Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Where I Went Today: Palace Diner

After a friend shared an article on Facebook raving about the Palace Diner in Biddeford, Maine, I had to visit. 

My interest in this restaurant was that its rebirth in a town populated with empty historical buildings and vacated mills was intended, much like Sap House Meadery and Lil’s Cafe, to breathe life back into a once-booming business community. The young owners, Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, looked at the obstacles, and went for the risk, anyway.

I only read the one article on the Palace Diner, which made two impressive proclamations—one, that the Palace Diner had been named by Bon Appetit magazine one of the 50 best new restaurants in America in 2014, and two, that on a regular day, patrons lined up outside, waiting for seats  to open up so that they could get a scrumptious Palace Diner breakfast. I’d only ever seen one other restaurant like this, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania (also a breakfast place), and the line there had been so long when I showed up (I made a special trip on my host’s recommendation) that I hadn’t had time to wait. I made sure that when I planned this adventure, I would get to my destination shortly after 8:00, the opening hour of the Palace Diner seven days a week.

The Palace Diner has many fascinating attributes, not the least of which I discovered before I’d even parked my car—that the restaurant actually resides in a bright-red, Depression-era Pollard car. It is a diner in the truest sense of the word; located by old mills once flooded daily with a ready-made customer base, the structure itself—long and narrow, with seating enough for only a dozen guests at a time—was built two states away in Lowell, Massachusetts. This is characteristic of many of the true American diners of the first half of the 20th century. The domed diner was always intended to be small, efficient, and reasonably portable, in the event that the mills ever closed down (which, in the 1920s, was a real possibility). Most of its life, however, this diner has remained right here by the mills. A little research revealed its first home was only a mile up the road, before it settled at its current spot on Franklin Street in Biddeford.

Another few curious quirks? An old-timey “Ladies Invited” slogan is painted both across the side of the car and on the front of the menu. When I asked our server about this (I invited my good friend Deborah to join me for this trip), she informed me that there was once a time in our country’s history when it was not acceptable for a woman to go out without an escort. What a progressive little joint!

Also, the menu. At first glance, it’s no more exciting than the average diner menu—eggs, toast, sausage. Upon closer inspection, there are a few salutes to 1950s dietary habits (customers can order caramelized grapefruit to start their meal) and also to the modern foodie elite (challah French toast and Tandem coffee). My choice, the omelette du jour, came with “potatoes,” which I interpreted as morning fries. In fact, my plate came with a whole potato on it—one that looked like it had been struck swiftly with a rubber mallet and thrown into the fryer as a crushed mass. This gave it a pull-apart effect which was, I promise, much more appetizing than it sounds. It was golden and salty and delicious.

Our server could have given Mel a run for his money, but that only added to the complete diner experience. Throughout our meal we were shuffled to and fro to make space for larger groups, and sure enough, after about a half hour, folks were waiting for stools to open up, and no one seemed annoyed to have to wait. By the end of our scoot-dance breakfast, we had charmed our server over to our side—we chatted about her hometown, Philly, and the history and future of Palace—and we left with bellies that were full and grins on our faces.

I would definitely revisit this quaint little restaurant. I was tempted to order one of everything on my first trip—but the fact that I didn’t means I could return with three or four other friends on different occasions and experience something new every time. I might just do that! It’s definitely worth the drive.

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