WHERE TO EAT: Jump to Our top restaurant picks
In 1992, Vitaly Paley was cooking at a small restaurant outside Limoges, France. A box of morels arrived in the kitchen ― moist and firm, with a deep, woodsy flavor. Where, he wondered, were these perfect fungi from?
Paley identified Oregon, birthplace of the morels he'd admired, as a new culinary frontier. He headed there with his wife, Kimberly, and opened Paley's Place Bistro and Bar, in Portland.
"Today Portland still has the same wondrous ingredient base to work with that first drew me here," Paley says, "but now we're also on the forefront of the sustainable movement, and we have a great range of restaurants."
He's not alone in his assessment. "We're really lucky to live in Portland," says Naomi Pomeroy, founder of Clarklewis, a restaurant known for its innovative, Italian-influenced cooking. "The physical proximity of the farms is amazing, and the growers we work with are still very small-scale. Most of our farmers do their own deliveries to our kitchen door." All of her suppliers farm within two hours of the restaurant, and one ― Ojala Farm, in northwest Portland ― is just 20 minutes away.
But it takes more than superlative and sustainable ingredients to create a restaurant culture like Portland's. Rather than having a predictable top-shelf restaurant selection downtown with a few outlying destination restaurants, it features drive-worthy eateries in practically every neighborhood. Along with showstoppers that get national attention, like Clarklewis and Paley's Place, a tremendous number of small spots serve remarkably good food.
What else makes Portland such an across-the-board great eating town? It's primarily the residents of Portland themselves. Portlanders are proud of their burg and support local efforts accordingly. Their love of their city ― its physical beauty, its art, its wines, its quirky sophistication ― translates into a restaurant-going public any chef would envy. "Our customers are willing to try anything," says Pomeroy ― even an all-organ-meat dinner she and founding Clarklewis chef Morgan Brownlow, who has since moved on, offered one year for Valentine's Day at their previous restaurant. (It sold out.)
This culinary curiosity also explains the wide range of restaurants that thrive here, from Peruvian nuevo-Andean superstar Andina to the recent explosion of Southeast Asian places on 82nd Avenue. As Adam Berger, owner of Tabla Mediterranean Bistro, puts it, "Good food has become part of the culture of Portland, along with bridges and views of Mt. Hood." It all began, he claims, with Paley's Place over a decade ago, along with other pioneering restaurants like Wildwood and Higgins. "They educated their customers, who came to expect more ― and now we all keep moving that bar along."
So where are Paley's sights aimed now? "I've become too attached to this way of cooking to leave," he says. "Our farmers structure our menu every day. I'm never sure what's coming in the back door. I just know it's going to be excellent."
Alberta Street Oyster Bar & Grill. In a lively setting, pan-American regional favorites with plenty of seafood offerings. $$$; closed Tue; 2926 N.E. Alberta St.; 503/284-9600.
Andina. Sophisticated Peruvian creations in an airy dining space in the Pearl District. $$$; 1314 N.W. Glisan St.; 503/228-9535.
Ciao Vito. Simple trattoria food done right: Bolognese with wild boar; sugo (simple, thick sauce) of pork with Oregon wild mushrooms. $$; 2203 N.E. Alberta St.; 503/282-5522.
Clarklewis. Innovative, ever-changing menu served in a converted warehouse awash in urban style. $$$; closed Sun; 1001 S.E. Water Ave.; 503/235-2294.
Lovely Hula Hands. The world comes to North Portland. Thai-style steak with sticky rice and retro cocktails make the wait worthwhile. $$; closed Mon; 4057 N. Mississippi Ave.; 503/445-9910.
Mother's Bistro & Bar. Upscale comfort food and perhaps the best breakfast in a breakfast-blessed town. $$; closed Mon; 212 S.W. Stark St.; 503/464-1122.
Navarre. Wine bar extraordinaire with a sushi-style check-off menu, plus monthly regional wine and food specials. $$; 10 N.E. 28th Ave.; 503/232-3555.
Nostrana. Menu standouts (besides the practically perfect pizza) include rabbit crostini and wood-fired crab. $$$; 1401 S.E. Morrison St.; 503/234-2427.
Paley's Place Bistro and Bar. In a sophisticated, cozy space, French technique meets Oregon's bounty and an American penchant for thoughtful experiment. $$$$; 1204 N.W. 21st Ave.; 503/243-2403.
Pambiche: Cocina y Repostería Cubana. Nicely priced, delicious Cuban food and lots of it, both on the menu and on your plate. We're powerless before the croquettes. $$; 2811 N.E. Glisan St.; 503/233-0511.
Park Kitchen. Chef-owner Scott Dolich sits on the board of the Portland Farmers Market and is a devoted forager and trained butcher. $$$; closed Sun; 422 N.W. Eighth Ave.; 503/223-7275.
Pok Pok. Thai street food: roasted game hen, green papaya salad, and noodle soups. $$; closed Sun; 3226 S.E. Division St.; 503/232-1387.
Tabla Mediterranean Bistro. Smartly simple dishes (like rabbit ragù on housemade pappardelle) keep things interesting at this charming bistro. $$$; closed Mon; 200 N.E. 28th Ave.; 503/238-3777.
Three Square Grill. American regional favorites with a heavy dose of Southern ― pulled pork, okra, hush puppies, and stupendous pickles. $$; closed Mon; 6320 S.W. Capitol Hwy.; 503/244-4467.
Wildwood. Cory Schreiber opened his lively spot, serving Northwest dishes, within months of Vitaly Paley's opening his ― the big bang for the current Portland restaurant renaissance. $$$; 1221 N.W. 21st Ave.; 503/248-9663.