A pothead, and a Harvard grad. The son of a Hollywood director. A gifted gabber, who could recite stats on every boxing champion in history. A man who would laugh at the fact that you’ve probably never heard of him. Yet make no mistake: if you eat out in today’s Portland, you know Michael Vidor, even though he died in 2000. The prolific restaurateur is soaked into the DNA of our food city: he replaced “fine dining” with a bohemian vision of come-as-you-are excellence, curiosity, and rigor.
In 1969, the former TV producer didn’t have a clue when it came to running a restaurant. No matter. He knew what he liked: no fussy food, no pretension.
Enter L’Auberge, his tumbledown storefront on West Burnside, which stood as Portland’s first low-rent haute-comfort restaurant, filled with flaming crêpes suzette and coquilles St. Jacques; it was Le Pigeon 13 years before Gabriel Rucker was born. (Vidor once confessed to me for a 1984 Willamette Week profile: “[At first] we didn’t know what we were doing…. The willingness of Portland to accept such a blatantly fraudulent French restaurant says something about Portland that’s nice for me.”) Two years later his next project, Genoa, presaged the way the city geeks out about food, preparing all-evening Northern Italian feasts at a time when basil had to be homegrown, because no one sold it. At both places, you could show up in jeans and eat the best food in town. In so many ways, that spirit has never left us.
Before leaving Portland in 1984, the city’s original quirky food impresario also started The Wood Stove and Tanuki, one of America’s first Japanese yakitori grills. (Tanuki chef Bob Shimabukuro arrived with the ideal résumé for a Vidor employee: expert in Japanese carpentry, former Reed physics student, no food experience; he built the place, then Vidor made him chef.) Vidor also cofounded another legend, Macheezmo Mouse, an arty-healthy Mexican chain that briefly looked poised for a national breakout success.
Each project encapsulated the best of Portland: food first, personal expression above all else. “Michael always anticipated a food trend,” says former L’Auberge cook June Reznikoff. “You look back and, oh my god: Wood Stove was American comfort. Genoa, the first tasting menus. Tanuki, the Japanese wave.” We bet Vidor is still laughing (and toking), somewhere.
Descendants: Five groundbreaking spots in two decades? We haven’t seen his like since.