open 11 am-3:30 pm Monday-Friday.
Image: Red Coach owners Bob and Jeanne Durkheimer.
The Portland Business Journal did an interesting profile on the Durkheimers and Red Coach back in 2004. Check it out.