By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1999 Gourmet Magazine
To say Becky’s is a friendly place only hints at its sociability. If you are a newcomer and walk in the door after 5 A.M., by which time the long counter is packed and most of the old green-upholstered booths along the wall are occupied, you may think you have suddenly been swallowed up in some sort of pre dawn party of ravenous coffee hounds. The chatter is boisterous, flying across the aisle from stool to booth, booth to waitress, and waitress to cook by way of the kitchen pass-through.
“Hi, hon!” comes a greeting from halfway down the central aisle, where a waitress with a pot of coffee in each hand gestures toward an open booth with the certainty of an airport ground-handler guiding a jet to its gate. We slide onto sprung-spring seats, and before the cushions stop hissing under us, two coffees hit the table—thick china mugs with spoons already planted in the brew.
Clattering out the kitchen window at a staggering pace come well-worn plates heaped with hash browns and fried onion squiggles, eggs sunny-side-up shimmering with butter, split sausages still sputtering from the griddle, and hot muffins the size of a tomcat’s head. As the staff speeds through the brightly lit, low-slung diner, in Portland, Maine, the aromas of a hash house at full tilt waft over us.
The smoking of tobacco in restaurants was outlawed last year, but there is nonetheless a haze in the air at Becky’s—a mouthwatering swirl of hot spuds and juicy breakfast sausage, steam rising off pancakes as butter melts across their surfaces, and coffee always brewing. If you’re still a little tired as the day begins, walking into Becky’s is a friendly thanks-I-needed-that slap in the face. You have entered nothing short of diner heaven.
At the doorway, a board lists the muffins of the day (there are always three). If you order one, you will be asked if you want it warmed or grilled. The latter is the wanton way, and irresistibly good: Cut in half and buttered, your muffin is cooked on the griddle until it is crusty and has a well-seasoned hashery savor. Another no-table breadstuff is Becky’s locally baked Italian bread. Thick slices are dipped in batter ‘to become French toast or are simply toasted as crunchy egg companions. Becky’s hash browns, which accompany egg breakfasts, come in several configurations, from regular griddled cubes to “loaded” (mixed with peppers and onions and blanketed with cheese).
Many of Becky’s regular Dawn Patrol don’t even bother to tell a waitress what they want, unless it is something other than their usual eggs over easy and split Italian sausages or hash browns smothered with fried-black onions. One such Mr. Predictable stopped by every morning for breakfast at 4:15 on his way to the county jail, where he was employed as a cook. When he didn’t show up a few days in a row, owner Becky Rand found his number in the phone book and called to ask him where he’d been. “He was living alone in a room at the time and had taken ill,” Rand remembers. “He was so surprised I called because he didn’t think anyone had noticed him. As soon as he was well enough, he was back in here again, the most loyal customer ever.”
Even if you’re a newcomer, expect to be noticed when you dine at Becky’s. One morning, when we eat only half of our split and grilled cinnamon-crunch muffin (we were concentrating instead on the crisp-toasted Italian bread), a waitress worries out loud to the counter at large that we have rejected the muffin because it is not buttery enough. We reassure her—and our impromptu audience—that we really do like it, but she isn’t at all happy until she can bring us extra butter to apply. And when we do spread the butter and eat the last of this fine muffin, we get nods of approval from concerned countermates.
As is true of fine diners everywhere, coffee service operates at the pace of a pit stop in the Indy 500. There have been occasions when we’ve sat at the counter, even at the madhouse peak of breakfast hour, and watched in amazement as the gals wielding the coffee pots topped off cups approximately every other sip.
Our counter-stool perch provides an appetizing view of the prep area just below the kitchen window: Waitresses butter muffins, grind coffee beans, and pick up plated meals, still sizzling and steaming, on their way to customers. Although the grill itself is not visible through the broad window, where orders are hung on clothespins, you can see pancakes flipped and hear eggs scrambled and poured onto hot iron.
Breakfast is the defining Becky’s meal, but lunch has powerful allure as well. Specials, made from her own hand-me-down recipes and others she finds in vintage cookbooks, include such diner paragons as meatloaf with mashed potatoes, roast turkey with sausage stuffing, slow-baked beans with franks, and haddock chowder. The chowder draws customers from all over town for Friday lunch. It is smooth and creamy, ballasted with silky hunks of white fish and flecked with bacon. “We always have the freshest haddock,” Rand boasts, “usually from just down the street.” Like an Everyman’s Alice Waters, she gets much of her fish, as well as the good breads and summer fruits and vegetables, from local sources.
