"How ya'll doin' today," hollered our waitress as she approached the corner booth that a couple of friends and I recently occupied at Sargent's Café. She was sassy and frank with bright blue eye shadow and a purple plaid shirt tucked into Wrangler jeans. It smelled just like the truck stop restaurant where I used to waitress, the continental breakfast-style cereal boxes looked like the ones I'd seen sold at a flea market as vintage items, a dusty record player sat atop the milkshake machine.
Sargent's Café is a place I've always wanted to go. I had high hopes of finding a diner that was completely immune to a changing world outside its doors. Native Bend friends have shared stories of childhood meals at Sargent's, of paying regular visits to a grandmother who passed the days drinking coffee and chain-smoking in the café. I even once tried to get a waitressing job here.
Our waitress wasn't sure exactly how long Sargent's has been open, but offered an estimate of around 60 years. The exterior has gone through a few facelifts (the most recent coming when a car crashed into the café one night a couple years back) and the interior showcases vestiges of various decades with nothing more recent than the 1970s.
This certainly is a diner. There is ample booth seating and a bar with spinning wooden stools that wraps around the server station and a window into the kitchen with hovering heating lamps revealing perspiring cooks. Dimly glowing rotund lights and hanging plants dangle diagonally above the booth seating.
We are the youngest diners there. Older men in baseball caps sit at the counter with mugs of coffee, newspapers and Western novels, probably dreaming of owning ranch property in Millican. A couple a few booths away bickers, the louder of the two repeatedly tells the other that he has gotten food all over his face.
The waitress makes repeated visits to check on us. We are soothed and distracted by the classic rock playing in the background, but both nervous and excited by the menu, which is extensive and overwhelming, but it is truly just an endless reorganization of staples in various categories. The lunch offerings are the most impressive; each entrée offers the option of doubling its size and is accompanied by mashed potatoes and brown gravy or fries, choice of coleslaw, soup or salad with homemade buttermilk biscuit or cornbread and chocolate or carrot cake, cookie or Jello for dessert.
We got a little creative with our ordering. One friend ordered the roast beef sandwich lunch, subbed the regular soup for a cup of chili with onions and cheese, with a biscuit and opted for the hash browns with gravy rather than mashed potatoes, but ended up getting both.
"You get a dessert too, but we'll talk about that later," said the waitress.
I ordered the country fried steak breakfast, accompanying it with a side of biscuits and gravy, which is the barometer by which I measure a breakfast. I just can't pass them up. My other friend ordered the crab omelet with bacon and Swiss cheese, added gravy to the hash brown side along with sourdough toast and one banana pancake.
Our food arrived promptly and the table was suddenly crammed with three or four times as many plates as people. Our waitress had to make several trips between the kitchen and our booth to deliver all the food and finally said, "Commence eating!" throwing her hands up in the air and chuckling a bit as she walked away.
The feast before us was plentiful and cheap, but dulled by the limited off-white-to-yellow color range typical of classic diner food out of the Wonder bread era; a time aesthetically and nostalgically charming, but dominated by carbohydrates, starches and white flour. This is, nevertheless, to be expected. Sargent's is not to be judged next to other Bend establishments that demonstrate new restaurant trends; it should just be appreciated for what it is. They close by 2:30 daily, the food is cheap, you will leave full.
719 SE 3rd St., 541-382-3916.