Once a hipster haven, Portland is welcoming a more affluent crowd in a luxury hotel and fine dining boom
In the early days of the 2010s, Portland, Ore., built a reputation as the country’s coolest city: laid-back, affordable, and full of food carts and restaurants serving dishes that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the country. It gave rise to FEAST Portland, the hottest food festival in the country, with every vaunted chef from Texas, New York, and anywhere else flying in to be a part of the Little West Coast City That Could. The overwhelming attention even gave rise to Portlandia, which skewered exactly the same elements that brought the city its “it” factor.
Now, as we prepare to exit the decade, Portland has grown up. A hotel boom has brought in a wealth of places to stay, including those that balance that Portland vibe with the creature comforts of higher-end hotels. And while the food cart scene has kept running steady, chefs have also found a way to infuse the city’s signature feel into multicourse tasting menus.
Portland, which entered the decade as the scrappy outsider everybody loved, aged like a good cheese: funkier, fancier, and even tastier.
Enter the hoteliers
Starting in 2018, hotels oozing the kind of hipster chill that Portland loves—all-day cafés, local details, and woodsy coziness—began popping up around town, including London chain The Hoxton, which opened its first two U.S. hotels in Williamsburg and Portland in the final quarter of that year. At the same time, locally based Provenance Hotels (a company founded, notably, by U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland), opened the Woodlark Hotel, which fuses boutique service and style with high-end trappings.
The Jupiter—a revamped motel that was central to much of Portland’s climb to cool—opened the adjacent Jupiter NEXT in July 2018 to capture the higher-end crowd. Folks looking for the same laid-back vibe as the original Jupiter, but newer, found that casual bargain at the first U.S. outlet of Icelandic hotel KEX, which brings Nordic food and style (and a sauna) to Portland, along with both private and shared rooms.
Hilton brought its high-end Curio Collection in the form of the Porter, and Hyatt plans to open three hotels in early 2020, including a giant Regency, a Centric, and luxury brand Unbound. Also still slated to arrive soon is the Japanese chain Toyoko Inn, and in 2023, Portland will hit peak luxury hotel when the new Ritz-Carlton opens.
The post food truck era
But, of course, these incoming hordes of travelers looking to find their own piece of Portland’s specialness aren’t eating every meal at food carts—in part because the same clamor for space to build hotels has displaced some of those very collections of carts: the future Ritz-Carlton site was previously home to one of the most storied cart pods.
Meanwhile, the most successful of local carts—places like Thai chicken purveyor Nong’s Khao Man Gai and Georgian khachapuri vendor Kargi Gogo—have transitioned to fixed locations. Because the carts provide a relatively low barrier of entry to the industry, they were a key piece of what created Portland’s impressive culinary culture in the first place. So the city and its carts are hard at work finding new homes for displaced pods in order to preserve the diverse collection of food carts; currently, there are some 600 serving the area.
Until recently, the carts and accessible casual or mid-range restaurants were Portland’s bread and butter, and most of the few high-end spots were of the continental type Calvin Trillin referred to as “La Maison de la Casa House.” But the experimental, innovative, and intriguing tenets of cart cuisine managed to trickle up the food chain in the past few years, pushing out fine-dining restaurants serving multicourse tasting menus filled with the same category of “not to be found anywhere else in the U.S.” foods that made carts famous.
At Erizo, you’ll find more than a dozen courses of seafood that isn’t just sustainable but chosen for having the least impact on the species and environment: adductor muscles from oysters too old to serve raw, invasive species of sea snail, and bycatch that might otherwise be tossed back regardless of its condition. Most diners have never heard of the species of seafood they’ll eat there; though without a menu in front of them, diners might assume they were eating the finest fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. But for those willing to embrace unfamiliarity, it is a visually stunning, delicate, flavorful romp through Oregon’s coastal flora and fauna.
At Berlu, chef Vince Nguyen brings minimalist style, Michelin-starred experience, and flavors and techniques pulled from around the world—Dungeness crab in toasted rice stock, duck-fat popovers, and gelatinous dumplings in roasted pear tea—to an almost unreasonably affordable $85, seven-course tasting menu, with thoughtful wine pairings for $45 more (a highlight of a recent meal). Holdfast tops the other end of the tasting menu price scale at $140, though that includes drinks (alcoholic or non), having transitioned from pop-up to permanent restaurant in mid-2018, serving modernist-style food in a distinctly enthusiastic, innovative Portland way. Farm Spirit, a vegan set-menu spot had to open an expanded space to fulfill the demands for its entirely local, plant-based tasting menus, and when local star and Southern cuisine wunderkind Maya Lovelace opened the casual Yonder, she also snuck in a fancier, family-style tasting menu spot called Mae in the back.
Between the hotel boom and the fine-dining surge, Portland has found a smooth, authentic way to mature over the course of the decade. But a conversation with Erizo chef Jacob Harth highlights the one issue that keeps it a precarious balance: He says he has yet to find a local audience—the overwhelming majority of his guests are the people coming into town to stay at those hotels.
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