Gold Chain

In defense of Shari's, America's best freeway-exit diners.

Portlanders rarely miss a chance to feel their hearts swell with civic pride, especially when it comes to unfancy food. While our upper tier is only what a city of our size and wealth requires—we have the same small allotment of Noisettes and Genoas found in Denver, Nashville or Cleveland—we've mastered the middle of the spectrum. You can get a thoughtfully prepared meal made with fresh ingredients anywhere in town, and our reputation for creative, affordable fare bleeds over even into long lines for doughnuts topped with children's cereal and "farm to cone" ice cream made with corn syrup.

So it's odd that we'd miss something to brag about. And yet America's best regional diner chain goes unheralded in our midst.

Have you been to Shari's lately? Well, the Beaverton-based restaurant chain celebrates a happy 35th birthday this year. And I wish it many more.

A few years ago, The Oregonian published an infamous "non-foodies food guide" to Portland, which deemed Shari's a safe place to avoid those who "hate American cheese and, honestly, America." That, I worry, may have soured some people. Understand I'm not claiming Shari's compares favorably to Stepping Stone or Hotcake House, let alone J&M or Bijou. Screen Door, Broder and Tasty n Sons are on a separate plane of existence.

But, for 24-hour diners found mostly near freeway exits—places like Denny's, IHOP, Waffle House and Perkins—Shari's is extraordinary.

That starts with the blueprints. The six-sided design, supposedly patented, is as functional as it is gimmicky, creating a quieter room where everyone gets a booth. Inside, pure AM Gold ("Still the One," "So Far Away," Elton John's country album) soundtracks your meal. Every table gets its own little coffee pot, so there's no need to wait for refills. Every item is  marked with a calorie count. If you tell the kitchen you're sharing something, it usually comes split between two plates. Like Burgerville, Shari's makes a token effort to use fresh, local-ish ingredients, currently with seasonal specials that make heavy use of strawberries.

Omelettes are not the fluffy French variety, but an excellent rendition of the American-style standby, a slightly crispy egg exterior stretching to contain gooey, griddled fillings. I favor the rich spring spinach omelette ($9.49), stuffed with a half salad of greens and mushrooms then topped with sliced avocado, scallions and crumbled blue cheese. Order it with hash browns and toast, and spread luscious strawberry jam (you can take a jar home for $5) on marbled rye rather than pancakes blighted by subpar maple-flavored syrup.

The oatmeal is fantastic. Bob's Red Mill's steel cut oats ($3.99) are carefully prepared to retain their gritty, fibrous charm and served with wee bowls of cranberries, raisins, granola, pecans and brown sugar. It's a better spread than Bob's own restaurant in Milwaukie—and a quarter cheaper.

For lunch, I like the oddball Bavarian burger ($9.99), which comes on a salted pretzel bun with a thick slab of melted Swiss and two slices of pastrami and a side of buttery, salty asparagus soup topped with a few fried onions. Quiche ($5.29), lukewarm on a recent Sunday when the airport location was packed, and a salty, oily Caesar salad, weren't so impressive.

Milkshakes and cream pies are both wonderful. The much-advertised bastard child of the two ($4.99) seems a lot like a normal pie to get excited about, until you realize it could cleverly accomplish the very Portland-y task of upcycling older slices (though a Shari's waitress strongly denied this practice).

This is a 24-hour diner, its quality heavily dependent on who's working and how many customers they're trying to serve. That doesn't change one simple fact: Shari's is not an exception to the excellence of life in these parts, but further proof of it. 

  1. Order this: Spring spinach omelette ($9.49) and steel cut oats ($3.99).
  2. I’ll pass: Quiche ($5.29).

EAT: There are about 100 Shari's Cafe & Pies locations in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska.

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