On a sunny, summer Sunday morning, there is no line in front of Portland’s Byways Cafe. Apparently, Portland likes to sleep in on Sunday because just the day before, the line snaked around the corner.
As we wait for the door to open, a couple of ladies arrive, pushing their mother in a wheelchair.
“It’s Mom’s day out,” one says. “We always take Mom, who is 102 by the way, out for breakfast on Sunday.”
I never would have guessed. We hold the door open and “Mom” stands up. Gracefully, gingerly, she walks into the cafe and all the way back to their regular booth.
Over the course of the next hour, 10’s of customers stroll in, most of them regulars. I know this because the customers and staff acknowledge each other on a first name basis.
Byways Cafe is a diner in the tony Pearl District of Portland and serves hearty portions of homey, simple breakfast and lunch fare at reasonable prices.
The small space, decorated with tourist tchotchkes from all over the U.S, doesn’t feel cheesy. It feels comfortable — like visiting your wacky Aunt, who collects (and displays) gaudy trinkets from every place she’s ever been.
Byways Cafe was featured on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives. No matter what you think of host Guy Fieri, he picks some pretty rocking places — like Phoenix’s Matt’s Big Breakfast, and New Orleans’s barbecue haunt, The Joint.
At the time, I didn’t know Byways was featured on Fieri’s show. I found Byways because I spotted the Saturday morning line as we were wandering around the Pearl District.
Any restaurant that has a line half-a-block long piques my interest. I bet it does yours, too.
By the time we leave Byways, the line is precariously creeping towards the corner again, and by 10 a.m, it wraps around 12th Avenue.
It’s easy to understand why. The food, although simple, is everything you’d expect from a diner.
Caloric, filling, and plentiful — a real value for the money. The service is snappy, genuine and if you don’t personally know your waitress by the time you leave, you’re probably a curmudgeon.
As far as I can tell, Portland has a thing about hash.
(OK. Beast isn’t a breakfast joint and the gourmet hash was flung at brunch. Still, as one of the top new restaurants in town, hash was on the brunch menu — so I still say this town has an obsession with hash.)
Byways Cafe’s hash is “traditional,” meaning it’s made with corned beef and a jumble of potatoes, onions and green peppers. Surprisingly, the corned beef tastes head-tiltingly sweet — like it was brined in a vat of sugar water.
I can’t honestly say that it is my favorite hash experience in Portland, but it’s not a bad hash, and gets bonus points melted cheese.
Filling? I have enough leftover for another meal, which I hand to a grateful man sitting on a stoop around the corner, past the line, politely asking for spare change.
A much better choice if you really want something sweet? Blue corn pancakes with honey pecan butter. Oh, and real maple syrup.
The three, thin, plate-size pancakes are tender, yet richly textured from stone-ground blue corn meal. (This is Portland after all, a food-centric city crazy about whole grains, organic produce and independent restaurants.)
The pancakes aren’t sweet on their own, so the maple syrup adds just the right amount of sweetness and the whole dish doesn’t feel like one big spoonful of sugar, like some pancakes do.
Here is what I love about Byways Cafe: it isn’t trying to be something that it’s not, and as a result, it ends up being just what the neighborhood wants:
A cafe that serves up hefty, home-style plates with a smile (our waitress even showed us her brand new ankle tattoo), with local ingredients dispersed here and there. And, a bottomless coffee cup.
That — not Guy Fieri — is why there is a line out the door.
1212NW Glisan Street