Cafe Rowan, in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood, managed to open during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Cafe Rowan

To put it mildly, Portland’s restaurant industry has been through the wringer in the past year. We’ve lamented the closures of many beloved eateries, said goodbye to some food titans (for the best, in some cases), and wondered where the hell government assistance was. In March the United States Senate finally passed the American Rescue Plan, which includes $28.6 billion in funding to support independent restaurants and bars.

It might be too soon to say the industry is in recovery mode, but for the most part it appears that we’ve made it past the worst of the pandemic. As restaurants gear up for a busy outdoor dining season, eased restrictions are on the horizon, and more frontline industry workers get vaccinated, things are on the up and up.

Changing restaurant models

Adaptation was the name of the game while doing business in a health crisis with ever-changing advisories. Food carts suddenly found themselves with a leg up, already set up in a take-away model, with some pods having the added boon of existing outdoor seating. Numerous bakers, cooks, and industry vets started Instagram businesses, taking weekly orders for everything from baked goods to noodle soups. Sometimes both, as in the case of former Yen Ha co-owner Anh Tran, who offers hot, flaky bánh patê sô from cheekily named handle Hey Chaudy and weekly soup specials through his personal account.

And after what can only be described as a disastrous attempt by celebrity chef David Chang to enter Portland’s food scene with his lackluster fried chicken label Fuku, some local chefs seem to have warmed up a bit to the concept of ghost kitchens—commercial kitchens built for delivery that can host multiple food concepts—if only for necessity’s sake.

“Ghost kitchens came from being something that didn’t seem particularly interesting to me into something that might be necessary for us to survive,” ChefStable owner Kurt Huffman told Portland Monthly.

Sticking to a non-ghostly kitchen is Diane Lam, former chef de cuisine at the spot for Korean eats and sick beats, Revelry. Lam lost her job when the restaurant closed in June 2020, but since then has really come into her own with a pair of Cambodian food projects: Sunshine Noodles started out as a pop-up and soon after began a popular residency as a full restaurant inside Psychic Bar. When Psychic opened back up, Lam put Sunshine on hiatus in favor of teaming up her fried chicken concept Prey + Tell with the revamped bar program. Not tied to a brick and mortar and all the constraints that it entails, Lam was left able to embrace the pandemic pivot. She cites her forte in solving problems as they crop up and an ability to identify available resources as the keys to her success.

“I think that [post-pandemic] the industry is going to have another change… that change is us reacting to what our guests expect of their dining experiences now,” Lam told the Mercury.

Time will tell if the traditional restaurant model is a thing of the past, but with residencies, pop-ups, and online ordering galore, it sure is an exciting new frontier for diners and industry folks alike.

Dining al fresco: Portland takes a page out of Europe’s book

Have you dined outdoors in the past year in a restaurant’s creative-looking outdoor structure or patio? You might be surprised at which city bureau you have to thank for that. Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) might be more well-known for expanding bike lanes and supporting ride share services, but in May 2020, they launched their Healthy Businesses program to “allow local businesses to creatively use street space to safely serve their customers.”

To date, the program has issued 1,000 permits free of charge, with approximately 20% going to BIPOC-owned businesses. Prior to the program’s start, the cost of a permit for a sidewalk café or “street seats” ranged from $168-$17,000.

“This was really in response to a crisis, so we weren’t going to charge,” said PBOT communications coordinator Hannah Schafer. “As a bureau and a city, we’re very proud to have been able to do this small thing to support the restaurant industry.”

The program is now in its third phase; summer permit applications are being accepted on a rolling basis and will be valid through October 31. Of the over 500 spring/summer applications PBOT has received so far, they’ve permitted about 60 percent. In addition to providing businesses with an essential lifeline, the program has also been an eye-opener for many Portlanders in terms of the landscape of the city.

“It’s exciting [because] we’ve had this proof of concept during this time that’s made people more open to something new or different,” said Schafer.

Moving forward, PBOT is looking at ways to make the program sustainable in the long-term.

The little restaurant that could

The photogenic food of Cafe Rowan. Photo courtesy of Cafe Rowan

Tack on the challenges of weathering a global pandemic to the already impressive feat of independently opening a restaurant, and you’ve got an unenviable task. Among the list of new spots that have opened in the past year is Café Rowan, a bright space with an open kitchen that serves some supremely photogenic dishes. Owner Spencer Ivankoe said he “fought hard” for his location, wanting to contribute to the restaurant-sparse Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood.

“We lost Trinket, one of my favorite places, this year,” said Ivankoe. “I kind of feel like I’m taking over for them in our neighborhood.”

Although Ivankoe was able to make his 17-year dream of opening his own restaurant come to fruition, the pandemic has hampered it somewhat. While he’s been blessed with the support of the community, opening in a limited capacity means he hasn’t been able to seat patrons at his chef’s counter as he envisioned when designing the space.

“Just trying to engage with my customers on a personal level during these times was something that I really wanted to focus on,” said Ivankoe.

In an effort to maximize business, the café did some experimentation with a variety of opening days and times, finally settling on the sweet spot of Friday to Sunday. The chef and owner is happy to have finally made it to a place where limits on capacity have been loosened, but he’s not in a hurry to open up 100 percent. With a small staff of four, safety remains the number one priority.

The café currently has 25-30 outdoor seats where folks can enjoy loaded toasts and breakfast sandos in a socially distanced atmosphere. In the coming months, Ivankoe plans on incorporating a chef’s tasting dinner service (complete with pairings from local vintners) twice a week. In The Great Reopening, Ivankoe is hoping to win the race by playing it slowly but surely.

“It’s been a really hard time,” Ivankoe said. “But a special time.”