THIS IS MY FAVORITE column of the year. It's a thanks to the places where I get real comfort, value, and reliable food, outside of my fairly unnatural schedule of restaurant-going. These are businesses that make dining an actual pleasure—not work.
Smallwares (4605 NE Fremont) is still the weekly date-night spot for my daughter and me, though this year we've been sharing the oven-baked cookie and a house soda at Ned Ludd (3925 NE MLK) for dessert. With the routine of visiting comes the priceless familiarity and friendliness of staff who make us feel like family, and who show my daughter the comforts of loyalty.
When my girlfriend and I throw in the towel after a long day of wrangling our three children, we trundle everyone off to Taqueria Portland (7007 N Fessenden) for the city's best nachos, sopes, and mole burritos. The green naugahyde booths and chilled glass mugs of orange Fanta remind me of restaurants from my childhood, so these visits feel like reliving a happy memory.
Angel Food and Fun (5135 NE 60th)—the Yucatecan taqueria and soup house closer to home—is rapidly gaining Taqueria Portland's market share, however. The adults go for Manuel Lopez's more exotic cochinita pibil, empanadas, and panuchos, while the kids are satisfied inexpensively with $5 burritos that are built with a lightly caramelized pancake of frico-like griddled cheese inside.
There won't be a kid angle in everything I say. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Café Hibiscus (4950 NE 14th), though. They're less of a secret these days, but my daughter and I can still sneak in for hearty, comforting Swiss food on brisk winter nights. For $5 she gets a generous plate of golden wienerschnitzel and spaetzle, while I splurge on succulent, tender Szegedin goulash ($13.50) with bacon-and-onion-studded rösti (an important voice in Portland's ongoing hashbrowns conversation).
On days when I'm free, I like to drive without a plan, and see where my animal brain takes me. Lardo (1212 SE Hawthorne; 1205 SW Washington) seems to have a tidal pull on my amygdalae: The way Rick Gencarelli's big balancing acts of meat, salt, spices, fat, and vinegary pop draw me in, you might say I was mentally branded. The excruciatingly good cheeseburger at Ate-Oh-Ate (2454 E Burnside)—easily in the top five in town, and only $7.95—has a similar tractor pull, but they're also on here because though they're casual, their customer service has always earned my respect for being above and beyond. Newcomer Roman Candle (3377 SE Division) has firmly established themselves as a top casual café: The Sloppy Giuseppe ($8), a focaccia pocket of thick sweet beef and pork ragu, would have won my "Sandwich of the Year" contest—if I'd thought to throw one. Newest newcomer P's and Q's Market (1301 NE Dekum) knows me so well I can order their griddled brioche Winter BLT ($9.50) to go, and they put the fries in a paper cup ("Chris' drivin' fries"), so I can eat them on the way home before they lose their magic. Any place that indulges my strong feelings about hot french fries is basically as meaningful to me as my own home.
At end-of-day it always surprises me that we can still get a seat at Ciao Vito's (2203 NE Alberta) ridiculous happy hour: skirt steak and fries, spaghetti agli olio, arancini, and penne with sausage ragu runs us right about $30. When we're not there, we pull up a couple stools at Bar Vivant (2225 E Burnside) for gin rummy, inventive and well-balanced house cocktails, and an evening of good conversation with Matt the barman, whose knowledge of his rich back bar runs deep.
My days, like anyone's, are mundane hashes of sock hunting, empty toothpaste tubes, automated phone systems, and noticing weird new lumps on the dog. When I walk into Expatriate (5424 NE 30th) it's as though I assume the identity of the urbane, civilized person I was meant to be. It's said that the clothes make the man, but it can also be said that the room makes the evening. Expatriate is a room to disappear into, adjacent to the current universe, where adults are treated like intelligent things, where they can feel good looking and witty, and let their evening unfold in an intimate space whose attendant pleasures are the most refined of their kind. Kyle Linden Webster's house cocktails are as meticulously crafted as they come, but he's also talented at inventing drinks on the fly. ("Name a color, I'll come up with a drink," he said. "Copper," she said. He came back with something involving tequila, sherry, apricot brandy, citrus... there was more to it, but in a word, it was sublime.) And getting to enjoy Naomi Pomeroy's world-class cooking alongside—without the commitment of a reservation at Beast—is, to me, one of the best developments of 2013.