PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – For as much traffic that passes through the intersection of NW Skyline Boulevard and NW Cornell Road in Portland’s West Hills every day, the intersection doesn’t look overly impressive. Just one flashing red light hanging above, supported by guide wires, announcing the four-way stop.
The restaurant that sits on the southwestern corner of that same intersection doesn’t look overly impressive either. The building is quaint and looks recently painted. The parking lot is a patchwork of loose gravel and some small potholes. The drive-in speaker boxes are remnants of a bygone era. The sign out front lays claim to the “best burgers in Portland.”
Inside, the kitchen is buzzing. The burgers are hot. The fries are perfectly salted. The milkshakes are creamy and cold. The customers are happy.
Welcome to Skyline Restaurant. The iconic drive-in diner that has been serving Portlanders by the thousands every year for the past seven decades.
“It’s the crossroads in the middle of nowhere. People are just as likely to come to Skyline because they got lost,” said Michelle Nelson, the current owner of Skyline Restaurant. “They’re looking for a gas station or they’re way far away from where they’re supposed to be. And they come in for lunch, then they come back.”
Nelson purchased the drive-in and diner in June of 1999. Her grandmother had actually managed it when Nelson was younger.
“I pretty much grew up in that building,” she said.
Originally known as The Speck, Skyline Restaurant opened in the 1930s and rose to prominence in the Portland restaurant community in the mid-1950s. As parts of Portland’s burger scene evolved into the eclectic and experimental in recent years, Skyline remains true to its original roots of classic American Diner fare.
“We’re famous for burgers and shakes,” Nelson said. “We have vegetarian options. We have salads. We always run monthly specials. But, for classic Skyline it’s a burger. And you can’t do it without a milkshake.”
Anna Mehrer, does digital marketing and consulting for Skyline. She agreed with Nelson’s description of the fare that keeps bringing customers back year after year.
“I would say [it is] the classic American burger joint,” Mehrer said. “They do have brioche buns for some of their specials but that’s not the kind of place you would go for that. You know, this is classic American style.”
While the Portland restaurant scene has taken a huge hit thanks to the pandemic and the economic fallout that followed, Skyline has remained open through it all and they are currently looking for more help.
“We are hiring for cooks, dishwashers, servers,” Nelson said. “Probably a part-time and/or a full- time for each position.”
Both Nelson and Mehrer credit the community for helping ensure the diner made it through some lean years, both current and historic.
“It’s the last standing operating drive-in still in the city,” Nelson said. “It’s never been closed since its original opening. Snow days aside.
“The amount of generations of families that I’ve been able to wait on and get to know has been incredible. It’s this tiny little burger spot in the middle of nowhere. And it’s just so full of love in Portland history. It’s just one of a kind. There isn’t another place like that.”
“You know, I don’t work there every day like Michelle does and almost every time I go in I meet somebody who has some kind of historic connection,” Mehrer added.
Although Skyline has, to this point, survived the pandemic in large part because of their connection to their customers, the last 22 months have not been easy.
“It’s been hard,” Nelson said. “We kind of went down to a skeleton staff for a few months for everybody’s safety and whatnot. It’s been hard. It’s less money. It’s more crankiness out of people. We’re still all together and we’re still doing it. But it’s been exhausting.
“COVID sucked for everybody. I know that we’re not alone. I really feel for all the service industry.”
As the pandemic hopefully begins to fade, Nelson stands by the food her staff serves and the place Skyline holds in the Portland community from a little perch at a busy intersection in Northwest Portland.
“We are not going anywhere,” she said. “The Skyline is not going anywhere.”