Miss Portland Diner
140 Marginal Way, Portland
I tried not to get my hopes up. I really did. I mean, when you go out with someone for a long time and then don’t see her for a few years, once you finally run into her again she’s never quite as great as you remember, right? And I knew that. But I missed her so much.
The Worcester Lunch Car Company #818 arrived in Portland in 1949, and for 55 years, in two different locations, the Miss Portland Diner slung the proverbial (and literal) hash for the citizens of the Forest City. In 2004, after an unsuccessful attempt to sell it on eBay, owner Randall Chasse shuttered the diner and donated the lunch car to the city. Now, four years later, new owner Tom Manning has relocated the diner again, renovated and expanded it, and re-opened it for business.
First, let’s talk aesthetics. The renovations look, in a word, outstanding. Miss P. is shinier than ever, with a restored exterior and a big “diner” sign beckoning to the traffic on nearby I-295. The interior is spotless, sporting the classic chrome stools and cozy booths in the car proper, and shiny tin tiles on the ceiling of an expanded dining room that seats 100. The location — adjacent to the newly constructed Bayside Village student housing complex, across from Planet Fitness and next to a huge, free parking lot — is nothing short of brilliant. Judging from the ridiculously large crowd on a recent Sunday morning, this place is going to do well as long as it manages to serve a halfway decent meal.
And, sadly, that’s exactly what it serves. We found the food to be pretty good, though certainly not great. The service during our visit was deplorable. (I’m willing to cut them a little slack, since we visited about a week and a half after Manning reopened the diner’s doors — but just a little. Breakfast ain’t rocket science.)
My wife, four-year-old daughter and I rolled in around 8:30 a.m., pretty early by weekend-breakfast standards. The lobby was already crowded, but our two friends had arrived a few minutes earlier and managed to secure a booth. Our waitress quickly brought us juice and coffee. The coffee was a little weak, but fresh and hot. She cheerfully took our order, shifting briefly into what my wife called “psychic waitress mode” (she’d thoughtfully asked if my wife liked her toast dry).
We started with a homemade strawberry Danish, which we split five ways. The flavor was good, but reheating it in the microwave had robbed it of any trace of flakiness. By this point, I had drained my first cup of coffee. It would be over a half hour before I would see another drop. Psychic waitress power, reactivate!
My fellow diners’ entrées arrived, one after another, over the course of the next 10 minutes. Zack had ordered the Southern Style Sausage Gravy with Biscuit ($7.49). Though not quite up to his Texan standards, the rich, creamy gravy benefited from the slight sweetness of the maple sausage, and the biscuit was light and fluffy. His companion gave reasonably high marks to her Vegetable Benedict ($10.99), packed with red pepper, asparagus, squash, zucchini and mushrooms. And my wife’s corned beef hash ($8.29) was quite good: well seasoned and not excessively salty. The eggs were poached perfectly, and the rye toast was indeed served dry, as promised. The homefries were crisp on the outside and tender within, but essentially unseasoned.
Second-to-last to arrive was my daughter’s “Blue” breakfast sandwich ($5.49). Billed as “English muffin, blueberry silver dollar pancake, sausage, egg and maple syrup,” it sounded like exactly what my hungry preschooler would love. The sandwich itself wasn’t quite so appealing. The sausage patty was soft and limp, and the egg was cooked as hard as a deck of cards. In between was a slice of melted American cheese, which my daughter dislikes (had the cheese been included in the description, we would have asked to have it left out or chosen something else), and one large, blueberry pancake that made the whole thing too unwieldy to be eaten by hand. Oh, and no syrup, either.
Shortly before everyone else finished eating, the waitress finally brought my meal. I’d opted for a “mixed grill” combination of one buttermilk pancake, two eggs, apple-cider bacon and homefries ($5.88, by far the best value of the morning). It’s not a bad meal, to be sure, but you’ll have to give me a moment to vent…
Written on the menu, in easy-to-read italics, was the following promise: “Served with Butter and Maple Syrup.” Now, I’ve come to expect that maple syrup is not always available at local restaurants, despite the fact the stuff comes from trees that grow freakin’ everywhere in Maine. But never, ever try to pass off a pitcher of that nasty, flavored corn syrup as the real thing. Promises broken become grudges held. You listening, Miss P.?
In total, our bill came to just over $60 for four adults and a kid. Granted, that’s not a fortune, but it’s not cheap, either. And that’s the problem. Miss Portland isn’t exactly sure what she wants to be. She’s too expensive to be a greasy spoon, but not good enough to reach the next level of dining in a city with plenty of other good options. The gleaming Worcester car, long an icon of fast/good/cheap grub, seems to exist strictly for nostalgia here, a reminder of a bygone era without the actual experience of that time.
— Dan Zarin
Miss Portland Diner serves breakfast daily from 6 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.