Food Interview

Vitaly Paley on the Death of Imperial and Life at Paley’s Place

An icon of local eating returns to his original kitchen in a do-or-die food world.

By Karen Brooks October 28, 2020

Paley's Place survival kits include Paley’s at Your Place— seasonal feasts to go.

At 5 pm, Sept. 25, Vitaly Paley peered outside of the window at Imperial, which had a ringside seat to downtown's main artery, Southwest Broadway. It was gorgeous outside, the kind of day when outdoor tables are coveted like Blazer tickets. There was not a single soul around, the streets boarded up and battle-scarred by the pandemic and protests. Then and there, Vitaly told his staff it was over. The next day, Imperial at the Hotel Lucia—once a bustling arbiter of downtown's chef-driven hotel restaurant boom—quietly departed Portland's food scene, without a final bow or public wail after eight years. Two days later, following a reader tip, Eater posted the news.

Now, Vitaly and Kimberly Paley have also bid farewell to Headwaters, their splashy 2016 makeover of the historic Heathman Hotel restaurant blocks away. After the hotel pushed back its mid-October opening date to February, the couple say Headwaters could not sustain ongoing losses, cutting their ties. Looks like the hotel agreed with the premise—per Instagram, reservations are back. The Paley's Rosa Rosa at the Dossier Hotel, opened in 2018, is also effectively dead.  

In the wake of all this, the couple has returned to where it all began: Paley's Place. After 25 years, in an old Victorian home on NW 21st, an icon of local eating and French bistro-ing is rediscovering itself in a do-or-die food world. Call it an all-hands-on-deck situation—every morsel, every memory, every farm-to-table leaf and root has been deployed.

Which is to say: Paley is back in the place where he won James Beard gold in 2005 and helped define Portland's intimate, farmer-connected food dream. No one ever had “hotel restaurant kingpin” on Paley's bingo card. But there's no pigeon-holing a guy who, at 57, has never stopped pushing ideas and conversations—cannabis-fed pig roasts to reading Chekhov to diners at his Russian roots pop-up Danet.

The new mode includes intricate multi-course meals to go, dubbed Paley's at Your Place, and weekly Neighborhood Boxes stuffed with seasonal produce from longtime house connections, like old-school Weppler Farms. Paley's Place has also joined the popular “restomart” movement, selling curated pantry goods, homemade dishes, and insider cooking ingredients once reserved for the kitchen, boat-fresh fish to aged steaks. It's one of the most interesting lists around (hello smoked sablefish). Meanwhile, a newsletter muses on house recipes, farmer backstories, and favorite cookbook authors. Currently, it boasts 10,000 subscribers. “I'm back to my old cookbook days,” quips Paley.

That doesn't count indoor and outdoor dining, four days a week, complete with hospitality extreme, a specialty of Kimberly Paley, even in these social distancing times. It's not Paley's, it's Paley's Max.

In his first major interview since closing Imperial, Paley shares his thoughts the on emotional rollercoaster of it all.


KB: Portland's downtown is scarred and wounded. I keep hearing people talk about friends or family members afraid to go downtown. Right or wrong, downtown's reputation as an urban oasis has taken a hit. Did that factor into your decision to close? 

VP: The changes in downtown happened so abruptly. It took the wind right out of us. If it was just Covid, we might have figured out how to proceed. But add the political climate, empty offices, empty hotels, windows boarded up. It felt apocalyptic.  

After we got PPP money, we spent hours on charts and projections and forecasts. We considered how to approach this as a new model; how to do more with less but still provide the hospitality we're famous for. We built a beautiful platform for tables on Broadway. We called it “share the road dining.” But the diners never came. A few waves, sure … but never more than 15 to 20 percent of our previous business.  

When the funds ran out, we looked at projections and numbers. Reality set in. If we can't get there, we'll go backwards, financially, at a speed we can't sustain.  As sad as it is, PPP is like a ventilator. Once it gets unplugged, if you can’t stand on your own two feet, you don't. Food and beverage is not coming back to downtown any time soon. 

