Café Nell

This neighborhood eatery may resemble an open and airy French bistro, but its menu suggests it’s more of a continental hybrid.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the December 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Steamed clams and chorizo at Café Nell

Image: Kim Nguyen

ONCE INHABITED by the French restaurant Café des Amis, followed by the French-inspired Hurley’s, the ivy-covered building at the corner of NW 19th Avenue and Kearney Street has finally shaken its Francophile identity—almost, anyway. Its newest tenant? Café Nell. While this neighborhood eatery may resemble an open and airy French bistro (mirrored walls, an ice bucket next to every table), its menu, featuring classic comfort food in the form of braised lamb shank, or salt cod fritters, or hanger steak and fries, suggests it’s more of a continental hybrid. Judging by the impressive number of diners seated at the dozen or so tables in the main dining room during my first visit, Café Nell may be just what Nob Hill has been waiting for. It’s casual without sacrificing refined details like cloth napkins and wine by the glass served in personal carafes, and it’s at least somewhat affordable, which in these times means entrées for less than $20. Nothing on the menu is in any way intimidating (beet salad, anyone?), which is a plus for many diners, and there’s a breakfast and lunch menu to boot. The bar isn’t a bad place to eat either, especially if you’re trying to get away from the bustle of NW 23rd Avenue. In fact, Nell’s relationship to that street mimics the relationship between France and America in some ways. It’s as though the café’s location just east of NW 23rd makes it a somewhat exotic alternative to the district’s plethora of ugly-American eateries.