For decades, the neon sign of the Roxy diner has glowed on SW Harvey Milk Street, a beacon for hungover brunchers, teenagers seeking late-night pancakes, and — in particular — LGBTQ Portlanders, looking for a respite after nights at Darcelle’s or Scandals. Early on in the pandemic, the diner closed, boarding up its windows with plywood. The diner briefly reopened and closed in late 2020, and finally, in June of 2021, the Roxy fully reopened — not for 24-hour service, but still flipping massive pancakes and chicken-frying steaks, hosting drag shows in the street outside the building in what’s now called Pride Plaza. Nonetheless, on March 20 — after less than a year post-reopening — the Roxy will close permanently.
In a Wednesday evening Facebook post, the team at the Roxy noted that the diner has been struggling since March 2020, and hasn’t been able to recoup the losses. When the diner first tried to reopen, in February 2021, owner Suzanne Hale says a fire and resulting water damage forced the diner to stay closed for another four months. When the city decided to rehabilitate the building, Hale says they were pushed out. “We’ve just been losing money since the pandemic,” the closing announcement reads. “Staffing is hard enough these days, (for everyone) but with the building rehab looming, it’s nearly impossible.”
Between repairing water damage, mounting expenses, and COVID-19, owner Suzanne Hale says that the idea of moving the diner and staying afloat was untenable. “The Roxy, it’s a 24-hour place; the night shift is what paid the bills,” Hale says. “Graveyard is not coming back, downtown is broken ... I have no choice, I’m out of money.”
Gabriel Matthews, a spokesperson for the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB), says the building’s rehabilitation was necessary, especially considering the building needed to meet 115 years worth of updated safety codes; however, PHB had hoped to help keep the Roxy in business by assisting with relocation. “As the rehab will take two to three years, our focus was on trying to help the Roxy stay in business rather than assuring them they’d have a space to come back to in the Fairfield,” Matthews says. “The extensive layout changes ... will likely not allow for retail/restaurant space in the Roxy’s current location. The rehab will also aim to provide more usable space on the ground floor for the very-low-income residents, many of whom are highly-mobility challenged.”
The Hollywood-themed Roxy opened in 1994, in the heart of Portland’s “Burnside triangle,” “pink triangle” or “vaseline alley.” It was an area known for its queer-friendly businesses, with a high concentration of LGBTQ bars and clubs. For decades, Hale — the Lovely Suzanne — has been the diner’s matriarch, arriving at 6:30 a.m. to make coffee and sweep cigarette butts from the curb.
In the following years, the Roxy became a haven among Portland’s LGBTQ youth: It was one of the few explicitly queer places someone under the age of 18 could frequent. “Sophomore year, the owner, ‘The Lovely Suzanne,’ came in to speak at a GSA meeting,” Thom Hilton writes in a Portland Monthly piece. “She wore pounds of makeup and a gown fit for a Pride parade; a Lunchtime Diva Queen in a hallway packed with snickering lacrosse bros. I remember Suzanne telling us how the Roxy wasn’t just a diner: it was a safe space for anyone who had nowhere else to go.”
“I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up, and make it,” Hale says. “I would be tough on them. I’d say, ‘If you’re going to be in here, you’ll behave,’ in a mom way ... but you watch these kids grow up, into productive, contributing people — there are a hundred stories like that.”
But the Roxy was truly for everyone: Tourists came by for brunch; workers would pop in for a quick morning egg and coffee. High school students would roll through the Roxy after cast parties or proms. They’d eat sandwiches and breakfast plates named for Hollywood stars and queer icons, Oregon celebrities and pop culture legends: One might sit down to a John Waters Sandwich with black forest ham and cheese; another may dunk Terry Sidie’s Chicken Strippers in ranch. It named dishes as memorials to people lost — from Robin Williams to long-standing customers. Soon, the Roxy itself may end up on a menu elsewhere, a testament to its legacy as a true Portland landmark.
The Roxy is open for limited hours through the 20th, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or later, depending on business). It’s located at 1121 SW Harvey Milk Street. Eater Portland has reached out to the Portland Housing Bureau for more information, and this story will be updated with more information.
Updated March 17, 2022, at 6:14 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from owner Suzanne Hale.
Correction, March 18, 2022, 12:33 p.m.: This story was corrected to show Eater reached out to the Portland Housing Bureau, not the Portland Housing Authority.
Updated March 22, 2022, 12:29 p.m.: This story was updated to include comment from the Portland Housing Bureau.