Dining in Portland's Happening West End
For the past decade, Portland’s most exciting restaurant openings were happening east of the Willamette River, in rent-friendly neighborhoods or industrial zones where young, talented chefs on a shoestring could afford to open their own place—and bike to it from home. As they built their reputations—and Portland’s—with scrappy, inventive eateries such as Ned Ludd, Beast and Le Pigeon in northeast Portland and Pok Pok, Biwa and Olympic Provisions in southeast Portland, the west side withered. Its attractions—downtown, The Pearl, Nob Hill—devolved into vacuous shells of chain restaurants and too-posh boutiques aimed at tourists and suburban commuters.
Even worse was a forlorn pocket on the outskirts of downtown called the West End. Save for the city’s pioneering food-cart pod several blocks east and Ace Hotel’s ground-level destinations—Stumptown Coffee, Clyde Common and Kenny and Zuke’s Deli—a few blocks south, the West End was primarily a mix of office buildings and dive bars. Most Portlanders didn’t even know the area had a name.
Not anymore. In the past year, the West End has become one of the city’s hottest destinations, a half-square mile so chockablock with big-name restaurants and design-forward boutiques you could happily spend the entire weekend there and still want more. But this is no spillover from The Pearl, which is just across Burnside. There’s one thing that sets the West End apart from the other westside neighborhoods: an influx of eastside chefs, giving it a distinctly eastside soul. (Photo: Boxer Ramen, on SW Stark Street)
Although most of the area’s changes are recent, the transformation truly started in late 2009, when chef Chris Israel, a pioneer in Portland’s food scene, opened his alpine-inspired Grüner in what was then a culinary wasteland. A year later, he opened Kask next door, a craft-cocktail bar helmed by Tommy Klus, a veteran of Teardrop and Bluehour, and one of the city’s best bartenders.
These two talents drew crowds, but it wasn’t until December 2012 that the area’s renaissance took off, thanks to some of the east side’s best chefs, who were willing to shake things up across the river.
First, the city was buzzing with news that chef John Gorham (an eastside king whose nearly 7-year-old tapas restaurant, Toro Bravo, still draws interminable lines) was opening a more grown-up version of his popular neighborhood joint, Tasty n Sons, across the street from Grüner. Whereas the east side’s Tasty n Sons is a delicious mishmash of inventive brunch dishes, Northwest comfort food and Toro Bravo riffs, the year-old Tasty n Alder offers a more streamlined, upscale, steak-house-inspired approach: double-grilled, aged rib-eyes ($29), tender veal T-bone steaks ($33), fries cooked in ridiculously beefy wagyu tallow ($4).
At the same time, and just a block away, chef Rick Gencarelli, famous for Lardo, his southeast sandwich cart turned brick-and-mortar restaurant, was packing them in at his new location, commonly called Lardo West. It opened in late 2012 in partnership with ChefStable, Kurt Huffman’s restaurant support group, which has helped launch biggies such as Pok Pok, Grüner and Ox, and recently made Seattle inroads with Jason Wilson’s just-opened Miller’s Guild.
Serving up craft beers and cocktails alongside dishes such as “dirty fries” topped with pork scraps and marinated peppers ($7), and spit-roasted porchetta sandwiches dripping with bright, grassy gremolata ($10), Gencarelli has mastered the art of the in-your-face sandwich. Each is guilt-inducingly rich but not gratuitously so. He and Huffman are talking about expanding to Seattle, and beyond.
But Gencarelli is not a one-trick pony. After all, the chef spent several years working on the East Coast in Todd English’s vast restaurant group. Just six months after opening Lardo West, he and Huffman opened pasta-focused Grassa next door. The bright, modern space, walk-up counter service and cooler of house-made fresh pastas give it a casual feel, but the tight menu reveals considerable skill—squid ink tonnarelli tossed with tender braised squid, mussels and scallops ($12), melt-in-your-mouth ricotta gnudi bathed in lamb bolognese ($12).
Next door to Grassa sits Ración, another ChefStable-supported project, this time from chef Anthony Cafiero, who built a serious following at Tabla on the east side’s 28th Avenue restaurant row. Launched in March 2013, it offers a high-tech take on Spanish tapas. Fifteen seats wrap around the open kitchen, situated in the center of the room. From there, armed with handheld smokers, sous vide machines and sodium alginate, Cafiero and his crew put out a playful, elegant and surprisingly affordable array of modernist plates and cocktails, such as romano beans topped with puffed soy “chicharrones,” sous vide pork served with spherified truffle oil, and chorizo-infused margaritas topped with salty foam. At just $8 a plate during happy hour, you can taste the whole menu for $48. (Photo: Lardo’s new West End location)
Although it might seem like Huffman’s projects are monopolizing the area, other eastside power players have planted their own flags, too. Heart Coffee, from pro snowboarder turned award-winning coffee roaster Wille Yli-Luoma, just opened a second location next door to Grüner. Ruby Jewel, beloved maker of inventive ice cream sandwiches, opened its second location across the street from Lardo.
