Generation Diner

Why everyone you know is eating out.


PORTLAND — It’s a Wednesday night in July at Ava Gene’s on Southeast Division Street in Portland, and the dining room is pulsing with energy. Couples sit at tables for two, while groups of friends speak volubly over bottles of Barbaresco and plates of bruschetta. Not a seat remains empty in the 70-seat dining room — just a few spots at the chef’s counter.

The same is true of Nostrana, a 10-year-old Italian restaurant located a couple of miles north, on any weekday at lunch. And just witness the crowd lining up to eat at Ox, the hugely popular Argentinian restaurant in Northeast Portland.

All three of these restaurants have won numerous national accolades — from James Beard nominations to “best new restaurant” awards from Bon Appétit magazine. But even restaurants that haven’t gotten much press are going gangbusters. Food-cart pods, for which our fair city is famous, and informal food venues such as the Zipper, the Ocean and Pine Street Market are also perpetually crowded.

As everybody knows, Portland has an incredibly vibrant culinary scene with an abundance of chef talent and locally sourced ingredients. But sometimes I wonder: Who are all these people who dine out night after night? And in a town renowned for its farmers market, isn’t anyone cooking at home anymore?

Apparently not much. In March 2015, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that for the first time ever, Americans spent more at restaurants and bars than at grocery stores. Ironically, the decline and fall of everyday home cooking — today the average American spends just 27 minutes a day on food prep — has coincided with a cultural obsession with food and competitive cooking TV shows, as the author and food activist Michael Pollan was the first to point out.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the institution of the restaurant — especially in a city like Portland, where you can get a kick-ass salad Lyonnaise at a food cart for $9 — has stepped in to fill the gap.

In a wholly unscientific poll of Portland friends on Facebook, I found that, on average, they dine out six times a week. Their top reasons for eating out? Convenience and pleasure. (Business less so.) One friend, the mom of a toddler who also has a demanding full-time job, wrote, “Average 6-7 per week — 3 lunches, 3 dinners, maybe a breakfast. Dinner is equally for pleasure/laziness; lunch is for laziness.”

IMG 9479 AFreelance food writer Michael C. Zusman eats out nearly every night but says it’s not only because he has a professional stake in staying on top of the latest openings.

“I actually used to be a pretty good cook,” Zusman tells me. “I think I formed a conclusion that if the prep time plus cleanup time was greater than the amount of eating time, that it really wasn’t worth it. It’s a real pragmatic calculation based on time spent.”

But there’s something else going on here besides expediency. Restaurants serve a different function than they used to. Not only are they a status symbol (check any millennial’s Instagram feed), they have become a form of entertainment.

“People used to go out to dinner and a movie,” Le Pigeon chef Gabe Rucker told the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago. “Now, it’s like going out to dinner is the movie.”

“The average person is more fascinated with food culture than people were 30 years ago,” says Luke Dirks, who, with Joshua McFadden, is a founding partner of Submarine Hospitality, the company that owns both Ava Gene’s and Tusk, their new Middle-Eastern place on Burnside.

This is true from coast to coast. But in Portland, a confluence of social, economic and cultural trends are driving this shift from kitchens to restaurants. For one, Portland has had a love affair with groundbreaking restaurants since at least the ’90s, when Zefiro, Genoa and Higgins were the hot spots in town.

“Culturally, eating out is important to our identity as a city,” says restaurateur Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefStable. “It’s the way people move, socialize.”

Also, in part because of our now famous food scene, Portland is one of the fastest growing cities in America — 1,000 people are moving here per month, according to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. And many of these new arrivals work for the tech sector, or they’re telecommuting from cities where salaries are much higher. In other words, there’s a lot more disposable income in Portland than there used to be.

Couple that with Portlanders’ particularly high food IQ, comparatively affordable restaurant prices and high density real estate trends, and you start to understand why so many restaurants are packed night after night.

Restaurants — co-eating venues, as collaborative economists might say — are a sign of the times.

“The Portland dining public is way more sophisticated today than it was 25 years ago,” observes longtime Portland chef David Machado, whose former restaurants Lauro Kitchen and Vindalho were the first to colonize Southeast Division (in 2003 and 2005, respectively).

Today, at his two restaurants Nel Centro and Altabira City Tavern, he sees chiefly two main demographics: boomers and millennials.

“Those boomers have traveled. They’ve had that pasta that you serve on the menu — they’ve had it in Italy,” Machado notes. Many of these boomers have also taken cooking classes and watch more than one cooking show, he says. Portland millennials, too, are well traveled; they’ve been to all the latest restaurants in New York and San Francisco, and they want to stay on top of the latest spots in their hometown, too.

