Do you remember where you were nine months ago? I do. On March 13, nine months ago as of this writing, I was out for dinner at a new restaurant, and it was packed. At the time, that wasn’t exactly a rarity. The most obvious perk of my job writing about restaurants for The Oregonian/OregonLive is getting to eat out at places new and old on the company dime. And spring is the time when I research our annual restaurant guide.
But the night was unusual for at least two reasons. First, my wife and I had managed to arrange a date without our two young kids. So while I was wondering how the smoked onion rings at the just-opened Bar King compared to the gold standard set by RingSide Steakhouse decades ago, I was also trying to calculate whether we could sneak in one more cocktail before 8:30 p.m., when we had to head home to relieve our babysitter (or our Lyft turned back into a pumpkin, whichever came first).
Second, and more importantly, our dinner came just as the severity of the pandemic was becoming clear to many Portlanders, four days after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert mocked the new coronavirus by touching reporters’ tape recorders, then promptly tested positive, leading to the indefinite suspension of the NBA season, and four days before Gov. Kate Brown placed a ban on social gatherings, including limiting restaurants to takeout service.
For those of us who ate out that weekend, and the staff who would soon be scrambling for unemployment, an easy metaphor might involve musicians playing as the Titanic sank. But there must have been a moment, after the ship hit the iceberg but before reality set in, when guests, employees and that doomed quintet looked at each other and laughed. For those of us who had been following the news in Wuhan, China, and Bergamo, Italy, eating out that night felt a bit like holding your breath, wondering if we were doing something wrong by being out at all, waiting for a shutdown we thought might last two weeks but ended up stretching for months, then returning again this fall.
Those months proved devastating for Oregon restaurants, especially those in Multnomah County, where Brown’s restrictions have been more strict, and where customers remain more cautious about dining out. According to a recent National Restaurant Association survey, most Oregon restaurant owners report operating with lower sales and smaller staff, while nearly 40% said it was unlikely their restaurant would still be in business six months from now without additional federal relief. The Oregon Employment Department estimates that 70,000 Oregonians could lose their unemployment benefits on Dec. 26, including thousands of service industry workers. In Portland, dozens of restaurants have already shut permanently, including three of the places most responsible for putting the city’s dining scene on the map, Pok Pok, Toro Bravo and Beast.
Other notable Portland restaurant closures include creative Alberta Arts restaurant Aviary, Pearl District special occasion spot Bluehour, long-running brunch favorite Bridges Cafe, old-school American Chinese restaurant Canton Grill, Vitaly Paley’s downtown gem Imperial, Old Town/Chinatown taqueria Mi Mero Mole, Tokyo-style ramen shop Noraneko, late-night Korean fusion bar Revelry, Autentica’s taco spin-off Uno Mas and Jade District dim sum parlor Wong’s King Seafood.Many more restaurants have closed for the winter, hoping to reopen in the spring. The just-opened restaurant where we ate on our March 13 date, Bar King, was still making a go of it when I started writing this story. Last week, co-owner Shaun King announced it had closed for good.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in all this, it probably lies with those restaurants that chose to hibernate for the winter. For business owners lucky enough to work out deals with their landlords, March teases a return for outdoor dining, when customers could return to the covered patio setups installed in parking strips and empty lots this fall, rain be damned. The vaccines being slowly distributed across the country offer another reason for long-term optimism.
But while we wait for warmer weather and the promise of spring, let’s take this time to remember some of the important restaurants and bars we lost in 2020. Below, find the 10 closures that pained us the most this year — not necessarily the most talked-about restaurants, but the special places that made Portland a vibrant place to live and eat … before our lives turned upside down.
With great food and friendly service as mellow and welcoming as a glass of golden honey wine, Abyssinian Kitchen was our favorite place to go for tender stewed collard greens, turmeric-stained potato and cabbage and rosemary-scented strips of grilled steak served on large rounds of injera, the teff-based flatbread. Though the restaurant officially left its converted Southeast Portland home in August, there’s a good chance we’ll get to try chef Elsa Wolday’s thoughtful takes on Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes on the other side. Kuflom Abbay, Wolday’s husband, tells The Oregonian that the restaurant is hoping to find a new location for the second half of 2021.
The Bakery at Bar King
It’s only nine months old, won’t close until January and will almost certainly find a new home once the pandemic is over. But such is the impact of Katherine Benvenuti’s delicious bakery, where after just nine months serving mostly takeout from its front-and-center spot at Southeast Portland’s Bar King, an ambitious restaurant that served its last takeout meal in fall. Despite taking over for the city’s best croissant makers, Trifecta, Benvenuti’s bakery at 726 S.E. Sixth Ave. quickly turned heads with its miso-walnut sticky buns, outrageous bacon quiche and small Baque-style cakes with matcha stuffed with bright passion fruit curd. The cafe’s seasonal Berliner doughnuts have already launched a spin-off in downtown’s doughnut shop Fills, which will remain open after the bakery closes in early January.