And Micah Camden—long known as the kingpin of NE Killingsworth Street for launching DOC, Yakuza Lounge and famed Portland chef Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast in 2009, before taking over the city (in partnership with his wife, Katie) with the Little Big Burger chain—opened Blue Star Donuts in December 2012. Located in the same building as Ración, Grassa and Lardo, Blue Star’s ever-changing doughnut lineup is the creation of pastry chef Stephanie Thornton. Each is built with brioche dough and borders on dessert—unless your idea of breakfast is a pastry-cream-filled and brûléed wonder impaled with a small vial of Cointreau ($3).
More recently, the Camdens have expanded their reach, opening Boxer Ramen in the new Union Way alley of micro-retail spots across from Ace Hotel. The tiny noodle joint has a fittingly diminutive menu—just two to three ramens and three to six side dishes—that can get the queuing hordes in and out in record time. Within minutes of ordering, deep handmade ceramic bowls of rich, savory broth come loaded with tender chunks of pork belly, a sous vide egg and a tangle of slurpy noodles from Sun Noodle in L.A. ($10). For dessert, a half-dozen flavors of creamy ice cream balls wrapped in chewy mochi ($3), flown in from Bubbies in Hawaii.
Union Way itself is a destination, reborn from a pair of old, one-story buildings last summer. It’s a gorgeous, rustic-chic mini mall, made by carving out an enclosed, skylighted walkway through the block-wide buildings. Lining the walkway are small, hipster-luxe boutiques such as Marine Layer, Will Leather Goods and Quin, an artisan candy shop from the sugar geniuses at Saint Cupcake. An even bigger draw is baker Tim Healea’s cozy Little T Baker. Stocked with pastries and breads baked at his eastside bakery (his baguettes are the best in town, and his croissants will deliver a death blow to your restraint), the tiny café is steeped in warm wood tones and gentle lighting. (Photo: Bolognese pasta at Grassa, next door to Lardo)
With only three tables, Little T Bakery was designed for quick stops. But just two blocks away is the sumptuous Multnomah Whiskey Library, designed for lingering. Co-owned by Alan Davis (with Greg Goodman) of the Produce Row gastropub on the industrial east side, it’s nestled up a flight of stairs and feels like the grand library of a private men’s club—wood paneling, leather sofas, massive brick fireplace and floor lamps instead of overhead lights. More than 1,500 bottles of spirits (mostly whiskey) line the soaring brick walls anchored by three brass library ladders. Bartender Tommy Klus left Kask to curate the impressive selection. Order a neat pour or a stirred cocktail, and your bartender will wheel over a cart to prepare it tableside. Behind a secret door in the paneling, executive chef Derek Hanson, formerly the chef de cuisine at Laurelhurst Market in southeast Portland, creates refined small plates, such as perfectly seared scallops with chestnut brown butter ($16), and a juicy, pink hamburger topped with creamy Camembert and tucked between tender brioche buns ($12).
As if proving the idea that talent attracts talent, Kristen Murray, a pastry chef with such superstar status that her every kitchen move results in sold-out reservations, recently chose the West End for Måurice, her little luncheonette-style jewelbox. This is a chef who has worked with the best, both in New York (Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern, Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit) and Portland (Vitaly Paley at Paley’s Place). She offers the exquisite, refined desserts she’s known for (think mille-feuille and Vacherin), in addition to simpler treats and savory lunch fare, such as lefse sandwich wraps, composed salads and vegetable galettes.
Few areas in Portland can boast such a wealth of culinary heavy hitters (and certainly none so close to hotels, museums, theaters and a light rail line to the airport). And few have undergone such a radical transformation in such a short amount of time.
“There’s a critical mass now,” says Healea, the baker. No longer a hub of seedy nightlife, the West End is really coming into its own.
Blue Star Donuts
1237 SW Washington St.; 503.265.8410; bluestardonuts.com
Heart Coffee roasters
537 SW 12th Ave.; 503.224.0036; heartroasters.com
Little T Baker
1025 SW Stark St.; 503.894.8258; littletbaker.com
Tasty N Alder
580 SW 12th Ave.; 503.621.9251; tastyntasty.com/alder
1025 SW Stark St.; 503.894.8260; boxerramen.com
1205 SW Washington St.; 503.241.1133; grassapdx.com
1205 SW Washington St.; 503.241.2490; lardopdx.com
1205 SW Washington St, Portland, OR; 971.276.8008; racionpdx.com
Tasty N Alder
428 SW 12th Ave.; 971.271.8895; rubyjewel.com
921 SW Oak St.; 503.224.9921; mauricepdx.com
1215 SW Alder St.; 503.241.7163; grunerpdx.com/kask
Multnomah Whiskey Library
1124 SW Alder St.; 503.764.9374; mwlpdx.com