Bread and Brew
For all you young people out there, I have a history lesson. It's called John's Coffee Shop, and it's in Old Town, at the corner of Broadway and Everett. There are older restaurants in Portland, and there are restaurants that induce a sweeter, fuzzier nostalgia - but John's is more simply and purely a place that time forgot.
Cash only. A hot cocoa machine. Clocks advertising RC and 7-Up. A pie case (empty), with an eight-track player on top. These things jog my memories of the early 1970s, which is not generally considered a golden age. And watching my friend wrestling with his chicken fried steak, I realize that this isn't a story about the good old days. It's a story about different times, not so long ago, when Americans were much less adventurous, more frugal diners.
Breakfast hasn't changed much. Bacon, eggs, sausage, toast, hash browns, and pancakes are on the menu at John's, just as they are, in some variation, at every breakfast place in town, although this is among the cheapest. Two pancakes, an egg and two strips of bacon go for $3.95.
The dinner menu is more of a time capsule: Salisbury steak, pork or veal cutlets, liver and onions. Each dinner comes with two slices of white bread and butter, a choice of soup or salad, and fries or mashed potatoes. The most expensive dinners are $5.75.
These days, John's is not actually open at dinner time. The place closes at 2 every afternoon, so that owners Demetrios and Christina Kapsopoulos, and their son Tom, can go home. No one else works here.
Home to regulars
On June 10, 1973, Demetrios, who goes by Jim or Jimmy, bought John's Coffee Shop from a man who was also from Greece and who was also not named John.
The coffee shop is on the ground floor of five-story brick building with a fire escape climbing up its front. It was built in the late 1800s and enlarged in 1906 to become the Golden West Hotel. The hotel catered to African-Americans at a time when it was standard for hotels to be whites-only.
When he took over the business, Kapsopoulos had been in the United States for three years. He came to Portland from Kalamata, Greece, to help his sister, who owned a grocery store and whose husband had been killed in a robbery.
Kapsopoulos wanted to stay in America, and a lawyer advised him to get married. At Easter services at the Greek Orthodox church, Jimmy first saw Christina, whose home town was Sparta, Greece. They were married a week later.
By the 1970s, the Golden West had become the Broadmoor, a residential hotel that was home to pensioners and blue collar workers. Kapsopoulos bought the entire building in 1976. His customers were the men upstairs, plus railway workers, tree planters, and policemen. There were factories in the area that made sweaters and jackets, he says, and Roy Burnett Motors took up three blocks nearby.
Customers were regulars. Some came in for breakfast, lunch, coffee break and dinner. This was a time when single men couldn't or wouldn't cook. More people lived in kitchen-less rooming houses. And they needed high-calorie breakfasts for physically demanding jobs.
Going out to breakfast was a workday thing, not a weekend indulgence. John's is closed on Sunday, the day when newer breakfast spots have lines out the door.
Raising prices in '99
Old Town has changed. Jimmy has never been worried about criminals or the mentally ill. He says he's never had a problem, never been hassled. It's just that he's lost most of his customers.
He used to make homemade spare ribs, roast chickens, stew and fried oysters.
'The people who used to eat these things, they're gone,' he says.
He had to raise his prices, too - most recently in 1999.
This is not fancy food. I had a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch one day, and an egg sandwich, which I recommend, on another. For $2.50 I got a tidy square of toasted bread, egg, lettuce and mayonnaise, with pickles on the side - and a lot of questions from Mom, as people around here call Christina, about why a nice young lady such as myself isn't married.
The Kapsopouloses are, as you might imagine, big fans of marriage. And they see a world where diners, too, are more restless and more hedonistic than they used to be.
If your corner coffee shop wasn't the best, you made jokes about it, like Tom Waits' coffee that 'wasn't strong enough to defend itself.' But you didn't stray.
John's Coffee Shop, 6 a.m. to p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to noon Saturday, closed Sunday, 301 N.W. Broadway, 503-227-4611