One of the things that I've learned during my wanderings is that when I see a sign that simply declares one word like "Eat" or "Diner" in big neon letters, there's a darned good chance that the eating establishment nearby is going to be serving up good, simple food like mom used to make at reasonable prices. Such is the case with the neon "Diner" sign above as beneath it you'll find one of the best reasons to wander up to Portland, Maine!
The Miss Portland Diner is a product of the Worcester Lunch Car and Carriage Manufacturing Company (later simply the Worcester Lunch Car Company) that was founded in 1906 by Philip H. Duprey and Irving M. Stoddard. Named for the city in which it was based, the company built 651 dining cars between 1906 and 1957, beginning with Serial Number 200 and continuing through 850 as when a car was remodeled, it kept its original production number. Known for their exceptional level of craftsmanship with the slogan "There is nothin’ finer than a Worcester Diner”, the Worcester Lunch Car Company produced well-built and conservative small, handcrafted diners that boasted porcelain exteriors and hardwood interiors. The lunch cars were fitted with with marble counters, wooden booths, and stainless steel panels which were often shaped into starbursts as well as beautiful graphics in porcelain enamel.
Though all six of the country's major lunch car manufacturers were located in Massachusetts in the 1880s and 1890s, as the diner car industry matured its center of focus shifted and manufacturing moved to the mid-Atlantic states around New York. After 1942, only the Worcester Lunch Car Company was left in Massachusetts while nearly a dozen plants manufactured diners in New Jersey. After hanging on for 55 years, on May 23, 1961 the Worcester Lunch Car Company went out of business but fortunately for those of us who love nostalgia, some of their dining cars still exist and if you're lucky enough to find one, you're in for a real treat!
In 1949, WLCC No. 818 rolled off of the production line and into history opening as the Miss Portland Diner on March 7, 1949 located at 175 Forest Avenue near downtown Portland. Open 24 hours a day and advertised as "Maine's largest and most streamlined diner,", a few of the Grand Opening Specials were Fried Clams in Crumbs with Cole Slaw and French Fries for 60¢, Old-Fashioned New England Beef Stew with Crackers and Pickles for 45¢, and Roast Vermont Tom Turkey with Potato and Vegetable for 75¢.
In 1964, the diner was moved from its downtown location to make room for a new federal building and for the next 25 years was located at 49 Marginal Way where it served breakfast and lunch to the locals while owned and operated by Randall Chasse. It was during his ownership in August of 1993 that the Miss Portland made a cameo appearance in Mel Gibson’s Maine-located movie "Man Without a Face" but even with her brief brush with Hollywood, when Chasse decided the time had come to sell and retire, he wasn't able to find any takers for the venerable old gal even after attempting to award her to a new owner via an essay contest in 1993 and listing her on eBay in 2001.
Not wanting to see her torn down and hauled away as scrap, Chasse finally hit on the plan of donating the diner (but not the land it sat on) to the City of Portland who agreed to accept the 55-year old Miss Portland with the intent to ensure her proper restoration. After her last meal was served on March 14, 2004, the 2,800-square foot old gal was hauled away and sat in storage at Pearl and Somerset Streets with an uncertain future while Portland city officials attempted a revitalization effort in the Bayside neighborhood where they hoped to keep the diner located.
Several offers fell through until finally in 2007, the City Council agreed to sell the Miss Portland to Tom Manning, a former local boy who had made good in the big city of New York as a magazine executive. Having followed the diner's story through the local paper's online edition, Manning decided to make it his job to preserve a piece of Portland's history by restoring WLCC No. 818 to her former beauty. Finally finding a buyer who was going to be able to deliver on the hoped-for restoration of the historic lunch wagon, the city sold Manning the diner for $25,000 along with a sliver of city land on Marginal Way between Forest Avenue and Franklin Street for $75,000. Investing another $1 million into the project, Manning moved the historic 46-seat diner to its new location, made site improvements and built an addition that includes a modern kitchen and a dining room with 48 additional seats featuring re-created Worcester-style benches and tables for the booths that, with the exception of being larger, match the originals in the dining car.
