News of Little Bird’s impending closure came in a newsletter this morning, without explanation or comment, following chef/owner Gabriel Rucker’s attempt to rebrand and reenergize the nine-year-old bistro earlier this year. Little Bird, Rucker’s second restaurant and a bit of a black sheep in his celebrated collection of restaurants, never quite reached escape velocity. Whether it’s the location near Old Town, the fact that Rucker is rarely in the kitchen, or just bad juju, Little Bird Bistro will close on October 27.
Perched near the corner of SW 6th and Oak, Little Bird opened in 2010 at a time when downtown Portland was a culinary dead-zone, years before the hotel restaurant boom began to reinvigorate the city’s bustling, decidedly uncool center. Rucker, the fast-rising Le Pigeon overlord who went on to win his first James Beard award later that year, joined forces with his talented right-hand man, Erik Van Kley, just steps away from downtown’s rumbling MAX line. And for four years, Little Bird was one of Portland’s most exciting places to eat French food: massive marrow bones, brown butter crepes, and pitch-perfect apple tatin from noted pastry chef Lauren Fortgang (wife of Andrew Fortgang, Rucker’s business partner and wine man).
In 2015, Van Kley left to open his own short-lived restaurant, Taylor Railworks. Little Bird never regained its footing after that. Rucker, who was largely uninvolved with Little Bird’s day-to-day operations (instead remaining focused on Le Pigeon), stepped into the kitchen for a stint, bringing dishes like coq au vin reimagined as fried chicken with fluffy raclette potatoes, balsamic-red wine sauce, and bacon-glazed, truffle-perfumed enoki mushrooms. Afterwards, a cast of young talents from Rucker’s training grounds came and went.
Meanwhile, in 2018, Rucker opened Canard, a smash-hit (and Portland Monthly’s Restaurant of the Year) pulling in elements of Americana diner culture and wine bar nerdery next door to his perpetually-packed opus on E. Burnside. It’s no shocker that after a nine-year run, Rucker and his team are putting their attention into the neighboring, nationally-lauded eateries and cutting Little Bird loose. Still, it’s a sad day for Francophiles, wine-lovers, and downtown power-brokers alike.