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Portland Penny Diner: Refining Northwest Diner Food

Portland Penny-Diner duck bologna sandwich

Vitaly Paley’s latest venture, Portland Penny Diner, is pure play.

Long recognized as one of Oregon’s best fine dining chefs and owner of the popular Northwest Portland French restaurant Paley’s Place Bistro & Bar, Vitaly Paley has opened a hip, fun eatery that he says is the culmination of his food experiences as a child in New York City. And, if the food we recently experienced is any indication of what’s to come, Portland Penny Diner will revolutionize what we think of as diner food.

Portland Penny Diner noodle salad

Portland Penny Diner’s noodle salad wrapped in butter lettuce is light with a nice peanut flavor.

RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I recently attended a pre-opening party for a sneak peak at what Chef Paley and Portland Penny Diner are up to and it’s pretty exciting. In a relatively small downtown space on the corner of Stark and Broadway next to his newly-opened, fine dining restaurant, Imperial, Paley has created the quintessential diner by offering comfort foods like patty melts, poutine (French fries, melted cheese, and brown gravy), and classic soda fountain drinks. However, he’s elevated the concept by offering a full bar and an open kitchen that uses ingredients like beef belly, house made duck bologna, and lamb neck confit. Now that’s redefining diner food.

Paley, a James Beard award winner who is also the author of The Paley’s Place Cookbook, says they’re trying to be a little different with Portland Penny Diner. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” he said as he expedited dishes produced by a crew of cooks working in the diner’s open kitchen. “For a fine dining guy like me, simple food is really fun. We’ve created the combination diner and food truck. Of course, to cook simply, you have to have the experience to know how flavors go together.”

Portland Penny Diner poutine

Portland Penny Diner improves on the classic “poutine” with delicate,  crispy waffle fries, creamy cheese curds, and silky gravy.

And putting flavors together well is something Chef Paley and his co-chef Ben Bettinger are doing at Portland Penny Diner. We started our sampling with a small spicy vermicelli noodle salad that came with salty bonito flakes, peanuts, and grilled tofu on butter lettuce. The tender noodles contrasted nicely with crispy lettuce all accented with salty, nutty flavors. Next, came Paley’s version of the Canadian fast food poutine. Instead of regular French fries, Paley uses light-as-air, crispy waffle fries, fresh, melty cheese curds, and a silken brown gravy. Heavenly!

Elevated Diner Sandwiches

Lil Elvis sandwich on tray

Lil’ Elvis is a devilishly good combination of peanut butter, marionberry jam, fostered banana, milk chocolate and bacon grilled on thick white bread.

With The Ya-Ya, Paley’s interpretation of the falafel sandwich, and the Bunme, his take on the Vietnamese sandwich, the diner gives a nod to ethnic dishes. Most offerings, however, are classic, all-American dishes re-interpreted from the Chef’s childhood in the Big Apple. The Lil’ Elvis, for instance, features chunky peanut butter, marionberry jam, fostered banana, milk chocolate and crispy bacon on thick slabs of white bread from Grand Central Bakery. It’s a sweet-savory, gooey sandwich that will make adults swoon and kids scream for more. “My entire childhood In New York City is distilled into the Lil’ Elvis sandwich,” Paley quipped.

The restaurant’s young servers wear brown T-shirts with a copper penny logo emblazoned on the back. The restaurant’s name and penny motif are a nod to the historic coin toss in 1845 between Frances Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy that determined the city’s name.

Chef Vitaly Paley & Bobbie Hasslebring talking

Chef Paley and RFT Editor Bobbie Hasselbring share a laugh during the diner’s preview party.

One of our favorite offerings was The Mikey, their version of the classic patty melt. A beef patty, perfectly cooked to medium, melty cheese and sautéed onions were all slathered with house made relish and Podnah’s Pit mustard sauce. What makes this one special is the sharp cheddar crust they create on the bread that gives a crunchy, crispy contrast to the soft cheesy inside.

PPD’s The Stan is their riff on the NY hot dog, and, for us, the only dish that really didn’t work. They use a smoked chile and cheddar cheese dog, grilled onions, and house made relish and sauerkraut all on a soft, freshly baked hot dog bun. We loved the bun and the sauerkraut, but the chile made the dish too spicy for our taste.

Portland Penny Diner patty milk, The Mikey

The Mikey, PPD’s delicious patty melt with its crispy cheddar crust, elevates this classic dish.

However, Portland Penny Diner came swinging back with The PDWT, a sandwich that puts together a meaty slice of duck bologna, house pickled sauerkraut, a fried egg, and spicy coffee mayonnaise on a silky soft roll (see large photo above). It may sound like a strange combination, but it’s delicious – smoky bologna, creamy egg, flavorful sauerkraut that doesn’t overwhelm, velvety house made mayo all lovingly wrapped by pastry chef Michelle Vernier’s incredible bun. This is one I’ll definitely order again.

In the drink department, the diner offers a full bar as well as house made sodas. They feature classic NY choices like  malts and shakes,  Black Cow (root beer, ice cream, and chocolate), and phosphates (carbonated water, syrup, ice cream, and a banana slice). The phosphate I tried ($5) had just the right combo of creamy ice cream and fizz to make it interesting.

Portland Penny Diner is open for breakfast with choices like eggs and house smoked bacon, Reuben croissants, sticky buns, and hazelnut Linzer squares. From 11:00 a.m. until closing (7 p.m. Sun-Thurs), they offer their full line of sandwiches, salads, and soups. On Friday and Saturday, they’re open until 1 a.m.and, in addition to the other items, they offer Wing-zing crispy chicken “oysters,” super crispy and moist chicken pieces that put the Colonel to shame, as well as fried chicken livers and fried cheese curds.

Portland Penny Diner phosphate

A staffer at the diner makes up a classic phosphate drink.

Real bottom line: Diners have been around for more than a hundred years and it’s refreshing to see chefs Vitaly Paley and Ben Bettinger applying their considerable talent to redefining the classic diner. With interesting flavors and textures and plenty of fried foods, The Portland Penny Diner is likely to be one of Portland’s newest food trends. – Review by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor

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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at

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