At Long Last, Portland Chefs Lift the Curfew on Fine Dining
OVER THE PAST DECADE, many of the big-city chefs and foodies who’ve helped to fuel Portland’s dining renaissance have found themselves perplexed. How could a city of Portland’s size and stature have so few decent late-night dining options?
During the day and into the evening, Portland’s ambitious culinary scene offers a cornucopia of fresh, imaginative food. But as the clock ticks toward 10 p.m., dining options shrink drastically—macaroni at Le Bistro Montage, or a “fourth meal” from the Taco Bell drive-through? Well, creatures of the night can now rejoice. Portland’s finest chefs are finally filling the void.
Nostrana, for instance, earned a faithful following with its bistecca alla Fiorentina, a porterhouse the size of your head, and its heavenly butterscotch budino (an Italian custard). But chef Cathy Whims’s newly minted late-night menu is luring a different crowd. From 9 to 11 p.m. on the weekends (9 to 10 p.m. on weeknights), you can savor this religiously seasonal Italian restaurant’s authentic thin-crusted Neapolitan-style pizza Margherita or pizza marinara ($5). Throw down another five-spot for Whims’s Insalata Nostrana, a fistful of radicchio tossed in an anchovy-rich, Caesar-esque dressing and addictive rosemary-sage croutons. Wash it all down with a Campari and soda ($4), offered every night of the week.
A few blocks away in the Central East Side, Biwa’s dimly lit dining room has long been the watering hole of choice for Portland’s off-duty chefs. Now, this Japanese-style pub has morphed into an alluring nighttime noshing destination. In June, chef Gabe Rosen extended Biwa’s hours until midnight and debuted a late-night menu that includes such staples as skewered chicken thighs ($3) and miso-drenched scallops grilled over an open flame ($8). You’ll also find the city’s best Hawaiian-style maguro poke ($11), cubes of crimson-colored raw tuna tossed in a punchy, ginger-spiked shoyu brine. The true stars of the show, though, are the yakionigiri ($2): hunks of white rice, the size and shape of soup cans, brushed with a teriyaki glaze and grilled to achieve the perfect level of crunch. Biwa’s four-dollar pints of Sapporo have few better friends.
These nocturnal menus aren’t the exclusive preserve of the innovative kitchens of inner Southeast. The long-empty space at the corner of SW Sixth Avenue and Oak Street in downtown Portland is now home to the Original, a 200-seat restaurant that serves up playful takes on American diner fare until midnight on the weekends. Late-night offerings include buttermilk biscuits smothered with sausage-studded gravy ($6.50), French Canadian poutine (fries, cheese curds, and gravy for $7.25), and the delectable Scotch egg ($4.75), a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and panko, then lightly fried.
That’s only the beginning. Departure, perched 15 stories high atop the Nines Hotel, delivers such epicurean treats as foie gras–stuffed Kobe beef meatballs ($15) past midnight. Noble Rot, which recently relocated to the building that also houses Rocket, at E Burnside Street and SE 11th Avenue, now offers its renowned wine flights to complement dishes like a butternut squash panino ($6) until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays (accompanied by the city’s best downtown views). In Northeast Portland, Micah Camden’s fourth eatery, Fats, will offer English pub fare—bangers and mash, spotted dick, and chicken tikka masala—until midnight beginning in mid-August. Even in Northwest Portland, where attending to post-9 p.m. hunger pangs usually means nachos with the youngsters at the Gypsy Velvet Lounge, longtime Genoa chef Jerry Huisinga’s Bar Mingo is now serving simple, delicious, and inexpensive eats until midnight on the weekends.
Lament no longer, night owls. Thanks to the city’s increasing size and sophistication—or the growing number of locals with flexible schedules—late-night dining has arrived in Portland. “It’s added an entirely new and dynamic element to Biwa,” Gabe Rosen says. “[Late night is] more casual and laid-back than our normal hours, and it’s allowing us to reach out to a more diverse set of customers. It’s a total win-win.”