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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: November 7, 2014

Old standby Miss Portland Diner has reinvented itself (and it is good)

The Miss Portland Diner is now a 5-star treasure trove of classic diner fare, with its inimitable home-style cooking done so beautifully.

Written by: John Golden

In this era of easy money and fame new restaurants come and go.  But what’s newsworthy is when an old standby reinvents itself.  That is what has happened at the Miss Portland Diner.  Oh, how we love our diners and their creaky stools set in gleaming Worcester lunch cars, a bit of culinary wistfulness that we want to maintain in our ornamental world.

A resplendent Worcester lunch car circa 1949

A resplendent Worcester lunch car circa 1949

The Miss Portland has been the city’s only landmark diner since it opened on Forest Avenue in 1949. After which it was moved twice along Marginal Way when the Bayside neighborhood was still considered fringe. Other Maine diners have enjoyed much greater fame as tourist attractions—Moody’s, Becky’s, The Maine Diner and the A1—establishments that have relied on kitchens preparing old family recipes that conjure up a cozy world of comfort food.

The lunch crowd seated in the main dining room and (right) the original Worcester lunch car

The lunch crowd seated in the main dining room and (right) the original Worcester lunch car

The breakfast crowd in the main dining room and the original Worcester lunch car

The breakfast crowd in the main dining room (recently repainted) and the original Worcester lunch car

Yes, we love our comfort food still, and the MPD is now doing it in spades. That’s because owner Tom Manning and his family realized that a kitchen redo was in order with a new chef and menu. (Disclosure: Tom’s wife Stefanie is an employee at MaineToday Media.) That responsibility fell to veteran Portland consulting chef and food professional Steve Quattrucci, whose past successes included the creation of the  Back Bay Grill as chef and owner in 1988, followed by The West End Grocery and most recently redoing the kitchen of the Riverside Grill at the Riverside Golf Course for the city of Portland.

New diner dishes include bangers and eggs with grilled tomato and home fries; hash and eggs with marble rye

New diner dishes include bangers and eggs with grilled tomato and home fries; hash and eggs with marble rye

The typical kitchen shortcuts are now gone. Most everything is made from scratch and sourced locally when feasible.  From the house-roasted turkey to the braised beef for Yankee pot roast, to the corned beef used in the hash. They’re cooked in inimitable diner style—big portions and big flavor—yet priced so moderately (e.g., $11.99 entrees) that an ample dinner for two will barely go above $25 each.  That price point is nearly impossible to find for a good meal in Portland otherwise filled with a tsunami of striving chefs and imposing menus.

One significant improvement, for example, is the French fries. They’re as good as any you’d find in a trendy bistro.  At the MPD they’re hand-cut, crisp and salted just right.

There’s still the long lists of breakfast classics and lunch dishes, all of which have been updated and new ones introduced. And regulars, who pack the place at breakfast and lunch, are appreciating the changes of a menu that has been gradually tweaked and refined by Quattrucci.

You don’t want to miss the improved breakfast classics like the sausage and gravy over homemade biscuits served with crispy, buttery home fries or the hearty egg scramble with cheese and breakfast meats, among others.

The egg scramble with Pineland cheddar and sausage served with home fries and toast

The egg scramble with Pineland cheddar and sausage served with home fries and toast

For lunch, the Downeast haddock Reuben is one of my favorites.  Here is fish coated in a light batter and deep fried just right, topped with thousand island dressing, slaw and Swiss cheese.  As for the meatloaf sandwich, it holds the best meatloaf that I’ve had at any diner.  Served on white bread with mayo and a side of chips, creamy slaw and pickle –  it’s a winner.

Meatloaf sandwich and the Downeast Reuben

Meatloaf sandwich and the Downeast Reuben

But the real big news is the revival of MPD’s dinner menu. The diner has extended its dinner service from Tuesday to Saturday, offering a sensational lineup of homey comfort classics.

