BIDDEFORD, Maine — It might not be the first thing you notice after you settle onto one of the 15 stools at the Palace Diner, but when the folks behind the counter take a call-in order, they use a rotary phone. “We try to limit our contact with 21st-century technology as much as possible,” says Nick Capotosto, eldest son of the clan that took over the diner in 2011.
“We bought it in a momentary lapse of sanity,” says his father, David, who pitches in with sons Sam and Ben on Saturdays.
The Pollard Co. dining car was hauled from the factory in Lowell to this erstwhile mill town in 1927, and the Capotostos pride themselves on running a traditional eatery. Toast and pancakes come with real butter, and (for a little extra) real maple syrup. The diner cooks make their own corned beef hash from scratch with slow-cooked brisket. However frantic it gets, the staff always has a good time.
So do the diners. It’s the kind of establishment where you can at least try to read the paper over coffee instead of staring into the glowing face of a smartphone. Of course, having enough room to spread out a broadsheet is uncommon, since the narrow car has no booths, and most of the time there’s a line of folks waiting to take your stool. Mornings at the Palace feel like breakfast in a big, happy family.
The menu has drifted a bit from Depression-era eggs and toast. The Irish Benedict of corned beef hash on English muffin halves topped with poached eggs and a lemony hollandaise sauce endures as the most “insanely popular” offering, according to Nick. Soon after they took over, the Capotostos began offering a Mexican omelet special of three eggs, shaved steak, pineapple salsa, and fresh chopped cilantro served with toast, home fries, and sour cream. So many customers ordered it that it was moved from the specials board to the menu. Ditto the deeply decadent “monkey toast” of french toast topped with fried bananas, grated dark chocolate, caramel sauce, and whipped cream.
Probably no former special has been so enthusiastically embraced as the Palace Diner version of poutine. Although the Quebecois original is almost always made with deep-fried potatoes and generic brown gravy, the Capotostos use from-scratch beef gravy and their grill-top Red Bliss home fries. (The Palace doesn’t even have a deep fryer.) Although it pains them to go outside New England for cheese curds, they get Yancey’s Fancy fresh curds from western New York — a product with just the right “squeak” on diners’ teeth. Best of all, Nick notes, poutine is available as a full breakfast plate or on the side as a half order.
During the winter the Palace serves only breakfast, daily except Sunday, but starting in late April or early May will stay open until 2 p.m. on weekdays and serve soups, sandwiches, and grill fare for lunch. Saturday mornings already see a lot of late-rising students from the University of New England, a fast-growing school that’s playing a big role in Biddeford’s gentrification. During the week, though, a lot of the customers come in before heading to District Court. “We get the judges and the lawyers and sometimes even the defendants,” says Nick. “But nobody talks shop.”
It’s all about the food. “We really love good breakfast,” says David Capotosto. “So we use cage-free eggs, and no cans were harmed in the making of our gravy.”
Despite the disclaimer about 21st-century tech, Nick tweets the daily specials and the Palace issues an occasional e-mail newsletter for those who click on the image of a postman on the website’s home page.
“For most of our customers, though,” says Nick, “we distribute the specials via chalkboard.”
Palace Diner 18 Franklin St., Biddeford, Maine. 207-284-0015, www.palacedinrme.com. Mon-Sat 7 a.m.-noon for breakfast, also (May-October) Mon-Fri noon-2 p.m. for lunch. Breakfast platters $4.99-$9.99. Cash only.Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.