Steve & Renee’s Diner
500 Washington St., Portland
If location is your deciding factor when you go out to eat, chances are you’ve never given Steve & Renee’s a chance. Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall off Washington Avenue just before a highway on-ramp, the diner doesn’t look very appealing from the outside. I’ve driven past it many times, a few of them unintentional (if you’re heading south on Washington and forget to turn onto Veranda Street to enter the mall’s parking lot, you’ll find yourself speeding down I-295 wondering what happened). After hearing glowing reports from a handful of friends who live nearby, I finally decided to try Steve & Renee’s for breakfast on a recent Saturday morning.
Arriving at 8:30, my wife, 4-year-old daughter and two friends grabbed one of the few available tables. We were greeted immediately, first by our waitress and then by Renee herself, who floats in and out of the dining room bussing tables and schmoozing with the regulars. Drinks arrived at the table even before we were done reading the menu. The coffee was a basic, institutional-grade brew, but hot, fresh and strong.
After placing our order, we shared one of Renee’s cinnamon buns ($1.29), a pillowy-soft and unapologetically sweet pastry served warm and dripping with icing. Renee stopped by to refill our cups before our meals arrived.
I decided on a Western omelet with cheese ($5.99) and rye toast, subbing bacon in the omelet (I’m not a fan of ham). In true diner fashion, the eggs were cooked thin as a pancake and the filling was plentiful, but not excessive. The home fries ($1.29 up-charge) were made from red-skinned potatoes and were nicely crisped — not greasy at all. They were a bit bland, but a few shakes of salt and pepper did the trick.
My wife ordered off the specials board, choosing a spinach-and-cheddar omelet ($5.69) that proved every bit as good as mine. Instead of home fries and toast, she added a half-order of corned-beef hash ($3.29) and a biscuit. The hash was of the creamy, comfort-food variety, rather than the chunkier style in vogue at some restaurants. Personally, I prefer a chunky hash, but my wife can go either way and was perfectly content.
One of our friends went the traditional route with the #3 combo ($4.99): a simple, satisfying plate of eggs, bacon, home fries and toast. Our other friend chose the nationalistically ambivalent Italian French toast (short stack, $2.79; tall stack, $3.99), with real maple syrup (at a 99-cent up-charge). The fresh-baked bread was soft and quite tasty, though a little dry in the middle because the bread was sliced so thick. A longer soak in the egg batter would have helped.
Steve & Renee’s is one of the very few places where I can recall seeing a children’s menu at breakfast-time. My daughter gleefully devoured her Mickey Mouse pancake ($1.99) and had enough left over from her cup of fresh fruit ($2.99) to bring home for a nutritious, mid-morning snack.
Before we left, Renee called the entire restaurant to attention to sing “Happy Birthday” to one of her customers. We were impressed by how easily she got everyone to shut up and sing. (We were equally impressed by the willingness of the birthday boy to eat a slab of chocolate cake at 9 in the morning. Happy 48th, Tim.)
It seems the traditional diner is a dying breed. The temptation to go upscale with lobster benedict, caramelized onion frittata, and almond-encrusted brioche pain perdu must have a powerful appeal, given the prices they can command. To be fair, I readily admit a fondness for a snooty brunch now and then. But when a straight-up, no-frills diner breakfast is in order, there’s nowhere better in Portland than Steve & Renee’s.
— Dan Zarin
Steve & Renee’s Diner serves breakfast Mon.-Fri. from 5 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat. from 5 a.m.-2 p.m., and Sun. from 6 a.m.-noon.