Nicholas’ gorgeous new bar greets visitors upon arrival
Nicholas’ gorgeous new bar greets visitors upon arrival Janey Wong
Longtime Portlanders may remember when Nicholas Restaurant introduced the city to Lebanese-Mediterranean food back in 1987. Nicholas and Linda Dibe fled war-torn Beirut five years prior, leaving good jobs to secure their family’s safety and future. Faced with a language barrier, they began selling Greek food, pizzas, and calzones out of a rundown tavern they had purchased, and eventually added home-cooked Lebanese dishes to the menu.

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The original location on SE Grand recently closed its doors to start a new chapter in the space that was once long occupied by Madison’s Bar & Grill. Not to worry, menu favorites like lamb shawarma and beef kafta kabobs haven’t gone anywhere. Neither has the fresh bread (with oil and za’atar for dipping) that hits your table as soon as you’re seated, although a new stone pizza oven has replaced the decades-old black oven that Nicholas had shipped from Lebanon. With the move, the restaurant has also added a dedicated bar, a medical-grade air filtration system, 3,000 square feet, heated patio seating, and even some parking spaces (!).

Bar manager Sarah Atkins brings 17 years of experience to Nicholas’ new bar program. After the pandemic shut down Café Encina, the vermouth and tapas bar she co-owned in Oakland, Atkins moved back home to Portland. Along with creating Nicholas’ newly minted cocktail menu, she has also incorporated wines from both nearby Cooper Hall and far away—Lebanon itself. Nicholas offers red and a white option for diners curious to taste the fruits of the country’s wine region.

“People don’t really think about the actual landscape of Lebanon, where it’s beaches and then mountains. The red is called ‘Altitudes’ because it’s one of the highest vineyards in the world,” Atkins shares. The bartender/wine enthusiast also gushed about the unique Lebanese-made Blanc de Blancs, explaining that it’s rare to see a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

I tried the two cocktails on the menu that are currently available to go. Atkins envisions an expansion in which all of her beverages are available to go (fingers crossed the legislation becomes permanent!), but wanted to test the waters to start, seeing how they travel and customer response. As the bar program develops, second-generation owner Hilda Dibe also looks forward to incorporating more Middle Eastern ingredients such as pomegranate molasses and date juice.

Okay, so I cheated this week and actually enjoyed these cocktails on the restaurant’s patio
Okay, so I cheated this week and actually enjoyed these cocktails on the restaurant’s patio Janey Wong

The “Nicholas margarita” (100% agave tequila, Ancho Reyes verde, fresh lime, fresh grapefruit) is standard issue. The menu describes it as slightly spicy with a salted rim, and it does indeed deliver on those fronts. The “Arak mojito” pairs traditional Middle Eastern spirit arak, which has anise and licorice flavors, with mint lemonade. Aside from the mint garnish, I didn’t discern much mint flavor. Or lemonade for that matter. The licorice dominates here, and Dibe acknowledges it’s either a love it or hate it situation.

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In Lebanon, arak is typically imbibed in three different methods as an accompaniment to dinner: as a straight up shot, diluted with a bit of water, or on the rocks. “Arak sits on every kitchen table,” says Dibe. “It’s definitely our staple drink.” With the addition of ice, the clear spirit turns a translucent milky white. The bar plans to serve it this way with an edible flower.

These days, matriarch Linda is enjoying retirement and keeping up with her grandkids while daughter Hilda carries on the family legacy. Dibe’s seventeen year-old son, named Nicholas after her father, also works at the family business and has already proved adept at it. “We’re going on third-generation,” Dibe says with a smile. “I don’t think we trained him on anything… he figures everything out himself.” Elsewhere on the Dibe family tree, Hilda’s sisters branched off to start other restaurants (YOU MAY HAVE HEARD OF THEM)—Hoda’s Middle Eastern Cuisine and Ya Hala—but it’s all love. Talk about a family potluck I’d love an invite to!

Nicholas Restaurant, 1109 SE Madison, (503) 235-5123, nicholasrestaurant.com