Beech Street Parlor
A bar that could sometimes feel like a house party, complete with friends playing records on the turntables and a porch filled with happy people sipping beer, wine and cocktails, Beech Street Parlor gave up the ghost in September after nine years just off Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Besides being a great place to hang, Beech Street was a direct descendent of Tiga Bar, the great Northeast Portland bar once frequented by some of Portland’s leading writers, musicians and artists.
Le Bistro Montage
Yes, you can order the Montage’s spicy alligator mac from a food cart now. And yes, it comes with a foil rose. But the most memorable things about the Montage have long been the experience: The late hours, the shadowy location, the winding hallways leading to sister bar La Merde, the mad scientist waiters bellowing out oyster shooter orders and of course those leftovers fashioned into giraffes, swans and other fantastical foil animals. After a quarter of a century under the Morrison Bridge, the Montage could claim to be a true Portland institution. The restaurant officially closed in June.
This specialty chocolate shop, which introduced many locals to the pleasures of velvet-smooth drinking chocolate, caramelized cacao nibs and some of the world’s best premium chocolate bars, closed at the end of October after 15 years downtown. Owners Aubrey Lindley and Jesse Manis, once called a pair of “walking, talking chocolate encyclopedias” by The Oregonian, opened Cacao in 2006, marking one of the first new businesses in what would soon be rebranded as the city’s West End. The shop was filled with small-batch chocolate bars, truffled and molded chocolates hand-picked from around the world, and served as an incubator for the fine bean-to-bar chocolate makers Cloudforest (formerly Cocanu).
Cheese Bar was the place Portland cheese lovers went for good Parm, grass-fed Gruyere and relative rarities like the caramel-flavored Black Betty, a cult-favorite goat gouda aged for 18 months, wrapped in black wax and released in time for the holidays. Before this March, it was also a place to spend a sunny afternoon on a thoughtfully selected cheese board or a gooey grilled cheese while sipping on a dry cider or crisp pilsner — the “Bar” in the name was there for a reason. In November, owner Steve Jones, the first name in Portland cheese, announced his Mount Tabor shop would shut for good after a closeout sale in mid-January.
With its takeout-averse food and a chef’s counter still forbidden under Oregon’s phased reopening plan, co-chefs Will Preisch and Joel Stocks’ pop-up turned restaurant would have had to transform completely to survive. Instead, it closed permanently in October, taking with it one of the most precise, thoughtful fine-dining experiences in the city. Deadshot, the inventive cocktail bar next door, remains open, and the former Holdfast Dining space will soon be home to a revival of Ping, Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker’s former Old Town/Chinatown izakaya.
We loved Kargi Gogo as a food cart, back when Sean Fredericks and McKinze Cook translated a Peace Corps stay in the country of Georgia into a short menu of khachapuri, the cheesy bread, and khinkali, the knobby beef and pork soup dumplings, well before the American food media had declared either the latest trend. And we loved it after it took over the former Northeast Alberta Street home of The Big Egg, where that cheesy bread — either stuffed with a gently sour farmer’s cheese like some Eastern European pupusa, or fashioned into a boat with a whole egg cracked over the top — proved an enduring hit with our kids. Look for the restaurant to survive in some fashion, perhaps as an importer of skin-contact-heavy Georgian wines.
Ping Yang Pow
I had my second meal at Ping Yang Pow, a since-closed supper club above Pok Pok NW, exactly one week before the NBA suspended its season indefinitely. The dinner was eye-opening, with fluffy Dungeness crab fried rice, a sultry ribeye steak dressed up like drunken noodles and a dish we haven’t stopped thinking about since — simple pea shoot tips that chef Thanyawan “Thanya” Kaewket wok-fried with garlic, pork fat and smoked oyster sauce and tops with a whole Fresno chile. (If I had to pick a favorite dish from 2020u2032s heavily curtailed dining season, it would be this one.) Let’s hope Kaewket gets a chance to shine in a new location when all this is over.
Not for the French fry-stuffed sandwiches known as chip butties (though not not for those either), we’ll miss this English pub for the weekend mornings spent watching top-flight European soccer matches with a sausage roll and a pint of Old Speckled Hen. My favorite Toffee Club memory was standing on the sidewalk outside the standing-room-only bar with my dad, peering past the glare to watch Portugal pull off the 2016 Euro Cup final without star Cristiano Ronaldo — a fun match, and just the kind of crowded environment that keeps Anthony Fauci up at night. The 4-year-old bar, which takes its name from a nickname for Everton Football Club supporters, announced its permanent closure in August. It lives on through Away Days, a sister brewery found in the Southeast 10th Avenue space next door.