87 Mill St., Auburn
When I was a kid, my favorite food was crêpes. Sweet or savory, for breakfast or dinner, I loved them all. But sadly, I rarely got to eat them. We never made crêpes at home. My parents were quite capable cooks, but the level of finesse and fuss required to make crêpes was just too intimidating. Maybe once a year, if we were lucky, the family would pile in the car and drive 45 minutes to the nearest Magic Pan, a national chain of crêperies popular during the ’70s and ’80s, and embrace our inner Francophile.
So I always thought of crêpes as a special-occasion food. But that’s probably because I hadn’t met any French people. The French, and their descendents in the New World, eat these things all the time. Even after relocating to Maine a decade ago, this fact wasn’t apparent to me. Since I spent most of my time in Portland — known for many excellent restaurants, but not so many crêperies — the few crêpes I encountered tended to be absurdly expensive and filled with frou-frou ingredients like truffled chêvre and Burgundy-poached pears.
Then I ventured north, and all that changed. Another 45-minute drive brought me to Lewiston/Auburn, home to thousands of French-Canadian Americans and one kick-ass ethnic diner. From the outside, Rolly’s Diner looks like just another greasy spoon in a gritty, working-class neighborhood. But this diner is different for one key reason: their specialty is crêpes.
My wife, daughter and I made the trek to Rolly’s on a recent weekend. The place was packed, even at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. We grabbed the last available table, ordered two cups of hot, fresh, commercial-grade coffee, and got down to business.
One page of the menu has a standard list of diner fare. You’ll find reasonably priced eggs, bacon and pancakes, if that’s what you’re looking for. But flip the page and there’s an entire section devoted to crêpes: single or double, plain or filled, all between $2.75 and $6. In fact, almost everything on the menu is under $9, for breakfast or lunch. Good luck paying that in Portland.
My daughter cut right to the chase. She was promised crêpes, and that was exactly what she intended to eat. Her breakfast was brilliant in its simplicity: two tender, lightly browned crêpes, rolled up and served with butter and syrup ($4.50, plus $1.50 for real maple syrup sourced from a sugarhouse in nearby Minot). We insisted she add at least one other food group to her meal; she complied by ordering a side of sausage patties ($2.25) that were nicely flavored with rosemary, if a bit on the greasy side.
Feeling a need for something a little more substantial, I ordered the Big Breakfast. For the bargain price of just $6.50, my meal included two eggs, two strips of bacon and two sausage links; choice of baked beans, cottage fries, homefries or potato puffs; and choice of a crêpe, French toast or two small pancakes. Coffee was included, with two free refills. I opted for a crêpe, of course, and potato puffs (for the sheer novelty) and ate everything on my plate. The eggs were perfect, the bacon crisp — in short, the dish was everything you’d want from a diner.
My wife was content to steal bites of our crêpes rather than order her own. She had the Pepper Steak Skillet ($7.25), an enormous serving of hash browns, scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, shaved steak and cheddar cheese, baked in a ceramic skillet. To complement this heap of crisp, salty goodness, she upgraded from toast to a side order of fluffy buttermilk biscuits topped with “S.O.S.” For the uninitiated, that stands for “shit on a shingle,” a low-rent delicacy of ground beef and pork in sausage gravy that’s typically served over toast. Rolly’s version was a bit on the bland side, but rest assured: it would still kill you if you ate it all.
The service at Rolly’s was friendly, prompt and attentive. Sadie, our smiling waitress, is the great-granddaughter of Mémère Blais, matriarch of the family that owns the diner. We let her talk us into dessert: Sadie’s Crêpes ($3.75 for one, $6 for two), a warm chocolate crêpe filled with mocha Bavarian cream, served with a touch of raspberry sauce and drizzled with chocolate. The filling was outstanding, but we all agreed the plain crêpes had been superior to the chocolate version.
If you’re in the mood for a basic diner breakfast and happen to be in Auburn for the morning, you can’t go wrong with Rolly’s, but that alone wouldn’t warrant a lengthy drive. If you’re looking for delicious crêpes without the usual side order of pretentiousness, this is one 45-minute trip worth making.
— Dan Zarin
Rolly’s Diner is open Monday-Saturday from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sunday from 7 a.m. to noon. Breakfast is served all day, as it should be.