“They are college educated, have a good job, are married — or not. But they’re experimenting with food, ordering hand made cocktails and wines.” Add these two groups together and you get a group of curious, adventurous eaters who want to eat out all the time.

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“Everyone is just so much damn smarter about food,” says Machado. On-demand and sharing economy trends are also helping fuel the frenzy; today, when people want food, they want it now. Restaurants — co-eating venues, as collaborative economists might say — fit the bill.

There’s no authoritative statistic on which demographics eat out the most in Portland. But Zach Hull, vice president of business development at Boulevard — the software company that designed Chew, Kurt Huffman’s new restaurant loyalty app — says almost 50% of Chew’s 6,000 active users are between the ages of 25 and 35 (25% are in the 35 to 45 age group).

It doesn’t hurt that the price of eating out at a nice restaurant (or food cart) is still relatively affordable in Portland, when compared to other major American cities.

“The price that you pay for a meal, an entree in a restaurant today, is the same or less than you did 10 or so years ago,” says Machado. In Portland, he adds, there are certain benchmarks you can’t exceed.

“Portlanders don’t like to spend more than $30 on an entree, or $14 or $15 on an appetizer.”

Huffman agrees. “Our prices have barely increased at all for the last five years, really. If restaurant prices went up as quickly as rent did, we’d be talking about something else.”

These reasonable costs have lured recent arrivals from more expensive cities. “People who come from other towns, who make money, are willing to spend $40 and $50 for entrees,” says Huffman.

“I think we have only one restaurant that even has a $50 entree.” Though venues may need to raise prices when the minimum wage goes up $1.50 next July, for now, prices remain steady. 

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Many of the arrivals from other cities work for Portland’s burgeoning tech industry. Oregon tech employment grew at its fastest rate in a decade last year, and most of these wellcompensated jobs are concentrated in the Portland metro area.

According to a report released by the Oregon office of Economic Analysis in April, the average tech salary in Oregon is $104,000 a year, more than twice the state average. So tech workers can afford to eat out — a lot.

Some of the techies who telecommute for Bay Area companies even receive a daily food stipend. Portlander Brian Sommers does merchant partnerships for DoorDash, a San Francisco-based food-delivery startup that provides free lunch and dinner to its on-site employees.

Because Sommers can’t be in San Francisco to take advantage of this perk, he receives a daily food allowance, which he spends freely at Yama Sushi and Lovejoy Bakers. (The company did not want him to disclose how much.)

Even tech companies themselves have been lured by Portland’s restaurant scene. In recent years, Act-On Software, Lattice Semiconductor, Zapproved and Zoom+ all moved from the suburbs to downtown Portland, citing “amenities” as one of the main factors for relocating. Lattice Semiconductor, which makes programmable computer chips, relocated its headquarters from Hillsboro to the Big Pink two years ago.

“Our CEO, Darin G. Billerbeck, is personally a big foodie,” says David Pasquale at Global IR Partners, Lattice’s PR firm. “He moved to Portland because he loves everything about it: the dining, the bars, everything.”

Earlier this year, New Relic, the San Francisco software giant, shuttered its Seattle offices, moving workers to the company’s Portland office, also in the Big Pink. “Portland’s culture and lifestyle resonates with New Relic,” says Darin Swanson, VP of engineering at the Portland office. “A vibrant restaurant scene is what makes Portland fun and unique.”

Swanson estimates that 75% of employees eat out every day, though most get takeout and return to the office to eat together in the office’s chic lunch room.

In the 21st-century city, eating out has become something of an adventure sport.

Portland real estate developers are driving — and responding to — the dining-out trend too. A restaurant brings an apartment building cachet; a restaurant run by a beloved local chef, even more so.

When they launched Submarine Hospitality in July, the flurry of emails that Dirks and McFadden (of Ava Gene’s and Tusk) received were all from developers asking them to consider opening yet another restaurant in an upcoming property.

“If the bottom floor represents 10% of their occupancy, they are willing to have the rent be a loss leader if it draws a bunch of people to that building,” explains Dirks. “They want the new, cool coffee shop, pastry shop, restaurant, so that everyone who occupies the next five floors feels very cool about where they’re living.”

No doubt the tenants who live at 3339 Southeast Division feel cool living above both Salt & Straw and St. Honoré, the local boulangerie/cafe.

