FOR THOSE LUCKY SOULS who've been enjoying line-free brunches at City State Diner in the roughly two months since their opening, let me start by first apologizing for the good things I'm about to say. I don't presume I have the ability to move hungry hordes that will ruin your quiet, hungover Saturdays, but I suspect as more positive reviews are written about City State, your privileged mornings may be no more. Perhaps you should direct your ire toward City State itself for being what it is: an approximation of a mid-century diner, easy on the eyes and the palate, with enough understated culinary flare to defeat the brunch-time drowse.
You had to suspect sooner or later it'd be discovered. There's no way those thick wedges of scorched, fried grits—with their bold corn flavor and cornbread texture—could've been kept a secret for long. Don't blame me. Blame the grits.
Believe me, I'm as broken up about this as anyone else. Over several meals at City State Diner, I've become quite fond of the place. I enjoy their minimal sepia-toned Edward Hopper aesthetic; the way the place fills with lush afternoon light; the deep, brown vinyl booths; the lunch counter; and the occasional flash of chrome. (I know, this isn't helping.)
I've also become fond of the large menu sporting a full day's dining options—from eggs and toast to meatloaf. A broad sampling reveals something interesting happening in City State's kitchen. Nearly without fail, their dishes have an almost antiquated quality to them. These are flavors I remember from my grandmother's kitchen table. It's like a mythical Mayberry diner where the chef knows your name and has taken great care to make everything from scratch, just the way you like it.
The green beans operate as a kind of tangled understory for a couple entrées, for instance, and taste as if they'd been recently plucked from the garden, quickly blanched, set for a moment on a hot flattop, touched with salt, and immediately plated. They are crunchy, crisp, and absolutely lovely.
A half-inch thick pickle slice has flavors recalling cool root cellars—a slight bread and butter sweetness, but with a bit more plucky vinegar.
Homemade tomato catsup graces burgers and meatloaf, and is packed with fragrant notes of star anise, cinnamon, and a touch of sweetness.
But it's not all anachronisms. The menu is also injected with truly modern Portland twists—happily, not to distraction. Meatloaf—thick, savory, meaty, though a tad too sturdy—is made with the addition of garlic and prosciutto, which gives the whole thing an additional depth and interest. The plate is shared with well executed scalloped potatoes, layered with goat cheese and topped with cheddar: a nice touch without being obnoxiously out there.
The ham and cheese scramble is far from the greasy versions found elsewhere. Fluffy yellow mounds of eggs are studded with squares of ham, and the cheese (your choice of swiss, cheddar, or muenster) is perfectly incorporated, leaving the texture improbably light.
This trend of lifted gut-bombs continues with practically lithe fried potatoes, a riff on hashbrowns, crusted brown on the grill, with a deep potato flavor that maintains its earthy edge.
Along with standards—like a spot-on juicy burger with that zesty homemade catsup and fantastically thick bacon slices, or textbook chicken-fried steak topped with a decent, slightly tangy and peppery-hot sausage gravy—there are unexpected options, as evidenced by the soft-shell crab BLT. It's not bad, with fried crab resting below bacon, crisp lettuce, tomato, and garlic thyme aioli, but it does take a bit of getting used to. I'm also not sure how I felt about the whiffs of Old Bay I thought I tasted.
Which is to say that City State doesn't necessarily have it all nailed down. And maybe here we can all find a silver lining in the hope that overly fussy culinary pedants might stay away.
On one visit the biscuits—crumbly drop style rather than flaky laminated—were hard and dry. Another visit found a Rueben with too little corned beef and far too much aggressive sauerkraut. Also, I was not asked how I'd like my burger cooked and it hit my table too far past medium for my liking. On top of all that the (admittedly tasty) slaw was inconsistently dressed, too creamy in one instance and nearly dry on another.
Still, I'm willing to put up with these glitches, and the sometimes pokey (but charming) service, knowing that for the time being I can always get a table without an inordinate wait. But even if a line should form outside City State in the near future, I'll stand in it on account of the somber prettiness and tasty goodness therein, cursing my own name under my breath and shaking a mental fist at those damned delicious grits.