|Ken's Artisan Pizza // Photo by Alan Weiner|
BY HANNAH WALLACE | OB BLOGGER
Recently, I joined a friend for appetizers at Ava Gene’s, Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson’s celebrated new Italian restaurant on Division Street. One of Bon Appetit’s ten best new restaurants of 2013, Ava Gene’s was also Portland Monthly’s pick for top restaurant of 2013. (“With Ava Gene’s,” food critic Karen Brooks said, “Portland grows up. But rock and roll never dies.”) So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find it packed on a Sunday at 5 p.m. But packed it was.
A few weeks later, I went to an industry wine tasting at Cathy Whim’s Pearl District boîte Oven & Shaker on a Thursday evening. It was fairly early — around 6PM — but the room was already buzzing with families, couples, and boisterous groups sharing wood-fired pizzas, insalata Nostrana, and bottles of chianti. After that, my husband and I went for dinner at Veritable Quandary, a Portland institution that’s been around since 1971. There wasn’t an empty table in the spot.
What’s going on here? Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled that Portland’s restaurants are thriving — and that a new place seems to open every week. About 500 restaurants and brewpubs opened in Oregon last year, the majority in Portland, according to OLCC records. As everybody knows, we have an incredibly vibrant culinary scene—with outstanding chef talent and unsurpassed locally sourced ingredients.
It just makes me wonder—who are these people who can afford to dine out several nights a week? They can’t all work for Adidas, Intel, or Nike — or some new tech start-up or innovation consultancy firm. Could it be, as Le Pigeon chef Gabe Rucker suggested recently in this San Francisco Chronicle interview, that dining has become our chosen form of entertainment? “People used to go out to dinner and a movie,” Rucker was quoted as saying. “Now, it’s like going out to dinner is the movie.”
Mike Thelin, co-founder of Feast Portland and a former Portland Monthly restaurant columnist, says there’s something to Rucker's theory. After all, we don’t have the performing arts scene of L.A. or the world-famous museums of New York City. Where else can we compete with other world-class cities but in the food arena? “We’re the San Sebastián of the U.S.,” says Thelin, referring to the northern Spanish town that’s become a mecca for foodies. “The Food IQ in this town is so high.”
But dining out is more than a form of entertainment for us, it’s a pleasurable form of social interaction. And Portlanders, as Thelin observes, love to talk. “Portland is a cafe culture — it always has been,” says Thelin. “There’s nothing social about a movie.” We also tend to forget that Portland — especially the Portland metro area — does have its share of wealth. And it’s not just the influx of freelance consultants and creatives from cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, who still make six figure salaries but enjoy Portland’s less expensive housing costs. (Though they certainly do eat out a lot.)
“One of the biggest misconceptions about Portland is that there’s no money. We do not come close to the bottom of the list when we talk about household income,” says Thelin. In the last U.S. Census, the median household income in the Portland metro area was $46,090— higher than the median household income in Houston, Los Angeles, or Santa Fe.
While it may seem that Portland can sustain an endless supply of high-end restaurants, John Hamilton, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association is quick to remind me that 20-30% of restaurants in the state close within a year of opening. Some beloved Portland restaurants shuttered in 2013—Beaker & Flask, June, Metrovino, Riffle NW, and Wafu among them.
A winning restaurant formula has always been a bit elusive in Portland—it’s not enough to have a talented chef, killer ambiance, a great wine list, and locally-sourced kale. Savvy chef-owners are expanding their reach—and their profits—with second (often larger) outposts. Just look at Vitaly Paley’s always-packed Imperial at the Hotel Lucia, or John Taboda’s Luce, or Ken Forkish’s brand-new Trifecta Tavern. It doesn’t hurt the bottom line to have fabulous $11 cocktails on the menu, either. Instead of launching a second restaurant, chef Naomi Pomeroy teamed up with husband Kyle Webster to open Expatriate, a sexy bar with a simple menu inspired by Asian street fare.
The profit margins on alcohol have always much higher than on food, especially when you're sourcing high quality, locally-sourced ingredients.
So the Portland restaurant scene is a bit like a Phoenix — a restaurant flames out and is resurrected, though often in a different location with a different chef and concept, from the ashes. I think it’s time to make a reservation at Kevin Gibson’s new restaurant, Davenport. (In the former June space on Burnside.) Care to join me?
Hannah Wallace blogs on food and farms for Oregon Business.