For Portland restaurants, 2008 was a bell-shaped curve. This spring, as the economy began to cough and sputter, there was a spate of high-profile openings including Belly Timber on SE Hawthorne, 50 Plates in the Pearl District, and Lincoln and Belly in North and Northeast Portland. Later in the year, the flurry of openings slowed and Portland's food forums and blogs became riddled with announcements of closures. First came DF and Taqueria Nueve, followed by Mercato, Genoa, and most recently, Portland's newest beacon of elite dining, Lucier.
Initially, I tried to remain optimistic. Writing on blogtown.portlandmercury.com, I said that the closures might actually make the Portland restaurant community stronger. However, I've since realized how interconnected these restaurants are. Not only does a restaurant's closure put several people out of work, but its food and equipment suppliers also lose a customer—and in order to recoup costs, suppliers may raise prices for the rest of their clients, making it harder for restaurants still in business to stay that way.
Still, Chef David Siegal of Belly Timber doesn't see the recent closures bringing his restaurant to its knees, telling the Mercury that before opening in mid-June, he and the owners felt confident despite economic rumblings.
"From the outset we had a moderate price level," he says. "We thought we'd be in a good place." Now six months in, Siegal believes that Belly Timber is on course, even with a slight holiday season dip. "You have to keep in mind, we're still trying to build a customer base," he said. "I think we have a good product we're confident in, and we don't see a reason to change."
There were a number of new restaurants I visited this year that should also feel confident about their product. But how are they coping in this economic climate?
Janis Martin of Nob Hill's Tanuki, has the kind of confidence only afforded by 28 years of cooking experience—but she says the future of her eatery rests with her clientele.
"It's more about confidence with the restaurant-going public in Portland," she explains. "They're so open-minded—more so almost than Chicago," where she used to live and work. She notes that business has been a bit sporadic, but that most of her customers are regulars. She says that in 2009 diners at Tanuki can expect "more 'out there'" dishes that haven't been seen locally. This news, from my experiences there, should excite anyone with an adventurous palate and willingness to be surprised.
In March of this year Pine State Biscuits opened with considerable fanfare after a glowing review of their Reggie Deluxe sandwich in a national magazine. Soon after, it wasn't uncommon to find a line outside of their small shop. Co-owner Kevin Atchley is pleased with the way business has been going.
"I think we're sort of built for a recession," he says, "based on the quality of the food and the prices we have." He points out that customers at Pine State g et plenty of bang for their buck, not to mention, food that soothes the soul.
"Traditional home-style comfort food is the perfect thing for hard times," he says. "It puts people's minds at ease."
Atchley has no particular plans for 2009, other than to keep building on an already impressive menu of heart-stopping goodness. There is little doubt that the Pine State Biscuit line will be there for awhile.
At Bar Avignon, SE Division's neighborhood bar and bottle shop, owner Randy Goodman, his wife Nancy Hunt, and Chef Chad Brown are "running lean," as Goodman puts it. They had been planning to add a few more perishable luxury items to their jewel-like menu, but have recently thought better of it.
"We're keeping the menu small and focused," says Goodman. "We're keeping the price point low and looking for more wine we can do at $6 to $8 per glass."
Having spent time as the wine director and front-house manager at Wildwood, Goodman opened Bar Avignon with the idea of being small and flexible. "We can change things depending on the day of the week or respond to what the weather's doing," he jokes, noting that recent inclement weather hasn't been doing business any favors. Still he says, "We can respond to what's happening at the farmers' level and we don't have to have a $35 steak on our menu."
As far as 2009 is concerned, "We'll do a big party on January 20 for the inauguration," Goodman says. He doesn't think everything is going to change the next day, but by March he'd like to be hosting more events and maybe expanding the menu. Until then, there are still face-punchingly good dishes to be had. He recommends the brussels sprouts.
It might be that, like these restaurants, the key to surviving in 2009 is to be small and confident—a plucky David staring down a Goliath of bad stock-market news. It's likely in the coming year that Portland diners will be eating in shops with less seats, but more dynamism, changing with the whim of chef, season, and also, economy.