Rand is so proud of her food, she backs it up with a no-strings-attached, 100 percent money-back guarantee: If you don’t like something you order, you don’t pay for it. “I stole that from L.L. Bean,” she says with home-state pride in Freeport’s conspicuously prosperous outfitter. Of course, L.L. Bean can resell rejected merchandise; a restaurant cannot. We asked her if profits were compromised by sneaks who use this policy to beat their check. “Only once,” she said. “It was a woman who came every day and ordered the same thing for lunch, and every day she wanted her fruit bowl taken off the check. She would tell the waitress, ‘It wasn’t very good.’ Finally, I came out from the kitchen and told her, ‘We cannot make you happy. You must go elsewhere for your fruit bowl.’ She was so mad that she poured her cup of coffee into the sugar dispenser and stormed out. I told all the girls that she can come in and she can order anything she wants, but not the fruit bowl.”
The odd gyp artist or occasional kitchen blooper aside, refunds are not an issue at this restaurant, despite its liberal guarantee. The obvious reason is that the food is satisfying. But Rand also likes to point to her extremely low prices. Breakfast for two might barely reach the double-digit price range. At lunch you can have soup and a sandwich and change from your five-dollar bill. “People want to be pleased. Most are happy to pay when they can walk out feeling they have enjoyed a good value,” she says.
Rand’s zeal to offer good value has characterized her diner since she opened it in 1991. “Workers from the boats and the docks had nowhere to eat!” she says with sincere astonishment. Back then, a few upscale dining rooms had opened in the historic cobblestone-street district on the waterfront, which, although still perfumed by the fishing fleet, has since become a stylish place to shop and dine. But those restaurants charged expense-account prices and didn’t want a blue-collar crowd. “Men in work clothes scared off their customers,” Rand says. “I asked myself, Where is the nice hot meal for the all-night cab drivers, the scallop draggers and lobstermen getting an early start, the cops on the beat, and the luckless guy or gal scraping together dimes and quarters to buy a grilled-cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee?”
Living lean was something Rand knew all about. When she was in her mid-30s, her husband left her with six children to support, which she tried to do by simultaneously working three different waitress jobs and free-lance baking. “I went to a placement service, and they told me I was qualified to be the Easter Bunny at the mall,” she remembers. “I pleaded with five different banks for money to start the diner, and they couldn’t show me the door fast enough.” With little more than steadfast determination as collateral, she did find a bank willing to loan her enough money to open a short-order restaurant in a boarded-up building by the water at Hobson’s Wharf. Becky’s opened with secondhand equipment in the kitchen and decrepit booths from a restaurant-supply warehouse. “That first day, I washed so many dishes my hands ached,” she recalls. “I hadn’t hired a dishwasher because I didn’t think I’d need one.”
Over the years, every one of her six children has started his or her working life busing tables or washing dishes in the diner, and her father comes in at least three times every day: at dawn for breakfast, at noon with Rand’s mother for lunch, and at 2:30 in the afternoon to mop the floor. “Then there are my six brothers and sisters and their 13 children, all regulars. I sometimes think of my huge family as a first line of defense against kitchen mistakes. They eat here all the time and are always ready to tell me if there is something that they feel doesn’t taste the way it should.”
Much of Portland’s waterfront is now occupied by shops devoted to the tourist trade, but there are still enough active fishing boats—and the old marine businesses that support them—as well as warehouses and loading docks, that this working person’s eatery seems a natural part of the landscape: It is the classic waterfront diner. And yet it isn’t only fishermen and truckers who eat here. Counter-stool morning regulars also include pin-striped power brokers boning up on the financial pages before their day begins and breakfast connoisseurs from all over town. Rand loves her varied clientele.
In fact, she loves nearly everything about the diner she has created, except for the fact that she closes it two days each year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas. She does this so her employees can spend the holidays with their families, but she worries that her regulars may not have a place to go. “I know that customers depend on us, but it works the other way, too,” she says. “If I don’t start the day in the diner, it feels like something’s missing from my life.”