In 2002, Two Crazy Kids Basically Invented the Modern Portland Restaurant
In 2002, I noticed the ground shifting in Portland’s restaurant scene, as restless young cooks bristled at the old-world order. No one better articulated the coming seismic shift than Michael Hebb. “The pretense that surrounds the restaurant industry doesn’t hold water for us anymore,” the brash architecture dropout once told me, with typical Warholian mystique. “Everyone is using the exact same template, eating the same piece of salmon, having the same conversation. We’ll be iconic in our own way, definitely. The new age of icon allows us freedom and flexibility. Maybe we can take pommes frites off our menu, you know?”
At 26, Hebb was the ringleader of lumberjack-chic Gotham Building Coffee Shop in North Portland. Upstairs, the proto pop-up Family Supper unfurled at long, family style tables, no waiters, and passed platters of picture-perfect food. It was a legit update to anarchistic, coveted, e-mail-invite-only dinners Hebb and his girlfriend, a then-unknown caterer named Naomi Pomeroy, had hosted at the house they shared. Family Supper, the pair’s food and social experiment, set the table for today’s thriving “pop-up culture”—youthful ambition in borrowed spaces, where unknown chefs test-drive ideas without ponying up the capital required to start an actual restaurant.
Hebb and Pomeroy eventually married (and later divorced). Ripe, the original name of their catering company, became the umbrella for various projects pushing the limits of food and ambiance. In 2004, the pair’s Clarklewis, with its chipped paint, art glass, and serious cooking by the train tracks, captured the rising aesthetic of Portland dining. It was suddenly cool to sear foie gras while wearing a T-shirt. Here a gifted chef named Morgan Brownlow wheeled gargantuan pigs past diners, butchering them in the open kitchen.
“What was unique about their point of view became the identity of what Portland’s food scene is now,” says Mike Thelin, cofounder of the Feast food festival.
Via its various endeavors, Ripe unearthed the next generation of influential Portland chefs, among them Tommy Habetz (now of Bunk and Pizza Jerk), Gabriel Rucker (Le Pigeon), Troy MacLarty (Bollywood Theater) and, of course, Pomeroy (Beast, Expatriate). Though it all, Hebb electrified, provoked, and divided Portland, as he talked up a never-published manuscript for his manifesto: Kill the Restaurant.
In April 2005, Hebb and Pomeroy turned the Gotham coffee shop into Gotham Building Tavern, which included a $50 fee to sit in the room’s wooden dining “cages.” Backlash built, as did a pile of unpaid bills. A year later, Ripe imploded and Hebb left town for Seattle.
Ripe didn’t really kill the restaurant. But it did redefine the rules of engagement—and the point of entry.
John Gorham, founder of the acclaimed Toro Bravo, remembers his first visit to Clarklewis, and the palpable sense of being released from restaurant conformity. “It was magic. I saw the imagination. They were having fun, a party. I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Descendants: Most everything, really, but Top Chef Masters alum Pomeroy’s sexy prix fixe parlor Beast is the most direct link.