Fifty Dollar Dinner

photo/Hannah Joyce McCain

Becky’s Diner
390 Commercial St., Portland

When you’re living the way life should be, what should the food taste like?

Portland’s been in the foodie-darling limelight so long that it’s easy to overlook the humble fare that attracted attention before the small plates and farm-to-table fare arrived. Becky’s Diner, which opened on the waterfront in 1991, is the Platonic ideal of a Maine eatery. Locals crowd its booths for early morning joe and homemade hash. Those from away show up looking for a greasy-spoon brunch or a classic Maine seafood dinner. Becky’s is the one restaurant you have to visit if you’re passing through town, and you’re not a true Portlander until you’ve put at least a couple meals meals there under your belt.

The diner’s popularity isn’t rooted in some provincial, uncritical enthusiasm. Becky’s is good — a certain kind of good, a cheap and filling, homemade and unfussy kind of good. And it’s not just the food. It’s the florescent lights, the industrial-sized coffee maker, the red vinyl stools along the counter. It’s the service, which is friendly in a Maine sort of way — which is to say, when you ask your server how things are going, she replies, “It’s goin’!”

With $50 to spend on dinner, a couple can feast like royals at Becky’s, provided they’ve got stomach room to spare. On our visit last month, we could have ordered our appetizer, the combo plate ($11.95), and stopped there. The mountain of golden sweet-potato fries, onion rings as big as your hand, chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks is a daunting climb.

But we didn’t stop there. In fact, we ordered so much that the table full of dishes made us feel a little embarrassed by this ostentatious display inside Becky’s no-nonsense dining room. It’s really not our fault. Dinner entrées come with a barrage of extras, each with its own dish or bowl: two sides, a salad, and bread (biscuit or Italian). The entrée itself, broiled haddock in lemon butter & crumbs ($14.95), lives up to its preposition: the fish is practically swimming in lemony butter. The haddock falls apart in soft flakes, made even more pillowy by the tender biscuit stuffing. Becky’s may be the place where the phrase “melt in your mouth” originated.

As for the sides, the salad is little more than watery iceberg and store-bought croutons, and the baked potato is nothing more than a potato that’s been baked. That’s all fine — we’re at a diner, after all. But the green beans are a delightful surprise. Sautéed in butter and garlic long enough to soften them, but not so long that they lose their springy bite, Portland’s finest chefs would be proud to serve them.

The chicken pot pie ($8.95) is the kind your grandmother makes — nothing flashy, just comfort-food perfection. The chowder recipe at Becky’s hasn’t changed since they opened, and there’s no reason why it ever should. A cup of clam chowder ($4.95) is rich and tasty enough to be a meal in itself.

We rounded off this smorgasbord with a root beer ($2.25) and a Bissell Brothers Substance IPA ($6). The craft beer was the only indication that this meal was served this century. It felt out of place to drink it, actually, like a spell was being broken. But we had the answer: this is the way food in Maine should be.

— Hannah Joyce McCain