Keep walking when you get to the Miss Portland Diner. Not past the entrance on Marginal Way, but through the addition constructed in 2008 and into the landmark 1949 diner itself, because that’s the real draw at this temple to tradition.

Who can resist the multicolored tile and endless chrome, the Fiesta Ware-like mugs and plates, the swivel stools parading down the length of the counter and the vintage blue-and-silver “Worcester Diners” clock on the wall? (The Worcester Lunch Car Co. manufactured this and 650 other classic diners at a plant in Massachusetts between 1906 and 1957.) The food will keep you going – it’s filling and tasty – but the surroundings will take you back.

Settle into a booth (no wall-mounted jukeboxes here, but space enough for four) and look around. Cooks are plucking orders and passing dishes through the small window behind the counter. The list of desserts is displayed on the traditional felt wall board pegged with tiny white letters. Customers are unfolding large menus listing soups and salads, omelets, burgers and dogs, sandwiches and “Comfort Favorites,” all while eyeing the domed cake stands that contain a towering lemon confection and a 5-inch-tall whoopie pie cake (I measured), an inch or more of that devoted to the frosting alone.

Ask about the soup of the day; it was a delicious curried lentil when I visited ($4.50). It arrived in one of those thick-walled Fiesta-style bowls and carried just a hint of curry but loads of flavorful carrots, onions, celery and lentils. The menu offers house-made chowder, but go for the lentil if it’s available.

A friend tried a classic Reuben ($8.99). (There’s also an open-faced “Downeast Reuben” made with fried haddock instead of corned beef.) It was messy and savory, as a Reuben is meant to be with just enough sauerkraut and a tangy Thousand Island dressing dripping down the sides. The bread, marbled rye, was grilled with butter so it was toasted, crunchy and salty, like the grilled cheese sandwiches your best friend’s mother made after school – if you were lucky.

The house-made slaw at the Miss Portland Diner – which comes with the Reuben and other sandwiches – is bright tasting and crisp, and it’s sweet enough to satisfy without veering aggressively toward saccharine. Thanks to a thin, light dressing, it’s also refreshing. I’ll order an extra bowl if I go back.


Another success story: the sweet potato fries ($1.99), thin spears with a sprinkling of kosher salt that actually retained their crunch – no mean feat in a world where sweet potato fries often seem to define the word “limp.” These give standard French fries a run for their monnaie.

Crunch is a recurring theme at this diner. A Pineland Farms cheeseburger ($8.99) ordered medium was overcooked, but super-crisp slices of thick bacon across the top helped make up for the disappointment and added appealing saltiness. Good all by itself, the burger was better with a spoonful of spicy Gulden’s Mustard. However, the star of the plate was a heap of thick-cut potato chips, which the kitchen just added to the menu. One shade darker than golden brown, these chips are (again) wildly crunchy – and seriously addictive. I’m not usually a fan of chips – no there there – but in this instance I found myself reaching for more. Only when a friend cleared his throat and pointed did I realize I was physically barring access to my plate.

The dessert board at Miss Portland offers house-made apple crisp (it’s heated upon request in a microwave) and a banana split. The diner also serves Gifford’s ice cream, but the cakes under those old-fashioned domes on the counter demanded attention.

“Are they made here?” I asked the helpful young waitress. “A baker named Norman Sprague makes them at home in Cape Elizabeth and delivers them to us every few days,” she said, raising both her cake knife and her eyebrows in expectation.

I caved.

The lemon coconut ($5.50) cake looked impressive, and the frosting was tart, but the cake itself proved dry. The whoopie pie cake ($4.95), on the other hand, was a moist, hefty celebration of devil’s food cake. The waitress explained that it was a twist on traditional individual whoopie pies.


“It’s a cake, so it’s lighter,” she claimed. You could have fooled me. Top and bottom layers of the chocolate cake (much thicker than the standard whoopie pie) were melded together with a thick, intensely sugary band of white frosting. That frosting, by the way, has a consistency somewhere between buttercream and spackle – and it’s exceedingly good. (My suggestion: share a slice.)

Owner Tom Manning grew up on Munjoy Hill and – although his father owned the Shamrock Cafe at the corner of India and Commercial streets – he never planned on running a restaurant. In fact, he was living in New Jersey and working as an executive at Newsweek magazine in New York when he read an online story in the Portland Press Herald. “It said that the city had received the diner as a donation and was considering a new owner. I asked my wife, ‘Want to own the Miss Portland Diner?’ ” Manning remembered. To his surprise, she answered “Why not?” Manning purchased the historic lunch car in 2007 and reopened it the following year after restoration and reconstruction. After a few years of commuting, he and his wife relocated their family to Maine. (His wife, Stefanie Manning, is the marketing director for Maine Today Media, which publishes the Maine Sunday Telegram.)

You won’t find much that’s cutting edge or modern at the Miss Portland Diner, but that’s the whole point. Nostalgia is alive and well in Bayside, and Miss Portland’s the place to enjoy it.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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