We went this past Wednesday for the new dinner menu debut. Four of us slid into a large booth in the main dining room. These are bigger than the booths in the adjoining diner car, which are better suited for two. There’s a limited bar menu with $5 cocktails and a short list of wines and local beer. Our first bite was into an unusual starter called sweet potato salad that we gobbled up in minutes. It’s made with roasted curry-dusted sweets with the skins on and swathed in a dressing of Vermont goat cheese, cranberries and slivered almonds in a balsamic vinaigrette.  Another winner was a nice little bowl containing what’s called animal fries. There’s no rhyme or reason to its name but rather just a cunning take on poutine. Maine potatoes are coated in Pineland cheddar, bacon, green onions and salsa. You could nibble on these all night.

Animal fries and sweet potato salad

Animal fries and sweet potato salad

As for main courses they are hitting all the right notes. Such offerings as  West End meatloaf (based on the original recipe from Quattrucci’s West End Deli) with all the fixings; blue ribbon post roast; roast turkey dinner; flat iron steak with the best smashed potatoes you’ll get anywhere; mac and cheese with potato chip crumble–you get the idea.  Just think of a Moody’s menu that’s been creatively elevated into modern times.

For the four of us we settled on two roast turkey dinners; Nana’s spaghetti and meatballs and the night’s special, a casserole of baked scallops.

The roast turkey was like a rehearsal for a Thanksgiving feast. A mix of white and dark meat (roasted in house) under a veil of real giblet gravy adorned with cornbread-sausage stuffing, chunky mashed potatoes, crisp green beans and the diner’s veggie mash, a puree of  butternut squash, turnips, beets, lemon zest and butter. The turkey platter was so good one of my friends said she’s coming back for Thanksgiving dinner.

The turkey dinner with all the fixings

The turkey dinner with all the fixings

The spaghetti and meatballs was in the mamma-mia mode of Italian-American cooking.  The slow-cooked Sunday gravy was made with pork and sausage simmered for hours in a tomato sauce until rich and thick. Two huge meatballs placed over perfect al dente spaghetti were like ornaments of moist pork and beef balls, evoking the best of an Italian home kitchen.

A perfect serving of meatballs and spaghetti

A perfect serving of meatballs and spaghetti

The scallops were very much an old-fashioned New England staple baked in a crock and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, Parmesan, lemon juice, butter and parsley.   The scallops were moist, meaty and fresh tasting and the topping was like savory candy crumbs. How good is that!

New England style baked scallop casserole with Cole slaw and smashed potatoes

New England style baked scallop casserole with Cole slaw and smashed potatoes

The dessert menu has all the basics though the kitchen is working on getting some killer sweets in the larder.  But we had a decent housemade Grapenut pudding and apple crisp and a sampling of cakes including the whoopie pie cake and lemon coconut, which are made by an outside baker.

The diner's whoopie pie cake, Grapenut pudding and lemon coconut back (in background)

The diner’s whoopie pie cake, Grapenut pudding and lemon coconut back (in background)

Open for dinner five days a week and breakfast and lunch every day, the Miss Portland Diner adds a different dimension to Portland’s lineup of more rarefied dining options.  Stuffed and duly satisfied we waddled out of the diner to the parking lot saying, “Wow, that was good.”

Postscript: In what unfolded as a Hopperesque moment, I went to the diner last night because I hadn’t had their signature dish of Angus beef char-broiled burger, which at that hour was served in an atmosphere recalling a scene out of a Hopper painting. It’s a great burger with crispy fries and the usual fixings and is available all day.

The Miss Portland Diner is a hub of activity along Marginal Way at night

The Miss Portland Diner is a hub of activity along Marginal Way at night

This time the actual dining car was full while the dining room was much quieter. People kept streaming in and by 8 p.m. the room was nearly full.

The ultimate diner burger at night in this thoroughly Hopperesque setting

The late night burger–beautiful flavor and char–in such an atmospheric landmark lunch car

 

Miss Portland Diner: 140 Marginal Way, Portland | 207-210-6673 | missportlanddiner.com

 

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