If you’ve ever found yourself in a real, honest-to-goodness dive bar (that is, an old, locals-only neighborhood haunt, filled with down-and-outers, that doesn’t bother with screwing license plates and manufactured kitsch to the walls, or with spending a fortune on “lighting design,” or, for that matter, with “washing the dishes very well,” the kind of place where the bar top is covered in cigarette burns, and the foam drop-ceiling is collapsing under the weight of decades of water damage, the sort of place that knows that its only role is to get its patrons drunk, and quickly) and thought to yourself, “Boy, I could really go for an omelet,” you will feel right at home in the Brunswick Diner.
Established in 1946 in an old converted railroad car, at the intersection where Route 1 hooks off to the left and continues up the coast, I have driven past the Brunswick Diner thousands of times, each time raising a dubious eyebrow at the vinyl-lettered sign laying claim to the “Best Lobstah Roll in Maine.” Open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday, and serving breakfast all day, we’ve never had occasion to stop; the Tim Horton’s down the road and the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street make for easier coffee breaks, and the various glass bong and hydroponic stores that are popping up along this stretch aren’t particularly enticing stops for anyone not trying to carve a career out of “trading Phish bootlegs” or “playing with devilsticks.”
Finally, though, our craving for a diner-style breakfast brought us to the Brunswick Diner’s front door. The restaurant, a narrow corridor with a long counter, lined with mismatched mugs and chrome stools on one side, and a row of fading booths lining the other, has seen better days. The white formica is cracking off the counter in big chunks. The miniature jukeboxes on each counter have stopped working long ago. An unbranded ATM machine is crammed in between a giant leaking ice machine, and a jukebox that plays Creedence Clearwater Revival, providing just enough room to squeeze into the diner’s last booth. This time of year, a few sparse Christmas decorations line the walls: a gold foil star on the restaurant’s curved, railcar ceiling, and red tinsel garlands snaking up and over the fountain soda machines.
Coffee is poured immediately by the diner’s only waitress, as we browse the menu. Ignoring the entire lunch section, including the aforementioned “lobstah roll,” our focus this morning is on breakfast. The Brunswick Diner specializes in old-school diner favorites, mostly named after 1950s musicians; in fact, some of these old standbys aren’t even being served anymore in many competing diners, having long-since been rotated off the menu in favor of more modern cuisine. The “Elvis SOS” promises “creamed hamburger over Texas toast,” with two eggs and a side of homefries, for $6.49. The “Johnny Cash” is an 8 ounce steak, served with three eggs, toast, and home fries, for $9.99. There’s an omelet with corned beef hash and cheese inside. After careful consideration, Jillian orders a “Mushroom and Swiss” omelet ($6.99), while I decide that, whether the food at the Brunswick Diner is amazing or awful, an omelet stuffed with “homemade chili and loaded with cheese” ($7.99) is going to, at least, give me a story to tell.
In spite of our waitress’ repeated apologies that she had “a lot of other stuff” on her mind, the service was impeccable, as fresh coffees were poured and our breakfasts magically appeared. I was immediately discouraged by the sight of my homefries, which were exactly what you don’t want diner homefries to be: wiggly, wet, and white, with next to no charred surface, little more than a vehicle for salt and ketchup. Our omelets were another story. Made with three eggs each, using fresh ingredients, each stood tall and proud on our plates, with nary a burned edge or a dried-out egg skin in sight. Our waitress offered hot sauce, and instead of the ubiquitous Tabasco, we were surprised to be presented with a trio of artisan hot sauces, from the Portland local “W.O. Hesperus” brand; a bottle each of blueberry chile, sweet chili, and salsa verde.
Cutting into my omelet released a violent flood of dark brown chili and red kidney beans, with threads of melted sharp cheddar connecting my fork to my plate. This is heavy, smoky, hearty food, served with a tall stack of buttered rye toast, and for once, I almost wished that I were hungover during breakfast. The chili was better than I have had from many of the so-called “finer” places in the area, and I am a happy convert to the idea of having beans inside of my eggs. It’s the excuse I’ve been looking for, to eat chili for breakfast. It’s food to start, or quite possibly end, your day. I would order it again in an instant.
There are downsides. The parking lot can be chaotic. The homefries were a bust. It can be tough to get a table, depending on the time of morning. Seven bucks is a little steep for an omelet. There’s a reason, though, that it has survived for nearly seventy years, teaching each new incoming Freshman class at Bowdoin which counter stools belong to the regulars. Get past the Brunswick Diner’s somewhat rough-around-the-edges atmosphere, and you’ll find an old-fashioned greasy spoon that is still managing to crank out high-quality, delicious, quick meals.