Maine’s Fifteen Seat Palace
Eighteen miles south of Portland, Maine, one of New England’s major food destinations and culture hubs, is the town of Biddeford - a former mill town of 20,000 people, site of New England University, and home to the Palace Diner.
It’s the Palace that will have you in line for a spot at its 15 seat counter on the weekends and nearly every day during its 8am-2pm service over the summer, a wait that nobody ever seems to mind. Currently owned by chefs Chad Conley, 31, and Greg Mitchell, 32, the dining car has been operating on Biddeford’s Main Street since 1927.
For the past few years, Biddeford been primed to become Maine’s next big food-culture Mecca. Growth has been slower than predicted, yet Conley and Mitchell’s incarnation of the Palace Diner is at the top of the list of recommendations from those plugged into Portland’s prolific dining scene.
But it’s also a hidden gem that thousands of New England foodies, even Portland locals, have never heard of.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Mitchell said. “We’re included in the dining scene of Portland by many people in [the area] but most of the press about food in Portland doesn’t include us.”
“Part of me likes not being included in that fold,” he said. “The story in Portland is that it’s such a great food scene. The story in Biddeford is about us.”
Launched in March 2014, the latest incarnation of the Palace is classic diner fare injected with the attention to detail and quality of an upscale dining experience.
“Everything we do is the best example of that thing, whether it’s a cheeseburger or pancakes,” Conley said.
Conley and Mitchell both have backgrounds in fine dining - Conley worked in Jean-Georges jacket-required restaurants in Manhattan and Mitchell has tenure at both Reynard and Gramercy Tavern - and wanted to continue with the quality of great ingredients and well crafted dishes but leave the less savory aspects of fine dining culture and establishments in their past.
“We aspired to take the fine dining attention to detail and interest in quality and bring it down to a level that is accessible to people with $10 or $20 in their pocket instead of $400 to blow on dinner,” he said.
“I’ve always approached food from a straightforward and simple place,” Mitchell said. “I have an appreciation for not toying with things; don’t fix what’s not broken. You couldn’t design a place as cool as Palace. To take that over and not mess with with what’s good, the space and that classic diner vibe, but up the food game was a really cool project.”
Business has steadily increased since Mitchell and Conley opened in 2014, and the buzz surrounding the Palace has yet to falter. “When we first came here there were one or two other businesses, Elements [cafe and bookstore] and [the art gallery] Engine, that showed people Main Street Biddeford can be really interesting,” Conley said. “And we’re definitely a part of that.”
“I love hearing that people from out of town make a point of coming to Palace,” he said.
It may not be what started it all, but when Biddeford does land as a restaurant hotspot, the Palace Diner, all 15 seats, will no doubt top the list.