FAMILIARITY MAY breed contempt, but when it comes to dining on American classics like chicken potpie or meat and potatoes, familiarity breeds puppy-eyed, tongue-wagging contentedness—at least among Portlanders, judging by the crowds that have packed the house at 50 Plates since it opened in the Pearl District in August.
Every night I entered this upscale contemporary diner—whose name plays on “50 states”—I was told that if I didn’t have a reservation, it’d be a long wait at the bar. Fine by me, since that section of the restaurant offers a much more convivial atmosphere than does the stark, and rather dark, booth-filled dining room. But no matter where I sat, I found myself surrounded by guests who appeared downright giddy as their servers brought plates of food Joe the Plumber would shed a tear for: platters of pulled-pork sliders pierced by little American flags, big bowls of chopped salad, shrimp cocktails, prime rib and mashed potatoes, and mayonnaise-slathered lobster rolls.
Of course, Joe might not like paying $18.50 for that lobster roll or $10.50 for a bowl of only slightly gussied-up mac and cheese. And the humor in some of the dishes’ names—like the Carpetbaggers Stack, a tower of filet mignon medallions and fried oysters smothered in a tangy steak sauce—might very well be lost on him. (In fact, some were lost on me.) But most of the prices at 50 Plates are quite reasonable, especially considering its location, down the street from Bruce Carey’s tony Bluehour restaurant. And if nothing else, the sight of those fresh-faced men working in the kitchen, each in a boat-shaped white paper hat, is sure to put an all-American smile on Joe’s face.
It did for me, anyway, as did that Carpetbaggers Stack: The filet mignon was cooked to a perfect medium rare, and the fried oysters held a pleasantly salty creaminess. When I did splurge for a lobster roll, it was entirely worth the money. Served on a slightly sweet, soft fennel roll and spiked with just the right amount of mayonnaise and celery, it nearly tasted better than Cape Cod’s famous lobster rolls. Nearly.
Most of the sliders on the menu are just as solidly conceived: The Lousy Hunter, a fried green tomato topped with creamy goat cheese and a tart pickle relish, offered my vegetarian friends a good reason to return, and I was quite enamored with the vinegary pulled-pork version. The Roscoe’s slider, however, didn’t quite cut it. Though the concept appealed to me, the delivery was a failure. A piece of crispy fried chicken drizzled with coffee-infused maple syrup and sandwiched between two palm-size waffles came to my table cold, and the chicken seemed somewhat rubbery (as did the waffles).
While most of the fairly standard fare at 50 Plates delivered a good dose of down-home comfort—the chicken potpie, for instance—other dishes just didn’t lift me out of my recessionista blues, particularly dishes of the deep-fried variety. Castroville artichoke rolls were merely greasy spring rolls stuffed with too much goat cheese and mashed potato and not enough artichoke. Dirty Rice Beignets—breaded and fried balls of rice and andouille sausage—stuck to my ribs with a little too much persistence. And several of the salads I’ve ordered were overdressed. When my servers noticed I hadn’t eaten much of these snacks, they always asked what I thought of them and said they’d be sure to relay my suggestions to the chefs. I’ve never eaten at a restaurant whose waitstaff was so concerned about how the food tasted.
A mixed-bag menu aside, 50 Plates certainly offers a welcome change from the usually Mediterranean/European-inspired bistro fare that’s served up in the Pearl. And I suspect that, on a psychological level, 50 Plates’ seemingly loyal patronage might be responding to the safety of familiar cuisine during tumultuous financial times. While I might not go there often for a full meal in the dining room, give me a seat at the bar, one of bartender Lance Mayhew’s superbly mixed gin rickeys or Hemingway daiquiris, and a few sliders, and I’m willing to try my best at a Happy Days smile.