Recessions obviously suck, but they certainly weed out the crappy restaurants. It seems no one is willing to try a new place or eat mediocre food, when they can only eat out once every six months. So right now, if you see a packed place, you know it's got to be good. By these standards, Sala, the Sellwood restaurant recently opened by the owners of Il Piatto, seems to be thriving.
Right off of Powell across from the Aladdin, the atmosphere of Sala is sweet and classy without being too pretentious or crowded. Everything is muted in very light, pastel coloring--in the dining room, the wooden tables have blue/green tops, and tasteful, miniature chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Things are fancy, but not garish, and the place is small enough that one feels comfortable without feeling like everyone can hear your conversation.
In standard Italian fashion, the menu offers the normal Antipasti (Appetizers), Insalate (Salad), Contorni (Sides), Primi (Pasta), and Secondi (Entrée). While a lot of dishes include meats like duck, rabbit, chicken breast, and various seafoods, there are a number of meatless items which don't feel like fancy macaroni and cheese--often the case in upper-scale vegetarian dining. On the whole, the menu relies on traditional Italian cooking, yet still combines the local/Northwest ingredients in creative combinations, often involving items like morel, portabella, and chanterelle mushrooms, red peppers, huckleberries, spinach, and lots of salmon and shrimp. Mostly, these dishes use flavors sparingly and are balanced, delicious, and elegant.
For example, the lime-scented rock shrimp risotto with roasted peppers, marscapone, and salsa verde is creamy, rich, and fresh, and the tiny shrimp, while still the main component of the dish, are not overwhelming in relation to the peppery green salsa. The conch-shell pasta is also a model of balance--stuffed with fresh milk mozzarella, sautéed spinach, garlic chips, and basil in a saffron tomato sauce, the flavors are complex and layered, but also fresh and full of quality.
I know you're broke. But I promise, if you can only eat at one place this year, you won't be disappointed with Sala.