Sellwood's 'Bertie Lou's': One of Portland's last true diners
In the corner of Sellwood where Spokane Street meets S.E. 17th is a quirky breakfast café called Bertie Lou's.
It's not any bigger than a studio apartment, and is built onto the front of a house. It offers seven tables – in addition to a half-moon-shaped counter with its backless stools, where customers can converse with the short-order cooks who are busy in the kitchen.
Waitresses have to squeeze through customers and other staff while delivering a steaming plate of ham steak and eggs, or perhaps a three-cheese omelet sprinkled with pepper jack cheese. Arriving customers have to wait for a seat outside on the sidewalk, since there isn't any room inside for a waiting area.
Bertie Lou's opened in 1945, a time when over 97,000 men were working at Portland's Kaiser Shipyards. Many of the workers were boarding in Clackamas County, and had to travel through Sellwood on their way to work – so it wasn't unusual for Bertie Lou's to be their first stop before the horn signaled the start of their day at the 'yards.
As reported in one of our previous history stories in THE BEE, the now-gone Kellogg Creek Housing Development opened in 1942, with over 100 homes occupying the land, and was just a mere twenty blocks south of Bertie Lou's. It was almost a daily ritual for workers coming and going from the Kellogg housing area at all times of the day and night to stop in for a bite at Bertie Lou's. In addition to breakfast, the diner served lunch from noon until 8 p.m.
When it opened, the little luncheonette had only nine seats and a counter, with no tables available for extra seating. Customers often ordered a brown-bag lunch to go, stopped for a quick morning coffee to start their workday, or to end the evening with a piece of pie.
According to local legend, H.E. Hall presented the dainty diner as a graduation present to his two daughters. The café was named in their honor – Bertie and Lou. But there the mystery deepens. In a 1945 December issue of the THE BEE, an ad for the eatery announces "I'm hurrying to Bertie Lews for a meal that really hits the spot." Either it was a typo by the newspaper, or the owner of the business decided to rename it Bertie Lou's in the following year. Whatever the case may be, the name today remains what it was in 1946.
Small in size, the space rented by Howard Hall was only 10 by 20 feet, so he didn't have to invest much capital in furnishing the restaurant. A barber shop adjacent to Bertie Lou's run by John Rekart was established in the 1930's, and continued until the café arrived. If the lunch counter at Bertie's was backed up with waiting customers, you could always put your name on the wait list, dash next door and get a haircut, and get back in the nick of time for your breakfast order.
If that origin story is true, evidently the girls weren't as elated over their graduation gift as H.E Hall intended – because, after three years, a new owner had taken over the business. After the end of World War II, the Kaiser Shipyards had been shut down, most of its employees had been laid off, and the workers – female and male – had gone elsewhere. The industrial and factory workers who once patronized Bertie's Diner left the state, or relocated to another section of the city closer to their new jobs.
The new owners had a similar last name, but were not related to Howard Hall. Fred and Clarice Hill struggled to keep the restaurant running for a brief time, until Betty Shaw turned up to buy them out. Betty, who was operating the diner in 1950 with her husband Jasper, would become one of the neighborhood's most memorable ladies – working behind the counter, and serving longtime residents, for the next 29 years. Bertie Lou's was the family-friendly establishment where folks gathered for weekend brunch, or shared coffee with a friend, or grabbed an empty stool for a slice of the award-winning County Fair apple pie.
Back during the war, Betty herself had worked in the shipyards as a welder, and previously had grown up in the Oak Grove neighborhood, south of Milwaukie. It wouldn't be surprising to many that Bertie Lou's was the first place she stopped before off heading out to her own job the shipyards. Sitting at the counter with a hot beverage in hand, she may well have dreamed of owning her own restaurant, and making sure that homemade pie was on the menu.
Now, with Betty and Jasper in charge, Bertie Lou's became a Sellwood institution over the years. Baked pies were a lunchtime specialty, and were kept in a three-tiered glass case at the end of the tiny customer counter. Helping build her reputation as a character, many residents who visited the café remarked on her caustic attitude. If a customer was too demanding when placing an order, or brought a herd of undisciplined children into to the café, she would simply refuse to serve them a meal. Apparently, Betty wasn't worried about restaurant reviews when she was on duty, but people still continued to support her neighborhood café.
Betty continued to run Bertie Lou's well into her seventies, when her health and her busy work schedule started catching up with her. She began to start looking for a potential new proprietor who would keep the longtime restaurant in the neighborhood, and wouldn't change the name.
Eventually Janet Taylor, who had waitressed there for six years and had worked with Betty, decided to buy the classic diner. But Betty died before the sale papers could be signed, and it looked like the popular café that everyone knew might have to close. Worse yet, Betty and Jasper had no relatives to inherit their possessions, so all of their property was simply willed to friends.
But, happily, these friends of Betty's happened to be the boss of Janet's husband, Jeff. Knowing that Betty had indeed wished the Taylors to purchase her café, a contract was prepared to sell them Bertie Lou's as well as the house that was attached to the rear of the tiny restaurant.
