For a diner to be considered truly great, it needs three things. It should have a palpable sense of history. It should ooze atmosphere. And, ideally, it should be a little weird in places.
That is precisely what you get at Vertical Diner. A new, 100 percent vegan take on the classic American diner, housed inside a restored 5,500-square-foot space in Hillsdale originally built in 1969, it still feels like the Mad Men era when you walk in, save for maybe the lack of ashtrays—and, of course, the entirely meatless menu.
Though it opened in late summer, the food is still in a state of public beta, with little tweaks and changes still ongoing three months in. But all the other elements have been grandfathered in. Despite the makeover, the character of a midcentury diner has been kept intact. In true 20th century fashion, the layout sprawls across seven plush four-top booths, framed by two more huge party booths capable of seating eight guests. Another 14 seats run along the bar counter, with a whole second room, dubbed "the Gold Room," available for private parties.
Previously known as Golden Touch and, before that, Tubby's, the building itself has plenty of weird history, too, which new owner Ian Brandt is happy to divulge to curious customers. He's been given a crash course on the diner's backstory by locals over the past few months, including its previous reputation "for seedy types and mafiosos."
Brandt, who now lives in Eugene, came to Oregon from Salt Lake City, where his history with plant-based food goes back decades. In his hometown, Brandt was originally the proprietor of Sage's Cafe, a gourmet vegan restaurant, and for the past 12 years, he's run a diner concept also called Vertical Diner, which remains open even after his relocation.
"I just like the vibe of a diner," says Brandt, who bought the Portland restaurant after seeing it for sale on Craigslist. "We can serve people who have $5 in their pockets, and we can serve people who drive up in their Maseratis. We serve everyone and it feels good."
Everything served at Vertical Diner is made in-house, including all the meat substitutes—burger patties, seitan, tempeh, even the cheese sauce. The attention to detail and quality shows in the food. Standouts include the Buffalo Tigers ($10), perfect little golden fried seitan nuggets coated in a zippy, zingy, just-sweet-enough wing sauce and served with carrots, celery and housemade vegan ranch. The pancakes (one for $3, three for $7), in particular, are perfect, fluffy and substantially sized, appropriately crispy at the edges, served alongside melty vegan butter. If you didn't know they were vegan in advance, you could never guess.
Vertical also offers a range of house burgers and main courses, with some elevated touches. The Vertical Tacos ($12) are made with jackfruit, house kimchi and a delicious garlic aioli, while the mushroom stroganoff ($13) veganizes Mom's kitchen standard with penne pasta, button mushrooms, almond Parmesan and good garlic bread. The lettuce wraps appetizer ($9) places a mountain of sliced tempeh and veggies in a ginger-tamari dressing, served with romaine cups.
Brandt estimates the restaurant still has around 25 percent of its menu left to fill, which means its wide-ranging weekend specials function as a kind of public taste test: If an item proves popular enough, it might stick around permanently. Here's hoping that includes the recent banana bread waffle, which I can't stop thinking about. But really, the only disappointing item I've had here was the slightly bland breakfast burrito ($14).
The diners most of us grew up with existed in a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke and ennui. In 2019, it makes sense to reimagine the experience through a healthier lens. At least, it makes sense for most people—on one recent visit, an older couple walked out after being informed there was no meat available. They're missing out, not just on those amazing pancakes, but also on the diner's wonderfully strange X factor.
A range of personalities and ages makes up the clientele here, in a way that feels at once countercultural and family-friendly. The vintage jukebox stocks tracks from Gloria Estefan and Guns N' Roses along with the soundtrack to Damn Yankees. You will overhear wild conversations and memorable banter and stories too bizarre to reprint here.
The food at Vertical Diner is excellent. But it's that tinge of strangeness that elevates it from a great vegan diner to a "great diner that happens to be vegan."
EAT: Vertical Diner, 8124 SW Barbur Blvd., 503-206-6150, verticaldiner.com. 9 am-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 9 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday.