It took sipping one of Angel Face’s no-name cocktails, always a collaboration between bartender and customer, to realize that harebrained food philosopher John Taboada and design-savvy shopkeeper Giovanna Parolari are still redefining what makes Portland a strange and wonderful food city, years after they got started. The couple now owns three east-side spots, each completely different from one another—and from anything else in Portland. But threads connect them, from the intentional design to a certain personal voodoo that makes food, drink, and magic happen at tiny tables. Step right in.
Big Idea: Long before most Portlanders heard of “small-plates eating,” Navarre smashed the traditional dining template. That could mean one dish or 12, or dessert first if you like, and a mad dive into French and Italian wines, with 80 options by the glass. Taboada wanted the space to have the feel of a park bench, diners side by side at teeny tables, with a kind of lawlessness hovering in the air. “I get anxious when tables are too far apart,” Taboada says. “Sure, lots of plates don’t fit, but you can talk and hear, be close. I like that.” An icon of extreme farm-to-table eating since 2001, the storefront now buzzes as the headquarters for young Japanese travelers in search of “authentic Portland.”
Inspiration: No one embraces the farm focus more completely: 90 percent of Navarre’s produce grows within city limits. Navarre commits to one farm only, never knowing what will be delivered, in essence sharing the risks and rewards of farm life—which is why you might find yourself digging into weird pickles and gnarly roasted vegetables, roots and all.
Eating Strategy: The long, ever-changing list is like Euro-inflected dim sum: grab whatever looks good. First stops should be lamb, duck, pâté, greens, and a countertop of cakes and pies.
Big Idea: This reimagined mom-and-pop shop evokes small-town Italy. Even the floor-to-ceiling grocery shelves, stocked with imported foodstuffs, are candlelit. (The room could be mistaken for a ladylike hardware store.) Tiny oak tables carry the kitchen’s paean to honest Italian food: fresh pastas, focaccias, and olive oil cake. Open since 2011, the Italian gem surged this year, delivering consistently wonderful food without fuss.
Inspiration: On frequent jaunts to Italy, the pair seek out the “old-men places,” where the village gents play cards and drink chinato—because, as Taboada puts it, “old people know shit.”
Wine Philosophy: “I’m not worried about this region or that vintage,” says Parolari. “I care about what goes with food, what I want left in my mouth.” The idea rings through a well-chosen Italian list priced to drink, with $5 house pours and bottles at retail prices.
Eating Strategy: The hanger steak sums up Luce: each slice brushed with rosemary oil, then quickly seared in a super-hot pan—just enough to get the juices flowing. But first, party on the $2 antipasti, slurp a soulful cappelletti in brodo (stuffed pasta in broth), and make hay on pastas topped with rabbit stew or dead-perfect garlic and clams. Finish with panna cotta so light it almost levitates.
Big Idea: Less a “bar” than a meticulous jewel box and feminine soul mate to its rough-edged neighbor, Navarre, Angel Face is a Coco Chanel among the city’s Paul Bunyan-esque watering holes. Opened last March, Angel Face glows in Parolari’s great brainstorm: pink walls, painstakingly hand-painted with lush blue flowers. At a mere eight feet across, the U-shaped marble bar was built for dinner-table intimacy: “Everyone is in front of you,” Taboada explains. “You feel the energy of conversation around you.”
Inspiration: The stained-glass cherub above the bar is “Angel Face,” house muse and tribute to Taboada’s mentor, the late chef Robert Reynolds, Portland’s fierce defender of the French table. No one would better appreciate a Portland bar serving Lyonnaise onion soup than Reynolds.
Eating/Drinking Strategy: There’s no drink list. What are you in the mood for? Sharpshooting bartenders Kelly Swensen and Tim Davey are up to the task, adding layers of complexity to your dream manhattan (with a double dose of bitters and French griotte cherries). Pair your cocktail with the surf-and-turf makeover of the year: a raw oyster, surrounded by a pinwheel of condiments, to mix and stir into steak tartare and a quail egg. The kitchen’s coiled boudin blanc is a must, set forth with perfect fries peeking out of a silver vase.