Basic, fill-you-up burgers and dogs, ‘Famous Frappes’ and floats make for a feast that will leave your wallet fat.
Ironically, I was counting steps with my new Fitbit on the way to my car to drive over to Vivian’s Drive-in for what I knew would not be a healthy lunch. I was amused by this and equally delighted to finally, after being in Maine for more than 20 years, go for lunch at the iconic joint on Forest Avenue.
I pulled up in front of the building among a few other cars and made my way into a piece of Portland history. Despite no actual frame of reference, I got the sense immediately that not much has changed for Vivian’s. The wood paneling surely holds many secrets and stories, and the overall retro look and feel is most certainly the real deal.
I hopped into line behind two other customers and surveyed the menu board with hungry eyes. The specials included a double cheeseburger with chips and a can of soda for $4.70. It also boasted a chili dog or sauerkraut dog for $2.25. The piece de resistance, which I managed to resist, was the “Famous Frappes” of the vanilla, chocolate, strawberry or coffee persuasion for $3. Not to mention a root beer float, also priced at $3.
I stuck with the basics from the regular Vivian’s menu and ordered a hamburger ($1.80) and a hot dog ($2). I washed it all down with a Diet Pepsi and was out of there for under five bucks ($4.99 to be exact). There was only one actual seat occupied by a very cranky but apparently regular and much-liked customer who gave the folks behind the counter nothing but grief. That scene walked a fine line between annoying and amusing.
My order took just a couple of minutes, and I added ketchup, mustard, relish and raw onion to both items. Turns out the hot dog was the kind I had never had before, the red kind. It was snappy and tasty and I could have eaten another. With ease. I also thoroughly enjoyed my burger, which was really more of a kid-size, but at $1.80 I didn’t complain. Next time I’ll order a double. I stood at the narrow back counter and chowed down, looking at assorted tchotchkes from days gone by. I had to overcome a little “stranger in a strange land” feeling, but I shook it off and ate every morsel with enthusiasm.
While I was waiting for my food I snapped a couple of quick pics of the menu to refer back to while writing and was promptly scolded for doing so by the owner. I replied with a question asking if takeout menus were available and was told no. They also don’t have much of an online presence so I’m not sure why a fuss was made about my pics, but I got over it because I loved my lunch. The thing with Vivian’s is, what you see is what you get. It’s not thrilling, it’s not hip, it’s not organic or gourmet and nothing could ever be described as artisanal. But what it does have is quick, reliable, tasty and very affordable food. They also serve a grilled ham & cheese ($3), a grilled cheese ($2.50) and a tuna salad sandwich for $3.25. These prices cannot be beat, at least not by any independently owned place I know of in Portland. Vivian’s also serves breakfast. An English muffin will set you back 60 cents, toast 50 cents and ham or bacon and egg on an English muffin will cost you $1.70. Talk about a cheap date!
It’s obvious that Vivian stays in business thanks to what I imagine are quite a few longtime, loyal customers, just like the Mr. Cranky Pants I encountered on the day I went. I can’t quite bring myself to officially rave about the place, but I sure as heck-fire appreciate that it’s there and that it’s been there for an eternity. What’s more, I am certain I’ll be back. Though I do wish they served french fries.
948 Forest Ave., Portland | 207-797-7077 | www.facebook.com
HOURS: 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
WAIT: Five minutes
PARKING: Off-street parking
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes
NOTE: Vivian’s is a cash-only establishment