"PEOPLE ARE CONSTANTLY arguing about where you get the best hamburgers. Well, I've tasted a lot of them in my time and I honestly believe that the hamburger I had this summer at Skyline Drive-In Restaurant, 1313 NW Skyline, in Portland, Oregon, stands out as one of the best in the country."
That high praise comes from none other than James Beard (from an ill-cropped article, shabbily framed on the wall of the original Skyline Restaurant)—godfather of Oregon foodies, and the man whose name carries the same weight for chefs that Joseph Pulitzer's does for writers. Since 1935, the original Skyline has sat perched atop the hill that separates us from our suburban neighbors, serving up burgers, fries, and shakes to those who might also relish a pleasant drive in the woods.
How much has changed since Beard put his stamp of approval on the place? Well, quite a bit, and very little, depending on how you look at it. There's new ownership; there's no longer car service; their original source of ground beef, Hartung Meat Company, shut down in 1990 (though Franz Bakery is still going strong!); the menu's expanded; and prices have been adjusted for inflation. And based on the mismatched wood paneling, there's been at least a few remodels.
Still, if the clips hanging on Skyline's wall are any indication, the standard fare, particularly the burgers, haven't changed drastically. And while there's a lot to enjoy about the place, by 2011 standards, nothing is going to blow your mind—aside from the sheer size of the "giant steak burgers" (seriously, they're as big as my face). The patties are fair. The buns are totally passable. The accompaniments are on par with the Fourth of July BBQs in the lower-middle-class subdivision where I grew up. With respect to the lines of people waiting for a booth, these are not the best burgers in the country, or city, or quadrant. They are, very possibly, the best burgers between that abortion clinic on Lovejoy and the Sunset Athletic Club. And yet, I like going there. Location and nostalgia and charm and so on and so on.
It took 75 years, but Skyline has now branched out to a second location (expect a North Portland outpost in 2086). If you're specifically looking for the same food you're used to eating up on the hill, you won't be disappointed; if familiar food isn't your draw, you very well might be. If Skyline's burgers haven't changed drastically over the years, our estimation of what makes a great burger surely has. These are nowhere in the neighborhood of spots like Little Big Burger or Foster Burger, let alone the many gourmet options in town. I'm afraid that without history as an accoutrement, the mediocre food at Skyline Burgers on NE Broadway is just mediocre food.
The new space is big and open, and dressed up like a '50s diner. One wall is painted with a mural of the West Hills, and another is used as a huge projector screen (the size made seeing Atreyu's horse die in the Swamps of Sadness all the sadder). The back of the restaurant is partitioned off as a sports bar.
The basic Skyline hamburger ($4.25, or $4.74 with cheese) is a six-ounce grilled patty, served on a brushed-butter sesame bun with iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, dill pickles, and mayo. The "giant-size steak burgers" look comically large, as the half-pound patty is pressed thin enough to spill over the sides of its six-inch bun. Most are in the neighborhood of $8 to $11, and varieties range from standards like BBQ or mushroom and Swiss to more adventurous concepts, like pineapple, ham, and teriyaki or pastrami, Swiss cheese, and Thousand Island.
Burgers don't come with sides, but you can get a big basket of fries or onion rings—quality wise, about what you'd expect at a bowling alley—for a couple bucks more.
The menu is sizable, and includes just about everything you'd expect, from chef salads and split pea soups to captain's platters and Philly cheese steaks (I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of mashed potatoes and gravy that came with my meatloaf sandwich).
Milkshakes are big, thick, decadent, and delicious. I've tried the Oreo and chocolate peanut butter pie varieties, and despite my body's urging, I couldn't help but finish both of them.
I can imagine that kids will love the place, the same way I loved going to the '50s diner in my neighborhood growing up. But if you're really looking for the past, you may as well take that pretty drive up into the hills. And if you're looking for a James Beard-quality meal, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere.