Chef Maya Lovelace and Zach Lefler, owners of Portland’s extremely popular Southern Appalachian pop-up Mae, say there are two big pieces of feedback they’ve received about Lovelace’s tasty, story-filled dinners over the past two and a half years:
- Make it easier for me to get in. (When tickets for each month’s roster of a dozen or so dinners—held in the back room at Old Salt Marketplace—go on sale, Lovelace reports they usually sell out within 10 minutes.)
- Don’t change anything. (The triple fat-fried chicken, feather-light Angel biscuits, regional deep-dive recipes, and homey, family-style setting are approaching Portland food icon status for some locals at this point.)
The duo have a solution. In spring 2018, they plan to open a brick-and-mortar version of Mae, with a twist to satisfy both demands: They’re actually launching two restaurants. A casual, fun, counter-service restaurant will hold down the front of the space, while a private back room will become the new home for the prix fixe Mae dinners that have made Lovelace a nationally known culinary force (including a PoMo Best Restaurants of 2016 nod). Lovelace says they are very close to signing a lease on a spot in Northeast Portland.
The name of the walk-in spot is still TBD, but expect a lineup of “broadly Southern cuisine”—mains, seasonal and stalwart sides, and small dishes—that pulls from all over the region, including Lovelace’s coastal North Carolina roots and her grandmother’s western North Carolina fare to Low Country and Southern Appalachian dishes, served at lunch and dinner four days a week.
“Obviously fried chicken will be a focus,” says Lovelace. Make that three kinds of fried chicken: her own signature bird, hot-sweet-tangy “Carolinian Dipped” fried chicken,” and “true” Nashville Hot Chicken (“basted with lard that’s infused with an absurd amount of cayenne,” she explains). And yes, you’ll even be able to order whole buckets of fried chicken—without ever calling dibs on Instagram.
In back, Lovelace says Mae will change little from its current incarnation. A single-seating, communal dinner will be served four nights a week with the same homey vibe, Lefler’s house-roasted coffees included. “The dinners may push a little bit more Southern Appalachian regional. The food will get a little more creative, a little more refined,” she hints. “We'll be using some traditional ingredients and techniques new to the Pacific Northwest, but branching out more than ever in our creative incorporation of local Oregon ingredients as well as other global influences. Think of it as Mae Plus.” The new space will drop the old BYOB drink rules and add eclectic beverage service, but Lovelace promises a really low corkage fee to keep the sharing spirit of the old spot alive.
Mullet-restaurants—a term I totally just made up as shorthand for Portland’s “casual service up front; high-end dinner party in the back”-style operations—have already found some success around town. Just think of Thai symbiants Paadee and Langbaan or the original Roe, which lurked in the backroom of Trent Pierce’s now-shuttered B + T Oyster Bar. When it works, it’s an great way for a talented chef to create a home base where they can push themselves creatively and pay the bills.
If all goes according to plan, Mae’s new digs will boast room for 30 to 40 seats in front and another 20 to 30 in back for the coursed dinners. Plus, on the restaurant’s days off, the duo says they’ll provide opportunities for new pop-ups to make use of the space, as a way to “pay forward the incredible luck we've had working in someone else's space.” Lovelace and Lefler are currently financing the restaurant on their own, all “bootstraps and grassroots.” A Kickstarter campaign is planned in the months to come.
“The idea of opening a restaurant is super exhilarating and awesome but it’s also 100 percent terrifying. It’s been a crazy rollercoaster of emotions so far,” says Lovelace. “Being a pop-up, not having our own space, has made people think of us in a very different way than other restaurants. [Now] we want people to put us with the rest of the pack. We wanna be right in there with everybody.”