A Place of Two Ambiances

I love the Limelight Restaurant. I’ve been going there for good diner food forever. What the Hell?! It’s been in existence for 20 years! I assumed it was older than that. In that case, I can confidently say that I’ve been eating there since they opened.

In 1999 I started my job at Multnomah County after having moved back to Portland from my failed experiment in Austin, Texas, trying to get hired as a “white badge” (non-contractor) at Apple. From the early days, I remember two exceptional menu items: the black bean salad, and the Santa Fe chicken sandwich, both of which reminded me, faintly, of the food in Austin. Portland versions of the food. A mere shadow of the fantastic Texas food. I digress.

The black bean salad was a green salad but included corn, black beans, tortilla chips, chicken, salsa, and sour cream. The echo was of a much better salad I would often buy at a shopping mall in Austin. When I saw it on the menu at the Limelight, I had to order it, and it became a favorite item for me. At some point, though, Limelight staff dropped it from the menu, and it has not returned, more’s the pity.

The Santa Fe chicken sandwich is still on the menu, although it has changed over the years. In its original form, it was served on a kaiser roll, with a spicy green chili sauce and pepper jack cheese on the chicken slices. So good. I would always (and still to this day) order it with a side of ranch dressing to dip it in. The roll had a hard outer crust that made biting into one a sensory delight. The modern version of it has a much more pedestrian roll, and the sauce has lost its boldness. It’s still a good sandwich, no longer a superior one.

Technically the Limelight has a restaurant side, and a lounge side, with different ambiances. The restaurant side is pure American diner, with deep booths and a couple of great window tables you can use for people-watching. Situated as it is right next to the Moreland Theater, an independently-owned, single-screen neighborhood movie house, there are times when I can gaze at the foot traffic in and out of the theater under the neon marquee, for an hour or more. 

There’s even a shuffleboard table along one wall. I have never played it.

The restaurant side is family-friendly, open and inviting, a big space for lively conversations and kids running around underfoot.

The lounge side is a windowless brick basement (even though it is not underground, merely next door), with one section of tables slightly raised by one step, several tall round tables near the tiny (but clean!) bathrooms, and two pool tables in the very darkest back corner. 

There are a few TVs scattered around, and a tiny lottery machine nook right up front by the door. The atmosphere here is cozy, and the mood can either be summed up by a group of regulars huddled at the bar reminiscing, or a crowded weekend night with no standing room at all.

The wait staff is consistently competent and charming, and they pour stiff drinks—at least for me. Can’t speak to anyone else’s experience. The ones who have been there longer know me by my name and can generally guess what I’m going to order: if it’s Tuesday they realize I want tacos (their Tuesday special tacos are terrific and cheap.) 

I am glad The Limelight is there. It is one of the places that makes Sellwood feel like home to me. I love it very much.