The pandemic has made pretty much everyone a little nostalgic for a seemingly simpler era. That makes the upcoming arrival of Rockabilly Cafe pretty much perfect timing, then, since the new diner will be a tribute to the feel-good culture of the ‘50s that also serves heaping portions of classic comfort food.
Originally named Greasers Cafe, Rockabilly is aiming for a Feb. 25 opening at 8537 N Lombard St.
The St. Johns space was formerly occupied by the sandwich shop Chop. Bridgetown Bites first reported the news.
The restaurant promises to transport you to the chrome-covered, muscle-car driving, rock-loving midcentury, but don’t expect an interior filled with knock-off ‘50s shlock. Owner and general manager David Liberman says the aesthetic is inspired by rockabilly culture—a sound and aesthetic that he became passionate about during its resurgence in the 1990s.
“To sum it up, yes, it’s a ‘50s diner,” he tells WW. “We all know what those are. But this isn’t the cliché of Marilyn Monroe and Nighthawks on the wall. That feels half-ass and rote. It’s already been done.”
Instead, you can expect authentic showpieces like a Wurlitzer jukebox that will still take your coins and play tunes, a 1950s cash register, and steering wheels from that decade’s cars, which will be mounted to the front of every booth. Even the milkshakes will be blended in style—Liberman purchased a Multimixer, the device McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc introduced to the fast food joint’s founders to speed up service.
Customers who take time to tour the back hallway will also find an homage to Portland in the ‘50s. Liberman is lining the walls with old photos of the city, including a color shot of Southwest Broadway that he’s having enlarged for the exhibit.
The menu, though filled with dishes you’d find at a traditional greasy spoon, should be an upgrade from the typical blue plate special experience since dish components will all be organic, locally sourced, or both.
“I just like diner food. It’s American comfort food. You can never go wrong with a chicken fried steak and eggs or a burger. Those are things that make you feel ooey-gooey inside,” Liberman says. “It’s classic diner food with better ingredients. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just making it a little rounder.”
Liberman has been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years, managing everything from a Los Angeles-based ‘50s diner to a five-star steak house. He and his wife moved to Portland during the pandemic with their two young children, citing COVID-related closures and L.A. fatigue.
“And I wanted to raise my kids in a normal place,” Liberman adds. “It’s normal, regular folk in Portland. You don’t just meet Hollywood entertainment people who talk about the industry ad nauseum. I mean, I love my hometown, but I just don’t want to live there anymore.”
His family also helped inspire the mood of the cafe. When it opens, Rockabilly will be one of the most kid-friendly restaurants in town. That means parents can rest assured that their little ones will be welcome, temper tantrums and all.
“It’s hard to take your family out to dinner,” Liberman explains, “so I want to create a place where if little Billy is under the table screeching, mom and dad can still relax with a nice glass of wine.”
On weekends, you can also enjoy brunch and a bloody Mary while a tableside magician takes care of entertaining the rugrats. Liberman has hired Alexander Smith to perform tricks involving everything from cards to ropes.
“He did a magic trick, and suddenly I was 5 years old again,” says Liberman. “I [hired a magician] at a restaurant in L.A. and we had lines around the block, because kids are like, ‘Take me to where the magician is!’”
Liberman is currently in the process of hiring a kitchen manager and installing equipment. If all goes to plan, he’ll be serving up stacks of pancakes and tuna melts by the last Friday of February.
“In the end, we’re just going to make good old classic American food for the people of St. Johns and Portland at large,” he says. “We want everyone to come.”