Is there anything better than a good diner? A late-night meal of crispy fries and cold milkshakes with your friends in as a jukebox plays: glorious. Defining what makes a diner is iffy, but most share some commonalities: long hours, an all-American menu with an emphasis on breakfast, seating in booths, a rose-tinted nostalgia for the 1950s and ’60s and a long history as a neighborhood staple.
I personally believe that, to be worthy of the title, a diner has to be a mom-and-pop business; chain restaurants cannot be diners. Some may disagree – if you can point to a restaurant that fits all the above criteria but definitely would never be called a diner, I shall dub you Dinerogenes. Within those parameters, there is still a lot of room to innovate. These four Portland diners are each unique in their own right, but they all have that indescribable diner atmosphere — even if it happens to be your first time going there, it feels like home.
Best bang for your buck: Original Hotcake House
If you eat at the Original Hotcake House, be sure to bring a lot of friends, or barring that, starve yourself for a few days in advance. Nearly every menu item comes with several eggs and hubcap-sized pancakes — as a side, mind you. Constant free refills of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate help you wash it down. The food is all so good, it will make you wish you had the metabolism of a snake and could eat a single gigantic meal per week.
Favorite item ordered: A good mug of hot cocoa with whipped cream, though the pancakes were awfully good, too.
Know before you go: The Original Hotcake House is not to be confused with the Original Pancake House, a chain with several locations across the Pacific Northwest (again, chains cannot be diners). The Original Hotcake House is on Powell Blvd. near the Aladdin Theater and the Ross Island Bridge, a 2-minute walk from the Clinton St. MAX station or the SE Powell & Milwaukie weekend Pio Shuttle stop. Also, keep in mind that despite the colorful “Open 24 Hours” sign outside, the Original Hotcake House’s late-night hours are erratic. If you are considering going there after 9 p.m., call ahead to be sure.
Best late-night eats: Nite Hawk Café and Lounge
Anchoring north Portland’s historically Black neighborhood, Albina since 1931, Nite Hawk is a trip back in time. Once upon a time, the huge neon hawk head over the front door was as iconic a Portland landmark as Pioneer Square or the Fremont Bridge. As the name suggests, Nite Hawk is open late, closing at midnight or 1 a.m. most nights.
Favorite item ordered: Chicken-fried steak, though if you have an adventurous palate, you might want to try the liver and onions, a reminder that the menu has stayed the same since the days of the Depression. Only the prices have changed.
Know before you go: Nite Hawk is pretty far from LC, but it is easy to get to, as it is right next to the Rosa Parks MAX Light Rail stop. Riding the Orange Line from Sellwood takes about half an hour, and does not require any changes of train.
Best vegan option: Vertical Diner and Gold Room
With its midcentury-modern design, long counter and breakfast served all day, the Vertical Diner screams “classic diner.” The thing that sets it apart is its all-vegan menu. Diner staples like French toast, Reuben sandwiches, and mac and cheese are made entirely plant-based. Bonus points for being on Barbur Blvd, an easy 20-minute walk from the LC campus.
Favorite item ordered: The “buffalo tigers,” fried balls of imitation chicken in an aggressively spicy house-made sauce. They bring to mind buffalo chicken-flavored falafel, which is definitely a good thing.
Know before you go: The Vertical Diner is also home to the Gold Room, a private dining space that can be rented out by groups of up to 60 people for a special event. Do you have extended family in town for graduation? Are they big fans of vegan food? Give the Gold Room a try.
Best breakfast: Bertie Lou’s Café
Bertie Lou’s, which humbly boasts of “Portland’s best mediocre breakfast,” gives new meaning to “hole in the wall.” Arguably Sellwood’s best-kept secret, this tiny brunch spot, just a short walk from the 13th and Tacoma weekend Pio stop, could be the setting for a Tom Waits song. The walls are decorated with customers’ napkin doodles — draw something on your napkin, and they might put it on the wall. Try their impressive assortment of eggs Benedicts.
Favorite item ordered: The Bookman, which their menu not-so-humbly boasts is the “final evolution of breakfast.” It is a half-order of biscuits and gravy and a half-order of eggs Benedict.
Know before you go: Bertie Lou’s is very small and very popular, so on weekend mornings the wait can be awfully long. Come early. Also, do not be offended if the tall, craggy waiter roasts you. Just part of the experience. Be decisive by the time he gets to your table.
These are just a selection of Portland’s many diners. While there are as many potential takes on the diner concept as there are diners, all of them offer comfort food in comforting surroundings. Whichever of these you choose, enjoy dining your way through this majestic city.