Ataula’s José Chesa

Image: Karen Brooks

“When we closed our doors in March 2020, we never thought it would be the beginning of the end.” Thus begins a heartbreaking note from José Chesa and Cristina Baez. Ataula, a house of Catalan comforts and unstoppable passion, is no more. The restaurant, a fixture in Northwest Portland since 2013, tried a brief run at takeout last summer. But the Ataula zeitgeist—the infectious charm of the room, the personal food, the flavor highs—seemed at sea in a to-go world. “My food wasn't meant to be in a box,” as Chesa put it last fall.

COVID took a deep bite out of their hearts and pocketbook. Then, a family member developed serious health complications. On top of this, the landlord recently sold the building, which would have forced a move at a most difficult time.

“It's very tough emotionally,” says Chesa over the phone. “Ataula is my baby. We can't thank people enough. This city has given me everything.”

It's another blow to one of the city's great chef couples. Ataula quickly vaulted to the top tier of Portland restaurants behind a slew of modern tapas and Catalan classics. As I wrote in my first review: “Eight months in, Ataula is essential, buzzing with good noise and enough determination to make Damian Lillard blush.” At its center, killer patatas bravas, squid-ink paella, dark and complex as an Almodóvar flick, and one humble-charming guy who delivered your food with the expression, “Oh my goodness me.” 

By 2014, Chesa earned PoMo's tag as Chef of the Year. “Chesa put the first true taste of Catalan cooking on Portland’s table, rigorously spiced, then lifted it with little flavor intricacies and modernist know-how gleaned at top kitchens in France and Spain. His food is a rare treat: special, but accessible as a tater tot. Technically trained chefs typically try to impress. Chesa just wants to satisfy us, deeply.”

In 2016, as Portland descended into fried chicken madness, the couple gambled on ambition with a second spot on NE Broadway, called Chesa. But they misjudged Portland’s appetite for truly modernist tapas. A brutal winter snowstorm didn't help. Sixteen months later, it shuttered, leaving debt and heartbreak

Another opportunity came in February 2020: Masia, the couple's Spanish and Catalan restaurant inside the new Hyatt Centric downtown, backed by the famed 180 Xurros in the lobby. The couple didn't seem like hotel-grind types, but the move, Chesa told me, would give his family security. It closed shortly after opening, as the pandemic shutdown rolled in. Occasional efforts at takeout were hampered—empty streets, downtown protests. Recently, the duo parted ways with the hotel.

Ataula’s mussels escabeche on chicharron

Image: Karen Brooks

Through it all, 2019 was a high point at Ataula. The food had never been better. Indeed, the couple had bounced back from the loss of Chesa, more buoyant than ever. “These days,” I wrote in a column, “inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere: his father’s table, the seasons, 'infinity,' as he puts it, as well as his collection of 500 cookbooks, in four languages. He’s always pushing.”

That's Chesa and Baez. You can't imagine they will be defeated; can't imagine Portland's food scene without them. Some of best food memories are lodged here: the magic of bread and chocolate, those toasted squid-ink noodles, summer's gazpacho bursting with strawberries. “It's insane. We've been here nine years,” says Chesa. “The last time I walked in, looking at the tables, I remembered my son as a newborn, my parents in and out. In the blink of an eye, everything goes away.”

The future for now is uncertain. “Right now, we're going offline, airplane mode,” says Chesa. “Will we reemerge? When? Where? I have no idea right now. Things happen for a reason. Something is telling me to focus on my family.”

I leave you with their closing note to friends and customers:

“We will forever remember the magic and buzz of our small but mighty dining room had and we will carry it closely with us along with the community that lifted us up and showed so much love to an island girl, a Spaniard and the whole Ataula crew over the years. We are eternally grateful for the crew, past and present, that showed up and did so much with passion, discipline and aspiration to a high standard of hospitality. Day in and day out.  This is the end of a chapter and yes, we are sad and heartbroken. 

When the time comes someway, somehow we will be back. Taking so much we’ve learned over the years and pushing forward to making our industry better and begin a new chapter. #likeaphoenix “

Find Chesa on Instagram: @josechesa