Restaurateur Kurt Huffman stands in Market, a downtown Portland restaurant he opened this past July. “The thesis is too self-congratulatory; it’s too easy to say that chefs were somehow attracted to the bounty of Oregon and cooked all this amazing stuff,” says Huffman. “I just don’t buy that as the driver of why the food scene happened here.”
// Photo by Leah Nash
In other words, understanding the evolution of Portland’s food scene requires a bit of contrarian thinking. The reasons Portland has been able to incubate a successful restaurant industry may have as much to do with the city’s social, economic and urban development circumstances as it does the chefs and the food. In 2012 Oregon had 10,500 restaurants that employed about 170,000 people and were projected to register $6.2 billion in sales, up from $5.3 billion in 2007. In Portland, data about the numbers of restaurants is a bit harder to come by, despite the often repeated statement that Portland has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country. “I’ve never been able to verify that claim,” says John Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association. An increase in liquor license applications does point to an uptick in new restaurant openings, Hamilton says, and in Portland, anecdotal evidence bears out that claim.
At least 15 new chef-driven independent restaurants have opened or will open in inner-city Portland this year, many hotly anticipated second ventures from local restaurant owners. John Gorham, proprietor of the popular Tasty n Sons on North Williams Avenue, is opening a second location downtown this fall. Tommy Habetz, chef/co-owner of Bunk Sandwiches, is opening the Tex-Mex-themed Trigger in Northeast Portland, also this fall.
“The number of new restaurants is multiplying; it feels like it’s squared every year,” says Nostrana co-owner Cathy Whims, who opened a second restaurant herself this past fall, the Pearl District’s Oven & Shaker. She used to worry that new restaurants would cut into her bottom line. Instead, the uptick in new restaurants seems to be having a cluster effect. “They just bring new business,” she says.
One of the most high-profile openings of the year is Imperial, a new venture in the Hotel Lucia by acclaimed chef Vitaly Paley, who has run the award-winning Paley’s Place since 1995. “I felt the need to express other creative thoughts and ideas,” says Paley. But Paley also got a good deal from the owners of the downtown hotel, who approached him with the idea about a year ago and, he says, contributed the lion’s share of the funding.
In Portland restaurant circles, relatively propitious real estate is a common topic of conversation, especially among those who have relocated from higher-priced cities. In 2010 Andrew Fortgang and Gabriel Rucker, co-owners of Le Pigeon in Southeast Portland, opened a second restaurant downtown, Little Bird, for about $300,000. “To open the same restaurant in New York would be a million and a half, maybe two,” says Fortgang, 33, who worked in Big Apple venues before moving to Portland in 2007. Then there’s Johanna Ware, who served as sous chef for New York City’s Momofuku restaurants before moving to Portland in 2009 and eventually opening Smallwares, a new restaurant in Northeast Portland. “I knew it would be a little easier and cheaper to do it in Portland,” says Ware, who, with the help of her mother spent about $150,000 to open the Asian-influenced venue.
Unlike Chicago, San Francisco or even Seattle, Portland restaurants tend to be guided by the vision of an individual chef/owner, not a pool of investors. Along with the artisan coffee, beer, wine and farms, the image of the artisan chef is part of a “sexy, super-appealing story” explaining how Portland became a culinary mecca, says David Machado, proprietor of Nel Centro and Vindalho.
But it’s not the whole story. Unlike other cities, Portland’s relatively affordable housing allows startup owners and staff “to live in harmony with their wage,” says Machado. Oregon’s minimum wage is $8.80 an hour; California’s is $8. As of September 2012, a two-bedroom Portland apartment rented for an average of $1,032 a month, compared to $2,106 a month in San Francisco. The role Portland’s famed livability has played in nurturing the restaurant industry cannot be overstated, he says.
“Sixteen years ago, I moved to Portland from San Francisco to open a restaurant, buy a home and put my kids in public schools,” he says. “To this day, if you talk to [a chef] who moves here, they would probably tell you the same thing.” Machado pauses. “Those are good goals,” he says. “Good ideals.”