“Those services are highly desirable and beneficial to tenants,” admits Eric Cress, principal and co-founder at Urban Development + Partners, the developer behind many of the latest Southeast Division properties, including 3339. But when you’re opening a property in a pioneering area (such as Division was six years ago), says Cress, destination restaurants and ice cream parlors are a better choice than, say, a clothing boutique, because people will drive from the other side of town for a Salt & Straw — or an Ava Gene’s.

“The value proposition of a restaurant is that someone is going to spend two hours having an experience,” he says.

“Some retailers have this pull and some don’t.” Once people move into the building and the neighborhood becomes more established, then developers can consider doing “pedestrian-oriented retail” such as boutiques, magazine shops or nail salons.

UD+P’s latest project, in conjunction with Beam Development, is the Slate, a 75-unit apartment building at the Burnside bridgehead. The website for the building touts its many amenities (dramatic views of Mt. Hood, a landscaped plaza) and boasts of nearby restaurants and cafes: Le Pigeon, Sizzle Pie, Cup & Bar and Ristretto Roasteres. The building itself will have 8,000 square feet of retail, including an as-yet-unconfirmed restaurant run by a local chef and a “surf cafe” called Cosube.

Boutique hotels, too, seek out local chefs to lend their properties an element of cool. Machado’s Altabira City Tavern is in the Hotel Eastlund, and his Italian restaurant, Nel Centro, is in Modera Hotel downtown.

Yet he says hotel guests are just 8% of his business; Portlanders comprise the majority of his diners. “The contribution of the boutique hotel to the restaurant is very small. The hotel owners want a local restaurant owner in their properties — they need me more than I need them,” says Machado.

Some real estate developers are dispensing with kitchens altogether, or at least downsizing them dramatically. Seattle-based Footprint Investments, known for affordable “microapartments,” opened its second Portland property, in the Hollywood District, earlier this year. (The first, Footprint NW, opened in April 2015.)

“Our ideal resident would be someone who works a lot, doesn’t need that much home space, was looking forward to living in a neighborhood with restaurants and shopping,” says Berry. The 54 units in the Hollywood property average 160 square feet and contain only a microwave and a fridge.

The downsized kitchen isn’t confined to Portland. WeLive, an offshoot of the co-working startup WeWork, has “mini-kitchens” in its furnished dormstyle apartment buildings in D.C. and New York City. (WeLive is rumored to be searching for a Portland location.)

Units have only a microwave, a twotop electric stove and a small fridge, according to Dominic McMullan, WeWork’s senior director of corporate communications. “Enough to boil water for pasta and warm some sauce or something similar, but probably not enough for a dinner party for 10.”

Apartment manager Sherissa Berry says the philosophy behind the project is that while people don’t want to share bathrooms, they’re more than willing to share kitchen space.

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So Portlanders are no different than denizens of other food-forward cities around the country: We eat out for convenience, because we are exhausted after a long day’s work and don’t feel like cooking, and because, if we are living alone, we want the companionship.

In the 21st-century city, eating out has also become something of an adventure sport — all the more so in the Rose City, where there are so many restaurants and food carts to sample. Add to that demographic changes (people are marrying and having kids later in life), urbanization, and the sharing economy ethos, and it’s easy to see why restaurants have become not only culinary centers but social and entertainment centers as well.

The cost benefits are the icing on the cake: As the thousands of people moving here each month — and even those who have been here for decades — have discovered, the value at restaurants is much better in Portland than elsewhere. So in New York or San Francisco, you might think twice about eating out six nights a week if you’re spending $50 per person for dinner. But in Portland, you’re spending around $25 per person, or $10 per person if you find a “late night” happy hour.

To be sure, a thriving economy helps sustain the momentum. But there are other powerful forces at play. As cities densify and residential square footage declines, eating is moving out of the kitchen and into the street, the cafe, the restaurant. The norm in many cities (rich and poor) around the world, eating as part of public life is becoming an increasingly common practice here.

As for those who might bemoan the demise of home cooking: not to worry.

That friend I told you about, the one who has a full-time job, and who eats out seven times per week? She and her husband had us over for a dinner party the other night. The husband cranked out long strands of pasta by hand, and served them with roasted veggies fresh from the garden. We added a generous shower of Parmesan, drizzled it all with olive oil and sprinkled on sea salt. Another guest brought homemade huckleberry ice cream for dessert.

Sitting around their backyard table as the sun went down, I realized that this was one of the best meals of my recent memory. Yes, restaurants are having a moment. But despite all the culinary temptations that surround us, many of us know how to cook, and we still relish the time we make for entertaining friends and family.

A version of this article appears in the October issue of Oregon Business. 

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