Come the height of January, Portland’s evening skies roil, moonless and inky, like Homer’s wine-dark seas. But at Wayfinder Beer in (still) gritty Southeast Industrial, all is warmth and light. A fire pit flickers on an already glowing, fragrant cedar deck. Straw-colored lager shines through thick German steins. And just beyond the brick-lined interior, the kitchen’s massive, custom-welded wood grill smokes with a shaky promise for beer geeks who take their pub grub as seriously as their lagers.
Opened in October after nearly a year of delays, the ambitious 9,000-square-foot gastro-brewery sits between loading docks and trolley tracks in the shadow of lower East Burnside’s now-towering new high rises. Rodney Muirhead of Podnah’s Pit and La Taq captains the “slightly refined” food program. So it’s no surprise that steak frites and perfectly turned sausages are Wayfinder’s north star, brightened further by a crisp, mustard-seed-studded house sauerkraut, smoked prime rib, and fall-off-the-bone duck confit. Other dishes veer off course. A glistening, mahogany-skinned chicken al carbon was pitch-perfect one day, overbrined and rubbery the next. Baby back ribs look magnificent, crusted in coffee-black jerk spice and rosy pink, but take serious jaw strength to tackle. In general, vegetable dishes feel like an afterthought: an underwhelming farro salad, an overdressed Caesar, broccolini tossed with olive oil, then coal-singed to limpness.
Muirhead says Wayfinder is, for now, intentionally meat-and-potatoes, with the aim to ease into a seasonal vegetable program down the line. Likewise, the brewery’s 10-barrel brewing apparatus, positioned in full view of patrons, was still in the works at press time. Even so, there’s plenty to drink at Wayfinder—its gorgeous interim list of German guest beers to start. Head brewer Kevin Davey, formerly of Firestone Walker and Gordon Biersch, will eventually focus on lagers. For now, it’s no sacrifice to sip hard-to-find half-liters of Weihenstephan Original Helles and Flensburger Pilsener, chased with an off-menu digestif of caraway-infused house aquavit. Order carefully, maybe a bratwurst or kielbasa with grain beer mustard and a dab of nose-clearing horseradish. Then sit back with your feet to the fire, and imagine this as the all-weather center of Portland’s rapidly transforming industrial east side. For the journey, there’s no more comfortable perch.