Been fretting over the future of Portland's food scene? I know I have. Who's going to carry the mantle to support local farmers? Who's going to get ambitious? Hell, who even wants to work in the business?
One reason for optimism: Cafe Olli, an all-day “handmade everything” cafe coming soon to the former home of Ned Ludd. Watch for a late November opening.
Mornings will feature baked goods from co-owner Siobhan Speirits. Take note: the former pastry chef has a waiting list for custom cakes and cookies at her pandemic-born project, Saint Frances. (Even the owners of Portland’s acclaimed Coquine are customers).
Another reason for excitement: Cafe Olli's wood-fired pizzas are from the “holy shit, that's tasty” school, based on my pies at a recent pop-up. Meanwhile, local farm goods will show up everywhere—in pizzas, market salads, and sandwiches on homemade bread (another house passion). The plan includes handmade pastas, house charcuterie, and a parade of wood oven dishes, smoked chickens to fire-roasted potatoes.
Importantly, Cafe Olli is led by a fired-up crew of five veterans who have recommitted to the industry, working as a team of equals without a star chef—a model gaining traction around town. The goal is to create a place they believe in: less hierarchical and more worker-friendly, with open-book accounting and a democratic economy. Its founders say that "all employees will be partial owners through an employee-owned trust," and that "50 percent of all net profits will go to all employees while they work at the restaurant," everyone from line cooks to dishwashers.
“All of us had ideas of leaving the industry,” says Ryan Dirks, the group's business manager and until recently, the brand director of Submarine Hospitality (Ava Gene's, Tusk). “It took something powerful to bring us back.”
“It's really part of Portland's evolving food story,” says Dana Frank, whose east side gem Bar Norman was the scene of two gangbuster Cafe Olli pop-ups recently. “What the pandemic has done to the city is tragic. We've lost so much. But there's also people who took the fucking lemon and are making lemonade. They have an incredible work ethic. I'm happy to see people taking the plunge, jumping into the unknown.”
The fresh start includes a new look for the former Ned Ludd space, opened in 2008 and once a poster child for Portland's DIY food scene before quietly closing after a pandemic hiatus. Gone is Ned Ludd's cabin-gone-mad aesthetic, with its ceramic chickens and ancient cooking implements that looked like relics from Sherman's March.
In its place: fresh white paint and a cleaner, more minimal look. “We wanted it to feel open,” says Cami Wong, formerly Tusk's GM. “The feel will come from the bottles and breads on the counter. Life and color will come from what we do.”
All that remains is Ned Ludd's signature—a massive wood-burning red brick oven, six feet deep. Still, the spirit of Ned Ludd will hang over Cafe Olli: handmade and farm-fresh, with plenty of smoke and fire. “Our goal is to make everything from scratch—ham, charcuterie, salumi, and eventually aged cheese,” says house baker Daniel Green, who has cooked at New York's esteemed Estela and Alice Waters’s American Academy in Rome. Most recently, Green was Submarine Hospitality's head baker. Joining the group is former Ava Gene's chef de cuisine Taylor Manning, who brings a passion for handmade pastas to the mix.
To start, Cafe Olli will be open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. Menus will change throughout the day. Breakfast will host espresso, hot porridge, seasonal frittatas, toasts on fresh bread, and at some point, homemade croissants. In the pastry case, watch for grape-pocked focaccia and weekend cinnamon rolls. Lunch will segue to soup, market salads, sandwiches and Roman-style pizza (rectangular foccacia-esque squares). For dinner, expect familiar comforts: oysters, baked pastas, roast chickens, classic cocktails, some carefully chosen wines, plus Speirits' cakes, tarts, and galettes.
That doesn't count the three nightly, naturally leavened seasonal pizzas (yes, Cafe Olli is doing two styles of pizza). The 16” rounds I tasted wavered somewhere between New York, Italy, and Lovely's Fifty-Fifty—leopard-spotted, crispy-chewy, and earthy. One teemed with homemade sausage, spicy peppers, hand-pulled mozz, and farm potatoes sliced so thin they swayed in the breeze. Another pie, this time with whipped ricotta and caramelized onions, was topped with a blanket of fresh chicory, anchovy bits, and lemon—a beautiful nod to a Roman salad.
“We're not looking to reinvent the wheel,” says Green. “We want to make simple food but push the boundaries of what that means.”