Photo by David Reamer

THE RED COACH is busy. Owner/operator Kim Durkheimer welcomes customers in the downstairs of this duplex diner, while husband Robert Kleffner runs a one-man burger assembly line upstairs. Along with a few close friends and relatives, who also happen to be employees, they crank out lunch to a steady stream of downtown's visitors and ID card-bearing office workers who have hamburger-shaped holes in their hearts.

By noon, the place is buzzing with activity. For the next two hours, all of the tables are full, yet there's never a wait. The controlled frenzy is a testament to the friendly and efficient service of the Durkheimer family.

Kim's gregarious nature and memory for people make her a natural hostess. Like her daughter, Lauren, she grew up in this business, and has worked here full time for 31 years. She took over when her father, Bob Durkheimer, retired in October after nearly half a century of ownership. Lauren, 18, is eager for her turn at the helm. "I just hope I don't have to wait 30 years like [my mom] did," she says.

As for the food, your choices are fries, bacon, and/or cheese with your burger. The classic milkshakes are also a draw, and every now and then you see a tuna melt sneak in the mix. You can spot the newcomers by their demand for a paper menu. From the hours of 11 am-3:30 pm, Monday to Saturday, all of Red Coach's grill space is occupied by simmering hand-packed patties.

When you basically do one thing, you better do it well. This responsibility falls on Robert, the recognized grillmaster. For over 40 years, he's worked in the meat industry, with time split about equally between production and cooking.

In the food as in the service, experience shows. The burger is perfectly cooked, and the bacon is delicious, with enough smokiness to balance, but not overpower the patty. They must be doing something right, since business is up 10 percent from last year. The prices, $4.85 for a cheeseburger and $8.75 for a full lunch, also help.

Not surprisingly, tradition reigns at Red Coach. Although the location has changed twice in the past 50 years, the booths are still the same puffed and polished red leather as on day one. Most of the faces are the same as well, since almost all of the staff are long-time employees, or related to one.

The glaring exception is Anthony "Tony" McShane, who's been at Red Coach for just two years. He came to Portland from Pennsylvania after throwing a dartboard at a map of the West Coast. With three dollars in his pocket and a background in cheesesteaks, he toured downtown's restaurants looking for work. At his interview here, Bob only asked him questions about his family and his past. Since then he's become something of an adopted son of the Durkheimers. Bob even bought him a plane ticket home to celebrate his first year on the job.

By 2:30 pm the day's service is winding down. A quiet patron leaves another table empty as he departs, dropping a borrowed magazine on a table under the stairs. Slow times are harder for Kim, Robert, Lauren, Tony, and the rest. The adrenaline kick of the peak hours is over, and flow of customers is sporadic. They would rather be busy the whole time, they agree, racing around to keep up with the orders. Perhaps it's in their blood, but they genuinely enjoy the work.

When the Red Coach clan wants someone to wait on them for a change, they tend to head for the Dragon Inn (14411 SE McLoughlin, Oak Grove). You may see the entire family sitting down to a meal in this much-loved restaurant. Kim Durkheimer is especially fond of the Szechuan beef.

More of the FOOD ISSUE here!