A Look Back on a Century of Portland Burger Joints
Locals welcomed New York City import Shake Shack to downtown Portland with open arms this spring. Many wait with bated breath for news of an in-town In-N-Out Burger, the California chain that has been creeping up I-5. But we’ve never needed out-of-state bigwigs to give us our burger fix. The city and its surroundings have a long history of burger joints, drive-ins, and drive-throughs. Here’s a look back at some of the bun masters.
1926 Winford P. Yaw opens a 13-stool spot in Hollywood. “That was really the start of hamburgers being popular in Portland,” longtime sandwich shop owner Elston Ireland told an interviewer in an oral history recording in 1980. Ten years after opening, Yaw’s moves into a larger location a block away, and later adds car-hop service and takeout options. It makes another move to an even larger location in 1955, with more room to serve cars. “The way that Yaw went, well, the others tried to follow,” said Ireland. “Yaw was the leader in the United States for many years. People in the restaurant industry, when they came to Portland, that was the first place they wanted to go.”
1930s–60s “The only reason you went there was to show off your car or your girlfriend, or find a new girlfriend,” an old regular told Oregon Historical Society interviewer Curtis Johnson in 1980, describing the greaser-and-soc scene at Yaw’s, the Speck, and the 24-hour TikTok. The Speck (also the original name of Skyline Restaurant, opened in 1935) has a following for its burger, but as nearly a dozen new Specks open around town—including in the striking, round-awninged former Bart’s near the intersection of SE Foster and Powell—it becomes better known for selling Kentucky Fried Chicken. The idea of an equal opportunity employer hasn’t really taken hold yet. In Oregonian want ads, the Speck on Skyline asks for a “young lady” to hop cars, while Whizburger (its disturbing neon sign shows just the lips of a person consuming food) asks for a “high school grad or young married woman.” The first Burgerville opens in Vancouver in 1961.
1970s–1990s For a while Portland has as many locations of Utah-based Arctic Circle and California-founded A&W as it does McDonald’s, especially after Arctic Circle takes over a lot of old Herfy’s locations. Yaw’s goes on an expansion kick but eventually shutters (a 21st-century revival doesn’t work out, either), as do most other midcentury standard bearers from the drive-in heyday, except for NE Sandy survivor Jim Dandy.
2000s The millennium kicks off with opposition to a new McDonald’s (in what had been an Arby’s and an Arctic Circle) on SE Hawthorne, with residents citing not just the traffic and safety issues around the proposed drive-thru but a clash with the area’s identity. Eliot neighborhood resistance and Design Commission specifics kill a similar plan on MLK just south of NE Fremont.
2010s Micah Camden and Katie Poppe’s Little Big Burger opens in the Pearl and soon starts expanding to new locations around Portland. The chainlet is sold to an investment group in 2015, and LBBs start popping up outside of Oregon in 2016. Another major local restaurateur, John Gorham, gets into the game with Bless Your Heart Burgers inside the Pine Street Market in 2017, with a brick-and-mortar opening two years later. Camden and a different partner start the LBB process anew in 2018 when they open the first of several SuperDeluxe burger joints, in an old TacoTime (on the same block as a former Speck) on SE Powell.
2020s While California’s In-N-Out Burger creeps ever closer, NYC-based Shake Shack opens in Beaverton’s Cedar Hills in 2021, and follows with a primo spot in downtown Portland across the street from Powell’s City of Books. Closer to home, Mike’s Drive-In, a stalwart of the southern suburbs since 1971, expands to Tigard in 2022 and to North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood in 2023, in a former US Bank branch. “We knew we wanted a drive-thru, and drive-thrus are very difficult in Portland,” says Jason Taylor, a Mike’s co-owner since 2019, of the serendipity of finding a bank building. The old ATM is now a walk-up window, a feature Taylor says is “kind of a bygone-era thing ... but it’s also something that’s part of our DNA.”