KB:  After 9/11, everyone wanted comfort food and “cheap eats.”  There was lots of hand-wringing that fine dining was dead. During The Great Recession, in 2008 and 2009, Portland's restaurant apocalypse seemed imminent. Do you think the current doom meter is the same or worse? 

VP: In 2005, we won the James Beard award, so we were still riding that publicity. I look back now and don't remember the recession being that detrimental to our world. We were small enough at Paley's to roll up our sleeves and work harder. But that was years ago. If I was younger, I know we could fight through. But if we lose everything now, there's not enough time to make it back.

That's the biggest nut to crack in my world today. What's the future, and how long will it take to recover? There's a domino effect. It's not just a vaccine. How long will it be until the numbers go down? When will travelers return? Or theater and symphony and shopping? Will downtown lunch come back, now that people are used to working at home? All these events, the banquets, the holidays. Are people ready to line up to eat a Thanksgiving hotel buffet? We don't have answers, only puzzles and questions.

Ten years ago, it was just wait and hang out. Now, it's do what you know. For us, that's Paley's Place. 

KB: What do you hope Imperial's legacy will be?

VP: Imperial had a very strong presence downtown. It commanded attention, had long legs, became what we wanted it to be … a staple of downtown dining. I was looking forward to it being the next Jake's. After closing, I went into the empty dining room, sat alone, shed a tear and walked out. No statement; nothing to say. I didn't want a sob story. Honestly, we'd just dismantled a company. It took my breath away.  

Kimberly (left) and Vitaly Paley outside Paley's Place on NW 21st

KB: Even before the pandemic, the neighborhood bistro was on the national death watch. I noticed you are asking a $50 minimum on indoor and outdoor dining tabs. How have diners responded? Portland is notoriously resistant to paying for good food. 

VP:  The new generation of today will eventually get older. Will they want to keep standing in line for pancakes or be in relaxed atmosphere, taken care of? Hospitality will never die. Back in the day, we pushed back on the moniker of “special occasion.” We just wanted people to walk in and have mussels and fries. Realistically, that won't pay the bills now. It barely did then. Restaurant economies were on the fritz for years; Covid just exposed that. Today, with limited capacity, we can't afford that.

Now, going out is special. Diners are coming here dressed to the nines. They've been wearing pajamas for the past six months. It's been heartwarming how many customers want to see us through. Some come twice a week. It's like that movie, It's a Wonderful Life. People are realizing what life would be like without restaurants. 

KB: What do you want the world to know about Paley's Place? 

VP: I'm in the kitchen driving the menus. But it's not just me.  We've had the same loyal staff for years. Chef Luis Cabanas is back; been with us over 20 years; Stan Luoma, our charcuterie guy, over 10 years; Laurie Carter, the house sheriff at the front door, for 9 years. You won't get past her without a mask. We couldn't make it without people like this.

Every two weeks the menu changes. Sometimes, dishes are Russian-inspired – beautiful dumplings, borscht. For the “add-ons” to the weekly boxes, I've been making classic Herring Under a Fur Coat and brined tomato pickles, Russian-style. There might be blackened Alaskan black cod or spaghetti alla chitarra. I like that free exploration of things that were good about (seafood-focused) Headwaters or (Italian-esque) Rosa Rosa. Our poolish sourdough bread starter was born at Imperial. Been feeding it for years. It's alive and well at Paley's.

Our connection to place still runs deep. We're making carrot cake this week because, who doesn't want carrot cake? But mostly because these heirloom carrots, grown by Patrick Thiel of Prairie Creek Farms, are the sweetest. Our dear departed friend and cookbook co-author Robert Reynolds once said of Prairie Creek carrots, “God made you perfect, now what can you become?” I think he'd agree they have found their perfect destiny.

Paley's Place has elements of all these people and places. We're not ready to walk away from that. 

Paley’s Place

4–10 p.m. Weds–Sat, reservations suggested, 1204 NW 21st Ave, (503) 243-2403

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