Mehmed Ali was once a familiar man-about-town in Lowell, but now he is more like a man-about-world, having been in Iraq working for the US government for the past two years. He is back in the area for a few days on a short break from his assignment with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq. Ali had something special in mind for today, and he asked me to join him on a ride to Maine. Our destination was Biddeford and the Palace Diner, which is billed as “Maine’s Oldest Diner” (est. 1926). There had to be a Lowell connection for Ali, of course, and there it was stamped on a metal seal affixed to the steel cooking hood above the grill: “Made by the Pollard Dining Car Company, Lowell, Mass.”
But back to the start. We set out about 8 am, pressing north up 495 and 95 through the near-peak roadside foliage. Traffic was light, so we sailed along, arriving at our turn, Exit 32, at about 9.30 am. The outskirts of Biddeford look like a typical edge city with shopping centers, car dealers, and gas stations spreading out from the highway interchange.
We headed for the core of the city, which is predominantly red brick. Biddeford is an old textile town, a sister city to Saco, Maine. Powered by the swift flowing Saco River, vast textile complexes rose along the banks, most of which remain today. For a community of 22,000, Biddeford has an urban feeling. The commercial district downtown extends for several blocks down to the river’s edge.
The Palace Diner would be easy to miss if you were not on the hunt for it. The small red-and-white dining car planted at 18 Franklin Street is about the size of Arthur’s Paradise Diner on Bridge Street in Lowell. Picture Arthur’s without the booths. The Palace boasts ten round silver seats at the counter. That’s it. With its excellent reputation for breakfast and limited hours (6 to 10.30 am daily), I expected to find a crowd at the Palace. I imagined something like Al’s Breakfast place in the Dinkytown section of Minneapolis, Minn., which is only ten-feet wide and has 14 counter seats. It’s so popular that people line up behind the stools and wait for the person eating to finish. The line extends outside. But it was a quiet day in Biddeford. We opened the door to find two other patrons. We sat down and were waited on by a pleasant woman whose family roots ran to Lynn, Mass. The cook was in the back. When he heard we had come up from Lowell to see the diner, he brought out two photos of another of the Pollard Dining Cars, somewhere in New England.
The food met all expectations. We ordered the highly praised hash as a side dish, and added to that a main selection of blueberry pancakes. Ali also got an egg and toast. He had orange juice while I drank coffee out of a classic white mug. The fluffy pancakes were filled with berries. We were tempted to bring back a couple of gigantic blueberry muffins that were sitting on a covered plate behind the counter, but held off.
To walk off the two-meal quantity breakfast, we wandered down to the industrial zone and the river. Despite one local businessman’s complaint that downtown Biddeford is a ghost town (he’s moving his thrift shop to Welles, Maine), we saw lots of construction going on at former textile complexes. The headline of the local weekly paper mentioned a $1.4 million mill rehab underway. A couple of large brick buildings had been renovated and transformed into residences. The thrift-shop guy pointed out 11 empty storefronts on the main street, but we also saw several restaurants, small stores, and offices that appeared to be going concerns: Irish, Thai, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants; used record and bookstores; a few seedy tattoo and nail shops; lawyers and accountants; etc. At 11 am the downtown was fairly deserted. I can’t argue that point with the guy. Banners on the light poles featured the founding date of Biddeford: 1630.
When we got to the bridge over the Saco River, Ali said, This is the connection to the Saco-Lowell Shops, the maker of textile machinery. The company’s roots go back to 1813 with Francis Cabot Lowell’s founding of the Boston Mfg. Co. and the start of an ironworks in Saco, Maine. The two companies eventually came together as the Saco-Lowell, which operated until 1949 (details thanks to companydatabase.org). We wound our way through the mill yards and alleys until we found a back lot that opened onto the river right at Saco Falls downtown, where the river spills over a dam and drops about 20 feet. Sheets of white water threw themselves down onto black slabs of stone, mixing in foamy dark pools, some of the water eddying back onto itself and swirling into lower pools before sliding into the river, about 30 yards wide where we stood. Ali took pictures all morning, so let’s hope he sends a few along to rh.com. If you haven’t been to Biddeford, it’s an easy ride north. Go early for breakfast at the Palace Diner.
The prize foliage was along Route 133 in Tewksbury, where the huge maple trees had turned to the color of candy corn. On one stretch just before the Lowell city line, there must have been a dozen massive specimens in royal gold, orange, and crimson.