Year in Review

The Departed: Sorrowful for Portland's Restaurant Scene

Portland tragically lost nearly 100 food and drink spots this year. For PoMo's food critic, some felt like old friends.

By Karen Brooks December 29, 2020

Also coming this week from PoMo:  our favorite openings, closings and pivots of the year, our best chef interviews, and a conversation with Naomi Pomeroy on the future on independent restaurants.

Typically, this is the time of year for sleuthing and predicting—the dining trends, rising stars, and food-altering kitchen gizmos on the horizon for next year. Instead, we're more like soldiers after a fire fight, peeking out of the foxhole to see who is still standing. 
By rough estimation, more than 90 Portland restaurants, bars, coffee shops and artisan food purveyors went under this year. It may only be the beginning. According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, over 75 percent of Oregon's independently owned food and drink spots are at risk of permanent closure without government support. 
In truth, we saw it coming. Last year, multiple chefs told me their business was off by as much as 20 percent. A number of well-known spots had already called it quits in 2019, including Little Bird and the Country Cat. The pandemic just ripped open long-festering industry wounds: too much competition, a kitchen talent crisis, rising rents, daily panics to make ends meet. 
But the pandemic was not responsible for every implosion, meltdown, and breakup that rocked Portland's food worldThe peak hit in July, when Yonder chef-owner Maya Lovelace opened her Instagram feed to accusations of restaurant abuse. Within days, kitchen cultures from prominent Portland restaurants were under fire. Claims ran from misogyny to wage theft to sexual harassment, prompting denials and counterclaims but also long overdue conversations. Shortly afterward, following verbal abuse of a trans woman of color on social media, star chef John Gorham shuttered Toro Bravo and departed from his “Tasty” empire and M.E.C. restaurant group. Farm Spirit on SE Belmont also closed after abuse allegations surfaced at the vegan tasting menu stronghold. Suddenly, “reckoning” threatened to supplant “pivot” as the year's buzzword.  
Pandemic or reckoning, the undertaker is here, and no sector has been spared. Among the fallen: the iconic (Beast, Pok Pok), chef-driven favorites (Imperial, Aviary), beloved neighborhood anchors (Bridges Cafe, Sanborn's, Arleta Library Bakery & Cafe), and storied names (Bluehour, Le Bistro Montage). 
Adding to the ghost town feel: the number of high-profile restaurants on hiatus, hoping to reopen in 2021. The list includes Ataula, Ox, Bistro Agnes, Andina, Olympia Provisions NW, Sweedeedee (hoping for a spring return), Magna (closed until spring), and Akadi (reopening in the summer). 
Despite the profound sense of loss, as I wrote last June, there will be a post-vaccine future, and with it, a new generation of food thinkers and risk-takers. Cooks are marvels of innovation and resilience. There just might be fewer of them. The next six months will reveal the true extent of the fallout and possibilities ahead. All shutterings are sad, a profound loss of dreams, community, and jobs. And some of them feel personal, like a family death. These closings hit me personally.

Andy Ricker at Whiskey Soda Lounge.

Pok Pok, Whiskey Soda Lounge, Ping Yang Pao It's hard to imagine Portland's food scene, much less my own writing, without Andy Ricker's dogged vision and powerful cooking. I named Pok Pok Restaurant of the Year in 2007, when it was an unknown food shack with a next-door hideaway basement lounge. I explored Ricker's obsessive mind-set in my book, The Mighty Gastropolis, and helped narrate the Vice documentary Farang: The Story of Chef Andy Ricker 
The famed Ike's Fish Sauce Wings got all the press. I ate more than my share, greedily. Ricker built an empire on their wicked delicious  backs, but they may have been his undoing, too. As the demand grew voraciously, so did his outlets and headaches. At its core, Ricker's food and drink was about so much more. Witness Pok Pok's endless parade of casual thrills, grilled boar collar sided by chilled mustard greens to the unfailingly tender lemongrass-stuffed game hens. It was evident at the Whiskey Soda Lounge in a compelling repertoire of Thai pub snacks, and yet another menu of simple, genuine, flavored-to-the-bone surprises at last year's promising Ping Yang Pao, devoted to Thai charcoal cooking. I can't begin to calculate the unforgettable meals at these places, shared with friends. I always took visitors to Pok Pok. It was our secret weapon, especially in the early days, a guaranteed slam dunk on a New Yorker. The last Pok Pok location closed permanently in October. We may not see anything quite like it again.

Cacao As a devout customer, I struggle to name what we'll miss most about this little house of chocolates, a downtown fixture since 2006. The exquisitely curated chocolate bars displayed like family heirlooms? The outrageous chocolate macchiato? The spicy drinking chocolate that lit up our brains like a Space Invaders arcade machine? The joyful knowledge of owners Jesse Mantis and Aubrey Lindley? The fact that you could try ANY bar in the shop? (Who does that?) Or was it those mysterious little bottles of chocolate perfume, barely bigger than a gumdrop? On closing day in October, Lindley, tears falling, pressed one into my hand, said thank you, and left the room. No, we thank you


A dish from the early days of Holdfast Dining.

Image: Karen Brooks

Holdfast Dining At their intimate SE tasting-menu counter, avant bros Will Preisch and Joel Stocks embodied Portland's approach to “fine dining”—freewheeling, highly personal, and low-key. Plates were pretty but not precious, flavored with oddball sea plants scavenged on Oregon's coast and delivered by a pair of chefs who doubled as waiters, bartenders, food coaches, and recipe-sharing buddies. It's exactly the kind of restaurant the virus killed, and in late October, Holdfast succumbed. 

Miso-walnut sticky buns from The Bakery at Bar King.

Bar King and the Bakery at Bar King This one hurt because it dampened some of the hope and optimism that 2020 was not a total hell hole. Newcomer talents Shaun King (former chef at Momofuku Las Vegas) and Los Angeles baker alum Katherine Benvenuti seemed to have it all—talent, hard-work, and some very good dishes, celebrated in our Best Restaurants issue. It wasn't enough. The live-fire restaurant and Asian-inspired bakery will close permanently on January 2, citing pandemic-related financial troubles. Going forward, Benvenuti, a co-owner of Fills Donuts, will become a partner in a new “Tasty” restaurant group, which purchased the brand from founders John and Renee Gorham with plans to plant the first flag in Lake Oswego next summer. 

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