PEANUT BUTTER PIE at Metro on Broadway. Cobb salad at Meier & Frank's Georgian Room. Fried calamari—and the Decemberists—at the Grand Avenue basement bar, the Rabbit Hole. These are just a few of the dishes and places that once defined the way Portlanders ate before we became the critical darlings of the New York Times. We were once just a casual dining town populated by pie shops and lunch counters. A hundred years ago, we were a town crazy about oysters and tamales, with parlors serving both all over downtown. And earlier than that, Portland's collective sweet tooth was sated by Hazelwood Creamery's strawberry ice creams and Swetland's Sweet Shop confections.
We were a cookies and crackers town. We were a chop suey town.
Portland has a long history of feeding its people with a unique combination of foods that both echo national trends and celebrate local bounty. To newcomers and outsiders, our food scene might seem like a flash in the pan, but we started catching the eye of big-city culinary critics way back in the '80s.
Before the top of Big Pink held Portland City Grill, it was Atwater's—and it was the place to take your prom date if you wanted to maximize your chances of getting lucky on the big night. Prior to the 1970s, Portland didn't offer much in the way of fine dining besides swanky hotels. Sure, if you were a blue blood you could go to the Arlington or the City Club (the Multnomah Athletic Club's menu was a snoozefest until Philippe Boulot took over in 2008), but we plebeians had few choices. There was L'Auberge, which had a good run, and Le Cuisinier, whose star went supernova far too soon.
There was, however, Genoa.
Opened in 1971 with a $7 prix-fixe dinner, Genoa transformed a defunct Mexican restaurant into one of Portland's most memorable dining destinations. In an early interview with the Oregonian, then-proprietor Mike Vidor said humbly of Genoa's northern Italian cuisine that "it is nothing more than a dinner party you would have at home... one you gave a lot of thought to." But the food they were making was revelatory, and the restaurant turned out culinary leviathans Cathy Whims (Nostrana), Tommy Habetz (Pizza Jerk, Bunk), and John Taboada (Navarre, Angel Face, Luce).
After a few fits and starts and reboots in 2008 and 2009, Genoa finally gurgled out its last breath two years ago. Mercifully for Portland, by then our dining scene had grown up a lot—Nodoguro is soon taking over the homey Belmont spot, for example—but we will always have a Genoa-shaped hole left in our hearts.
Eat Now at Waddles
Portlanders of a certain vintage remember that before Hooters promised chicken wings served by aggressively friendly young ladies in orange booty shorts as you bid Oregon adieu, Jantzen Beach had plenty to offer. There was an amusement park—our own "Coney Island of the West"—complete with a roller coaster and indoor swimming pools. There were picnic grounds galore. And there was Waddles.
Opened in 1945, Waddles Drive-In at Jantzen Beach was but one of the restaurants in the Waddles family empire; there was another Waddles on Sandy in the early 1950s before it became Prime Rib (opened a few years after a certain blatantly offensive restaurant closed in that location), and another earlier one on McLoughlin and Holgate, where La Carreta stands today. They owned other burger joints as well, and still own the Original Taco House, where you can buy jars of their original recipe burger sauce.
Before we had Portland Mercado and Mi Mero Mole's tantalizing albondigas burritos, Portland had a perfectly commendable handful of hipster burrito places. For instance, La Cruda, the joint that lived in La Moule's spot before Savoy Tavern, served up post-grunge burritos in your choice of tortilla (spinach, tomato, garlic-herb), which was revelatory for the time. They also featured a choose-your-own salsa bar (the pineapple salsa was the best), and it was the first place I ever ate cilantro or anything seasoned with cumin.
In 1994 I briefly dated an exquisite Roger Daltrey lookalike that worked at the Hawthorne Macheezmo Mouse (now Chez Machin, but the original mural, painted by Gus Van Sant, still remains). The food there was pretty bland, but if you smoked enough pot, added enough tangy-sweet Boss Sauce, and washed it down with a Cactus Cooler, even the budget-friendly black bean, cheese, and rice burrito was pretty decent.
David, the brother of my college roommate's best friend, worked at Dingo's Taco Bar. He used to hook me up with free veggie burritos, filled with beans and a veggie mélange that included potatoes. After I finished school, whenever I was feeling flush I'd go in for an ahi burrito, which had beans, grilled ahi, and a slaw dressed in a zippy dressing of yogurt, mayo, lime juice, cumin, and cilantro.
It used to be, if you ever wanted to know if someone was a Portland native, all you'd have to do is ask, "What about frogs?" That secret handshake only works on the over-30 set, just like waxing nostalgic for Ramblin' Rod. Everyone from Portland has either been a special birthday kid on the Ramblin' Rod show or knows someone who was.
Before Pip's was here to spoil a birthday kid with a dozen faerie-sized artisanal donuts, Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor near Lloyd Center had their gargantuan 30-scoop sundae known aptly as "The Mt. Hood." If it was your birthday (or if you lied, and said it was), your frosty treat would be delivered by a team of ice cream parlor employees, singing, banging drums, and blaring a manic, hand-cranked siren while fully bedecked in 1890s garb.
The Organ Grinder on SE 82nd (between Holgate and Foster) was the only other acceptable place for parents to take birthday children if maximum happiness was to be ensured. For Christ's sake, it featured an animatronic monkey enthusiastically crashing cymbals atop a spectacular four-tiered Wurlitzer organ, and the entrance was shaped like a giant Diaphone resonator. Plus silent movies, onion rings, and taco pizza! The Organ Grinder closed in 1996 after 22 years, even though its pizza and animatronic animal was vastly superior to Chuck E. Cheese's, which opened about a half mile away in the early '80s. Today that wonderfully psychedelic building is an all-you-can-eat Asian-American buffet called Super King, but every Portland native knows that the animatronic monkey was the real Super King. Long live the King.