IN THE FERVOR of the Portland restaurant world, where windows are seemingly papered and unpapered every day, and chefs change kitchens like debutantes change partners at a fancy ball, it's nice to know there are quiet corners of culinary stability in the city. Here and there you find old standbys that have weathered recessions and changing tastes with brilliant marketing, history, and reputation, or nimble staff willing to keep up with the times. Then, there are places like the Berlin Inn.
Located in what must be one of the worst restaurant locations I can think of—the inner Southeast Portland wasteland near SE Powell and Milwaukie—the Berlin Inn has quietly served German cuisine in their incongruous cottage since 1992. What's most significant about Berlin Inn's 18 years of business is that they've managed to attract a community of dedicated patrons with a menu that will likely be the same 18 years hence.
The restaurant feels older than its years—more mid than late 20th century. The time warp is due, in part, to the intimate dining room that looks appropriated from the home of a kind German grandmother. The walls are a dull white with dark brown trim. The ceilings are low. The carpeting is clean, but dated. The walls are hung with Kodachrome-colored pictures of German castles and hamlets, and dotted with garlands of corks and old wine labels. Walking in through the front door is like walking into 1960s old-world dining.
The menu continues the effect. It's big, wordy, and filled with options that have either been breaded, fried, slow cooked, or smothered in sauces and cheeses. Such is to be expected from Germany's historically hearty fare. Those fearing calories need not apply.
Delving into this wonderland of fatty goodness at the Berlin Inn, it's quickly apparent why it's been open so long. Here is solid, no-nonsense comfort food, served in a no-nonsense way. There are no frills. No tricky presentation. It's just endearingly tasty food.
The Berlin Inn benefits from housing a bakery. The best introduction one can have to the restaurant is a simple "warm from the oven" Bavarian pretzel with Dijon cream sauce. The shiny, crisp crust of the pretzel crackles and yields to a steaming, soft interior. Dunked into that Dijon cream sauce, the brightness of the mustard, the richness of the cream, and the slight crunch of the pretzel with its über-fresh, light crumb combine to create one of the best snacks in Portland.
The rest of the menu follows in kind, and while the meals may not be dynamic, or filled with flavor fireworks, they are all delicious. With the "light" Käse Spätzle, tender little cracked red pepper spatzle noodles are combined with a rich cheese sauce and fresh veggies to create a dish somewhere between pasta primavera and alfredo. A perfectly tender chicken Schnitzel is not much to write home about in the meat department, but is lifted by outrageous, tangy, savory mushroom gravy. And a winter special turkey bacon Swiss puff is fantastically light despite the heavy ingredients and a pool of cheese sauce; the fat tempered by a zippy cranberry orange chutney.
The sausage selection is sourced from Edelweiss Sausage and Delicatessen, which shares the block with Berlin Inn. One of the more notable meat options is the Leberkäse, a thick cut of sausage loaf that when fried rests comfortably at the junction of bologna and ham steak; it's sublime with a thin slather of mustard.
A selection of German specialties sport some hefty price tags and are not necessary for full enjoyment of the restaurant. However, Swabian pork spareribs were lovely and tender, smothered in a sauce with a spice reminiscent of barbecue, but tempered with amped-up tomato sweetness that worked well with the salty meat.
Brunch should certainly not be left out of the equation, considering the Berlin Inn's selection of enormous benedicts, a favorite being the smoked salmon and dill. Also, German pancakes, puffed on the edges and soft and spongy in the center, are a good flapjack alternative for those with a breakfast sweet tooth.
All this is combined with a wait staff that is very serious about what they do, who serve with a kind of jocularity that makes you feel right at home. It will not be a surprise if the Berlin Inn continues to operate for another 18 years. Let the new places have their seasonal menus and rock star chefs. In this strange German enclave at the end of Powell, you'll always know that what's coming to you will be as consistent and comforting as grandmother's Sunday dinner.