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Escape clause

Don’t bail out — dine out at Steve & Renee’s!
By BRIAN DUFF  |  October 2, 2008

LESS THAN A SAWBUCK: An all-you-can-eat turkey dinner.
Steve and Renee’s Diner | 500 Washington Ave, Portland | 207.775.2722 | Mon-Fri 5 am-3 pm; Sat 5 am-2 pm & 5-7 pm; Sun 6 am-noon | No credit cards
By staking the nation’s wealth on speculative loans and the housing bubble, rather than stable jobs with respectable salaries, we may have ushered in a new era in dining out. Actually, we may have ushered in an old era in dining out: the 1930s. It won’t be so bad. A visit to Steve and Renee’s diner for the Saturday night all-you-can-eat turkey dinner (for $8.50!) is enough to convince you that things will be all right while we wait this one out.

By the time the Great Depression hit, fine dining in the United States was already reeling from 10 years of Prohibition. The scrappy neighborhood restaurants that had survived just had to get scrappier. Food got wetter — since milky, cheesy sauces conveyed calories more cheaply and could be mopped up to make staple toasts and biscuits more satisfying. Creamed meat was common. FDR himself liked to order “Country Captain Chicken” — a sort of spicy stewy dish made with curry.

Creamed meat is woefully hard to come by these days in Portland. But there are biscuits and plenty of soft food piled high on your first plate of Steve and Renee’s turkey dinner. The bird itself is boiled — a deeply traditional method that works out a good deal better than you might expect. It’s moist and mild-flavored with a texture very similar to a roasted bird. The dark meat was especially good. The light tan gravy was just the right amount of salty and there was plenty of it to sneak past the meat and mingle with the sides beneath and around it.

A good deal of what is so satisfying at Steve and Renee’s is soaking in what is going on around you. The waitstaff keeps up a funny and easygoing banter between themselves and the customers; it’s so natural that it seems almost unnatural — the sort of thing Mamet shoots for. Renee herself handles crises with a motherly soothing efficiency. A vegetarian who someone brought along is offered all the sides and a pretty good salad topped with apples and melon. “We’ll take care of you, sweetie,” says Renee. A crash reverberating from behind the counter is followed by a singsong “Nee! We need more glasses!”

Even though you are in a little strip mall, things at S&R’s have a comforting oldness. The long red countertop is worn pink where thousands of plates have slid back and forth. The walls are spotted with cheaply framed photographs of an eclecticism only time can achieve. Someone’s pottery-class bowls line a shelf. When the cook puts an order up he calls out the name of the waitress who will deliver it. They don’t take plastic.

You might stand in line for a bit. While the people queuing with you are not old enough to remember the last Depression, many might have been conceived during the post-New Deal euphoria. Some of your own layers of clothes might come off, since Steve and Renee keep it hot in their dining room — allowing you to sweat away some of those calories the way they did it before air-conditioning.

And calories are easy to come by. The bright-orange squash delivers the sort of sweet, creamy glycemic spike that makes babies stop crying. The peas have an old-fashioned mushiness. The cranberry sauce is nice and tart, with more gelatin than chewy berries. The potatoes are thoroughly whipped and the stuffing is dark, dense and best when soaked with gravy. There are a few classic desserts — a very sweet chocolate cake, Boston cream pie, and a more unusual milky custard on a moist Grape-Nut crust.

It must make bankers feel good that they can count on the rest of us in a way that, say, Katrina victims and laid-off workers cannot. It certainly feels nice at Steve and Renee’s that the customers and the staff all chip in on the ambience. There is no wine or beer, but with a pleasant tryptophan buzz and a genuine sense of community, Saturday night at Steve and Renee’s can make you forget for a few hours that these are deeply troubled times.

Brian Duff can be reached at

  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , restaurants , Culture and Lifestyle , Food and Cooking ,  More more >
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