So, by 1980, the Taylors were the new owners, and Janet became the waitress, assistant cook, and bookkeeper for the business. Janet spent endless hours baking and preparing the food in their attached house, destined to be served from the diner's kitchen the next morning.
As mentioned in the "Living" section of the Oregonian newspaper in 1987, Janet offered homemade buttermilk biscuits and cinnamon rolls to morning customers. However, the menu was changing from homestyle lunches to food typically found in the fast-serve restaurants of the time – sandwiches, soups, and hamburgers – and everything on the menu was available for less than $5.00. The breakfast specialty became the "Famous Monty's Omelet", which consisted of hamburger, tomatoes, and onions, without any cheese. But once again, change was on the way.
In 1985, Harriet Fasenfest rented Bertie Lou's from the Taylor family. Fasenfest overhauled the old standard breakfast of hotcakes and hash browns, introducing some of her favorite recipes, which included blueberry and gingerbread pancakes. Customers were treated to unconventional items like scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, pancakes with apple compote, and even lemon waffles. Weekends found a line forming at the glass door composed of people who didn't even live in the community, but wanting to taste the sensational new breakfasts. Although a single mother, with one child and absolutely no restaurant experience, Fasenfest took the Sellwood and Westmoreland diners by storm.
Menus were decorated in pink and aqua, and orders were taken by a waitstaff dressed in the same colors. Gone was the atmosphere of an old diner with a grumpy waitress who wore a dirty apron. Harriet Fasenfest changed Bertie Lou's from being "just a diner" into a top gourmet experience!
The energetic and creative Fasenfest planned on turning the tiny café into a franchise, envisioning a succession of small diners built across the country to be called "Harriet's Eat Now Café". She was successful in establishing the "Groundswell Café" and two "Harriet's Eat Now Cafés" in Portland. One of the Harriet's Eat Now Cafés was also located in Sellwood, and the other was in Old Town in Northwest Portland.
For the previous 40 years the little luncheonette could only offer nine built-in stools for its customers, with no tables available at which to sit down. Fasenfest decided that Bertie Lou's needed a total makeover, and that this could only be accomplished by opening up the southern section of the structure that once housed various barbershops, a chimney sweep, an electrical store, and other assorted shops throughout its history. The additional space gained by the expansion increased the customer serving area by one third, and clientele no longer left in haste because of the long wait time for an available seat at the counter.
Alas, Fasenfest's career and entrepreneurial skills in Portland were doomed to end suddenly. Now that Bertie Lou's was successfully drawing customers as it once did, Janet Taylor decided to return and take over the café that she had rented out to Harriet on a temporary basis. When Harriet Fasenfest found herself unable to purchase the diner, she moved to Georgia with her new husband, where she continued her career in the restaurant field, along with gardening, teaching, and writing.
Entering the 1990's, more of Portland's small diners began closing, as fast food restaurants such as McDonalds, Burger King, Burgerville, and Mike's Drive In nearby on 17th Avenue as well as in Milwaukie, grew in popularity. Many new customers preferred sitting alone at a table with their computers rather than having a casual get together with family and friends.
In 2001, Robert Erickson bought the tiny café from Alexandria Osmer, who had by then operated Bertie's for five years. Robert was intrigued that, over its 55-year history, in good times and bad, Bertie Lou's had always drawn a crowd.
He revamped the menu, adding Eggs Benedict, Omelets, and Scramble specialties, and created a campy menu with the expectation that customers would read it from front to back. "I wanted a menu for customers who weren't sure what they wanted to eat, but would know what to order once they finished reading it," he explained in a recent phone interview.
This writer's favorite is the "Reverend Mike special". The story goes that Mike was a cook at Bertie Lou's, but also an ordained minister. And reportedly, Reverend Mike even performed a wedding at the café. Considering the space available in the café, the guest list must have been very short.
Today, the latest owner, Daniel Gaard, tells us that he came on board as a weekend cook working for Robert at Bertie Lou's. During his years as right-hand man to the owner, Robert kept suggesting to Daniel that he buy Bertie Lou's, and continue its tradition of being one of Portland's last little diners in the city. He finally did, and he hasn't changed much on the menu, in the belief that he shouldn't be changing things that the customers come for. "And, if visitors want to know what the daily special is, they'll have to stop by the café," he says.
In the summertime, additional tables and wooden benches are available for customers outside on the sidewalk, where 15 to 20 guests can be served. But beware – they do fill up fast because, as we all know, when the sun comes out in Oregon, outside seating is at a premium. So as you see, Bertie Lou's is much more than just a breakfast or lunch stop; it's a place to sit down and find out about the person sitting next to you. And Daniel and his waitstaff can fill you in on the latest local events and happenings in the community. The little diner is full of stories and tales. As Robert Erickson remarks, "When you dine at Bertie Lou's, you get a feel of what the Sellwood community is like."