Ruski’s Tavern in Portland’s West End is nothing less than an institution, and yet I had never bothered to give it a try.

For years, I had heard that the place served food that was reported to be quite good. Still, I had it in my head that it was a dingy old neighborhood bar that maybe offered one or two decent things to eat.

I was dead wrong.

Yes, Ruski’s Tavern is a true neighborhood joint, but it’s not at all dingy, and there’s plenty to choose from on the surprisingly big menu. I liked it so much, I went twice over the span of about three weeks. Here’s what I found out:

First off, Ruski’s is adorned with vintage beer-related paraphernalia, giving it a distinctly retro feel.

Second, it’s got a righteous jukebox in the corner. Sure, it’s a new-fangled digital one, but it’s got a ton of songs on it.

Third — and most important — the food is terrific.

On my first trip, I opted for the triple-layer club sandwich ($8.75). It comes with bacon and cheese and either turkey, ham or tuna salad. I went with turkey and ate every morsel, including the hearty pile of crisp, hot fries. The turkey was fresh, the bread perfectly toasted, and my request for no tomatoes was actually honored.

My dining companion went with — and raved about — the half-pound burger ($7.95). When she was unable to finish it, I had the other half for lunch the next day. Delicious.

During my next trip, I couldn’t resist the cheeseburger, and although I had to quote the old Alka-Seltzer ad when I declared, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” it went down enthusiastically and without incident. Pairing it with a draft beer, I was in comfort-food heaven.

Other Ruski’s staples include pizza (a 10-inch one-topping will run you $7.55), Mexican fare such as quesadillas ($9.95) and chili nachos ($8.95), and all the usual suspects for sandwiches ($5.50 to $12.95).

I’m pretty sure that for my next visit, I’ll order from the list of “Ruski’s Dinners” that includes Southern-fried chicken with slaw and mashed potatoes ($9.95) and fish & chips ($9.95).

The other marvelous thing about Ruski’s is the brunch menu, which is available all day. From eggs and hash to waffles and omelets, they’ve got the bases covered. With a friendly staff, the Red Sox game on mute and some good old-fashioned staples, I dare say I may soon become a Ruski’s regular.

The features staff of The Portland Press Herald anonymously samples meals for about $7.


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