Clark County’s food scene beginning to make strides

Progress evident even in the face of the foodie juggernaut that is Portland

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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What Do diners want?

We asked three local restaurateurs to take the temperature of our gastronomic landscape.

What's your opinion of the current state of Vancouver's food scene?
Brad Root, owner and chef, Roots Restaurant & Bar, Camas: It's been looking better and better. I've been here 12 years, and each year, we see a little bit of change. We're seeing more people. It's growing maybe a little slower than Portland, but it's growing. It's been a really positive journey, and I look forward to another 12 years.
Chris "Salty" Reed, owner, The Grocery Cocktail & Social, Vancouver: I feel that it is currently lacking in diversity, but that is slowly changing. There are many more people visiting and moving to the area, creating more of a need for restaurant growth.
Kelly Dean, assistant general manager, Tommy O's Pacific Rim Bistro, Vancouver: More independent chefs are trying to make a go of it in Vancouver rather than staying in Portland. This is giving the dining community more unique choices.

What can be done to improve or change that?
Root: Just for the consumers to demand it. Just demand local products.
Reed: I would like to see more places utilizing local farms and creating more dishes from local and scratch ingredients. It's hard to do, but because the area is undergoing such rapid growth, it's important to show folks that they deserve some of the awesome, hand-crafted goods the area has to offer. We also need to encourage some locals to become more aware that a quality food-beverage experience can be worth a little extra time and money.
Dean: Getting more people to stay on this side of the (Columbia) river by being consistent with food and service quality.

What do you see customers wanting more or less of?
Root: More fish. We were just going through this the other week, and we saw we need more fish selection. Customers are wanting more of a local beer and wine selection, too. And cider ... cider is something that's really taken off.
Reed: More independently owned restaurants and less high-dollar corporate venues. Local clientele seem to be showing a desire for familiar, affordable and comfortable dining experiences, and are beginning to show a stronger interest in local ingredients. It seems to me that the biggest complaint that a lot of places are encountering is items being too expensive or lacking in value. We deal with that sometimes, and it's partly because some of the ingredients we use just can't be sold at a low price.
Dean: They look for fresh local ingredients and products. On the other side, there's a value-conscious audience that supports the happy hour scene.

— Brooks Johnson

Being on the edge of a metro area can feel like being in “The Brady Bunch.” Instead of Marcia, though, everyone’s talking about Portland, Portland, Portland.

Late last year, in case you didn’t hear, our southern neighbor was named the No. 1 food city in the country by a Washington Post writer, adding to a slew of other epicurean awards and top rankings.

Being just a short drive from a bustling food culture is swell, but is there room at the table for Vancouver to satiate local foodies, as well?

When asking local residents about Vancouver’s food scene, the words that come up are “improving,” “suburban” and “getting there.” A food writer who has had a foot on both sides of the Columbia River expounded on that recently in an email to The Columbian.

“The expansion of east Vancouver brought a lot of (food) amenities that were great for the ’90s and early 2000s — chains like Applebee’s and Olive Garden — which have since been shunned by serious eaters,” said Andrea Damewood, the Portland Mercury’s food critic and a former Columbian staff writer, “so unfortunately, when a lot of people think of eating out in Vancouver, that’s what they think of: fast-casual chain restaurants.”

That’s not to say there aren’t great restaurants here, she said, pointing to Woody’s Tacos, Tan Tan Cafe, Petra House and even the Mighty Bowl food truck.

“What they have in common is that they are locally owned places that focus on doing one kind of cuisine well,” Damewood said.

What’s missing, perhaps, is more of those places to match the size and middle-income demographic of the city.

“Most people would think that Vancouver is under-restauranted,” said Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development, the Oregon firm developing Vancouver’s waterfront. “There may not be a lot of really good, quality restaurants, and that may or may not be fair, but what I think is really missing from Vancouver is a restaurant (district).”

That’s what he imagines the waterfront could become, something like what the Pearl District or Southeast Division Street have become in Portland.

“What we’re doing is establishing a location in Vancouver that has an appeal the other side of the river doesn’t have,” Cain said.

Despite the overwhelming competition from across the river, sales at Clark County eateries have been steadily climbing for a decade, save for a hiccup during the recession. And with ever-worsening traffic at the two river crossings, the desire to stay closer to home is likely to grow.

Today, Vancouver’s 401 restaurants stack up well, considering the city’s suburban nature.

“This is a vibrant restaurant sector,” said Washington Restaurant Association spokeswoman Stephanie Davenport.

To compare, she said that Spokane, a regional hub with nearly 45,000 more people, has 492 restaurants.

“When you consider how important restaurants are to our lives, it makes sense that customers would choose to spend their money close to home, where their sense of community is,” Davenport said.

She also pointed out the typical restaurant wage is lower in Vancouver than in Portland, and that difference will likely go higher if a minimum wage hike makes its way through the Oregon Legislature.

Picture shifting

In 2014, sales of prepared food reached nearly half a billion dollars in all of Clark County, according to Department of Revenue data. Statewide, 2014 saw more than $13 billion in restaurant sales. But that gives the county, which is 6 percent of the state’s population, about 4 percent of its restaurant sales.

That per-capita dissonance is probably familiar to area retailers, who see sales flood into sales-tax-free Oregon at a rate of several billion dollars per year.

Damewood said Portland has been successful in attracting chefs who want to pursue “weird and creative passion projects. For a long time, the city’s cheap rent and adventurous dining crowds allowed that to happen.”

But as rents get higher and incomes get stretched thinner, doors are closing as fast as they appear to be opening.

“The city’s higher rents and rapid development are starting to dull that edge and ability for chefs to take risks here,” Damewood said. “Hopefully, the development of the waterfront in Vancouver and the continued success of Main Street businesses will see some serious restaurateurs looking north to launch projects.”

That would seem to be a welcome move. When the first restaurant set to move into the new urban waterfront, Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar, was announced last month, there was a big reaction among Columbian readers.

“Good luck to Twigs, I’m sure it will attract many in our area and will hopefully inspire some local talent to snap up the open spaces soon! Good first steps Vancouver!,” Heidi Palena commented on the story online.

Cain said he’s in talks with several other restaurants and wants to see a good spread of different offerings.

“The perfect situation for us is a good blend of types of food, prices, sizes, and everyone can get what they can out of it,” he said.