Bar snacks are becoming the main event. Drinks-first spots—wine bars, cocktail bars, anything centered on something that isn’t food—are also secretly functioning as restaurants, and crafting a new type of menu. If a place is focused on atmosphere, focused on wine or cocktails, and it’s for these aspects that you’ve found your way through their doors, then the food, ostensibly a second thought, is a tabula rasa. No shtick required. While we love a lengthy multicourse meal, we also love an unpretentious, high-quality, expertly curated spread.
Heavenly Creatures, a new wine bar in a little alcove of the Coopers Hall event space on NE Broadway, is part of this wave of restaurants changing our dining culture. Like the unassuming cocktail bar Someday on SE Division and the snacky Pearl District wine spot Bar Diane, Heavenly Creatures serves as an example of a restaurant whose food, in theory, plays sidekick to the vino. This takes the pressure off. It makes room for dishes as simple as slices of smoked ham with a little young pecorino and some pickled green Piparra peppers from Basque country; they can “get away with” a dish of Tim’s potato chips to drag through an aerated, jalapeño-scented Camembert mousse. Both simple, unfussy, barely a dish. They would make incredible midnight snacks, if the chef behind St. Jack and La Moule, Aaron Barnett (who consults on the menu here), were stocking your fridge.
Wine is the center of the menu, and it’s the first thing you see when you step into the converted storefront. The titular “heavenly creatures” (coveted bottles pulled mostly from France and the Willamette Valley) line a series of shelves in the entryway, and sport hand-written price tags around their necks. They’re all available to take home at retail price, or to pop open at the table for a $15 corkage fee, a significant break from the typical twice-retail restaurant wine pricing.
Generous white ceilings with rounded edges make the small box of a room feel full and voluminous. It’s cozy, not cramped; you’re sitting with people, not on top of them. A handful of pink terrazzo bistro tables wrap around the central open kitchen that holds a few bar seats at its counter. Candles spill over their holders on the bar top and sit next to vases of anthurium blooms. Those high ceilings are filled with the chatty voices of people having a good time. Dead Moon or Paul Simon is coming through vintage speakers that match the wood-paneled fridge that glows in the corner and holds the chilled “creatures.”
On a recent visit: Joel Gunderson, the owner and sommelier, was excited about a bottle of Italian gamay noir, so much so that he ran out to his car to fetch it and poured us a glass. Service here is like being dropped into a conversation with an old friend, an old friend who knows a ridiculous amount about wine.
The conversation starts with geography: “So, we’re here,” he’ll say, holding up his hands in the shape of a boot to talk about Italy. He’ll tell you with intimate detail about the people growing and vinifying grapes across the globe as if they’re farming carrots in Canby. Gunderson has become known locally for promoting kegged wine in restaurants (a method for keeping wine that’s much more efficient and effective than traditional bottles), and runs kegged wine programs in several places around town, including St. Jack and Oven and Shaker. You may have seen his more traditional wine list at Coopers Hall, which he still writes, or previously at St. Jack, but this is the first project he’s had total creative license over.
He will probably be wearing a flannel shirt, his hair will be a bit disheveled, and the room will be packed with Portland’s version of dressed-up people. There might be only one other staff member working the floor that seats probably 20, but they’ll each spend five, 10, however many minutes it takes to get out the story they need you to know about the wines. Or the story about how the yellowtail toast (slicked with old-school tonnato sauce and dotted with capers) is a nod to when Gunderson, working years ago at Kornblatt's, the New York–style deli in Northwest, would bring lox bagels across the street to his best friend, Barnett, then the chef at 23 Hoyt.
The back of the menu does open up a bit, usually with one larger entrée. A soul-warming stewed pork shank, perhaps, or a cognac-braised half rabbit spiked with mustard. Having something meaty to anchor the menu serves a purpose, and that rabbit was delicious, but it isn’t exactly what you want to tuck into standing in a sexy dining room with a glass of Loire Valley cab franc in your hand.
The better plan here is to make a meal of snacks. And no, these aren’t fussy one- or two-biters. This isn’t the next iteration of pan-cultural “tapas.” Nobody’s going to tell you, “We do things a little differently here” and recommend a certain number of dishes per person. Plates aren’t dainty; they’re just better versions of something humble you might hope to throw together at home. The more involved mid-sized plates like broccolini in bagna cauda or a small tower of breaded cauliflower wedges are solid, but it’s in the most spare offerings that Heavenly Creatures shines. A tin of sardines with a few pickles, good butter, and store-bought Wasa crackers? A dish of crescent-shaped Lucques olives from Languedoc? Perfect food that doesn’t distract from wine, friends, life.
Snacky bar fare, of course, is nothing new. But this is taking that unpretentious ethos and applying it to a filling, shared meal. This style of dining marks an encouraging turn toward restaurants as a good time and a pivot away from showmanship for showmanship’s sake. Things are just serious enough at Heavenly Creatures. The food isn’t the draw, after all. Or is it? 2218 NE Broadway