Irecently came across a Portland Monthly guide with “8 Power Lunch Destinations” in the headline. The pitch went like this: “Hosting foreign executives? Taking the team out for martinis? Just want to wear a suit? We’ve got a crisp-linen tablecloth for you.”
I felt like an archaeologist pondering the remains of a forgotten civilization. What strange creatures dressed up for lunch? Six of those places are gone, among them Imperial, Headwaters, and Little Bird. This ancient-history document dates all the way back to 2017.
The world has changed, along with our work habits, meet-up rituals, and food desires. What is lunch now? We could be down to our last rations but still brag about Portland’s food carts and artisan sandwiches. But what about the sit-down restaurant lunch? Is it dead, or is it finding new life among the optimists and risk takers?
Naomi Pomeroy, a pioneer of Portland’s DIY scene, aims to find out. The James Beard Award–winning chef is test-driving an all-day café, noon to early evening, on the sidewalk outside of her Ripe Cooperative market on NE 30th. Think fancy bus shelter with heaters, café tables, royal blue plates, French onion soup, agnolotti, curated cheese plates, and good wine. Come for a glam Dungeness crab roll or make your own multicourse meal, and add a leisurely martini starting at 2 p.m. Just don’t call it “lunch.”
"Lunch isn’t something that happens between noon and 1 p.m. anymore," says Pomeroy. "I became even more disillusioned with Portland and America’s dining values during the pandemic. Our overall options decreased, and not all of what was surviving made me excited. In Europe, people gather with friends in the afternoon for oysters. It’s not a luxury!"
Meanwhile, lunch is outpacing dinner at the new all-day Cafe Olli on NE MLK. The airy, mod space, once the mad-cabin home of Ned Ludd, embodies a possible future of Portland dining: handmade everything, a farm-fresh ethos, and a fired-up crew of industry vets working as equals. It helps that Olli’s lunch nails the echt-Portland essentials: auteur pizza, fresh pastries, good coffee, vegetarian showcases, and sandwiches on house baguettes gaining a fast reputation as the best in town. Laptops are welcome.
“People come to hang out,” says chef Taylor Manning. “The pandemic allowed people to work away from the office. People want comfort and familiar flavors.” You can’t help but love that at Olli, comfort means a celeriac-potato-leek soup sporting house ham and sunchoke chips.
But lunch is still a gamble. Before the First Mandate in 2020, Stacked Sandwich Shop was standing-room-only, according to Gabriel Pascuzzi, best known for his run on Top Chef Season 18, shot in Portland. Stacked, near empty, closed unceremoniously in December. Pascuzzi’s Mama Bird, one of our Top 50 restaurants, scrapped its lunch hours for dinner only.
“Lunch is hard in Portland,” he says, adding, “I can’t eat fried chicken, burgers, and doughnuts every day.” Now he’s rolled the dice again with Feel Good, a playful grain bowl spot on SE Belmont. Each bowl flashes its own sauce and flavor profile, with a pick-your-own case boasting smoky beets and charred onion petals. Feel-good food may be just what the lunch doctor ordered.
What gives him hope? “COVID reminds me of when the forest burns down in Bambi,” says Pascuzzi. “Everyone freaking out, running. At the end, spring blooms again, and the forest rebuilds itself. I’m hoping that’s got to be it, right?” —Karen Brooks
Photograph at top by Thomas Teal, of the muffuletta at Sebastiano’s in Montavilla