Following what ended up being close to a $1.2 million dollar renovation, on October 31, 2008 the grand old dame of diners swung back into operation with a menu that offers breakfast all day and features "MPD Homemade Comfort Food" for lunch and dinner with dishes like Mac and Cheese, Chicken Pot Pie "just like mom used to make", a Meatloaf or Pot Roast Dinner complete with gravy, mashed potato and vegetable, and a Hot Turkey Dinner with gravy, stuffing, mashed potato, and cranberry sauce. Additionally the diner offers the usual line-up of sandwiches and wraps, soups and salads, burgers and dogs, and seafood plates and platters along with their daily specials.
On the rather rainy Friday that my distracted sidekick Paula and I arrived at the Miss Portland Diner for a late evening repast while on our way further north in search of lighthouses, we easily located the Miss Portland not too far off of Interstate 295 and were graced with a parking space directly in front of WLCC No. 818. Inside we were escorted up a small flight of steps and directed to a very comfy booth in the original dining car which still boasts the original porcelain tiling, marble countertop, pleated steel paneling and Worcester Diner clock on the wall above the counter.
Once I was able to stop looking around and admiring the beauty of the diner which actually has a good ten years on me age-wise, I took a gander at the menu as well as the Friday Specials on the board that was presented by our server. Everything sounded really good - especially Shepard's Pie or Chicken Pot Pie on a dreary and cool Friday evening in late June - but when I get the chance to eat at a great retro-diner like the Miss Portland there's really only one thing to order no matter what time of day it is ...
After some initial deciding and then changing my mind - I had a hard time talking myself out of a pancake or two - I finally settled on two eggs over-easy with homefries, bacon, and toast while Paula chose the House Specialty Homemade Corned Beef Hash with 2 eggs any style and toast. Our menu choices for toast were white, wheat, rye, Italian, cinnamon raisin, or an English muffin and our server said that pumpernickel was also available. Paula asked her which she'd recommend and she said that the pumpernickel and Italian were both very good and came from a nearby local bakery whose name my feeble mind cannot remember at the moment! Paula opted to go for the pumpernickel while I chose the Italian bread and I am really glad I did as that was probably THE best toast I've had in years! As you can tell from the photos, it wasn't technically toast as it was grilled but regardless, it was still THE best toast I've had in years!
Looking at the photo of Paula's plate above, the Corned Beef Hash isn't at all like that stuff you get out of a can but has lots of carrots and big chunks of potato along with some onion and celery. When she offered me a taste I sure the heck wasn't going to say 'no' so a good-sized chunk ended up on my plate next to my perfectly done over-easy eggs and I must say, it was quite delicious! Definitely a stick-to-your-ribs kind of hash!
While lingering over our cups of coffee after finishing up our breakfasts, Paula and I contemplated some of the decadent-looking desserts that were displayed on the counter opposite us. The Whoopie Pie Cake and the Lemon Coconut Cake were doing a darned good job of calling our names while the fresh Blueberry Pie was also trying to be heard but as our meals had been pretty filling we decided to not order any ...
... to eat there that is! It just didn't seem right to be at a diner and not try a diner dessert so we opted to have a slice of Lemon Coconut and a slice of Whoopie Pie cake boxed up for later consumption once we got up to Rockland and settled into our motel for the night. After a few hours' drive we figured there would definitely be room for a late-night snack especially as we were planning on doing some walking around the L.L. Bean store in Freeport on our way up ... and there was! My only regret was that we didn't have a couple of big glasses of milk to wash it down!
To go along with our boxed desserts we decided to also purchase a couple of Miss Portland Diner t-shirts (which Paula was nice enough to pose with below) as after all, how can you say "Been there, ate that, got the t-shirt!" if you didn't actually get the t-shirt? Exactly, you can't! But we can!
All in all I give the Miss Portland Diner two enthusiastic thumbs up for both personality and food as well as excellent service from a very friendly waitstaff. As I have a soft-spot in my heart for retro-diners and most things historic and can really appreciate the time, effort, and costs that go into keeping the beautiful old lunch wagons that are still in existence operating, I will most definitely stop by again should I find myself wandering back up around the Portland area. Hopefully you will too if you find yourself in the neighborhood!
For hours of operation, directions, an on-line menu and other information visit be sure to visit the Miss Portland Diner wesbite; you can also find them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter as after all, just because one is historic doesn't mean one isn't socially-adept!
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