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Sweet & low-key

Andrew Sugar stays behind the scenes building a Portland restaurant empire

Andrew Sugar is seated near a window of Vivid, his oddly gray new restaurant. In a serene, matter-of-fact fashion, he relates a few of the problems with food critics.

'I'm not against food critics, per se, but for one person to have that much power to make a determination Ñ who's to say that someone doesn't have it out for a certain person?' he says.

Sugar, 34, is quiet and soft-spoken. Most of the stories he tells lean toward the melancholic. When he gets a day off, he goes to the beach and always stays at the same hotel, strategically placed outside his cell-phone range. He describes just watching the waves once he arrives. Such pleasure trips, though, are rare:

'I get to work at 5:30 a.m. and work until God knows when. I'm a normal person who works his ass off. I don't mind that I don't take vacations. I have a 10-year plan.' Until then, Sugar says, he 'can't sit still. I need things to do.'

He speaks with the most affection about his dog, Chilli.

'He's my world,' he says, offering to show a picture that hangs in his office. 'My biggest regret is that we don't get to spend enough time together.'

Sugar doesn't fit the glitzy image of a typical nightclub owner. He doesn't put on suave airs; he's not what you'd call a player, or even a player hater. In fact, he doesn't appear to have much interest in celebrities at all.

'Scottie Pippen came in for dinner Saturday,' he says with a shrug. 'And the producer of that TV show, 'Cops.' ' Another shrug. Sugar seems to find the see-and-be-seen stuff that goes on in his joints a bit frivolous, though his restaurants are notorious runways and meat markets.

No one's likely to confuse Sugar with Rick from 'Casablanca.'

'If I was just trying to go out to dinner, and someone came up to me I didn't know, I would hate it,' he says.

'When I go out, I like to go out to out-of-the-way places. The last time I was out, I went to the Alibi,' Sugar says. He mentions the working-class Portland bars Joe's Cellar, Yur's and Cheers, all watering holes that are pretty much the antithesis of his swank cocktail lounges. 'This way, it's not like I'm at work.'

Sugar is tall with droopy, blue-gray eyes. He's dressed in jeans and a dark shirt, a silver earring in his ear. He opens the door of Vivid with a grim smile. Later he says that he's been dreading the interview.

'I've never really seen people (so concerned) about food like they are in Portland,' a bemused Sugar says carefully, a reference to Portland's allegiance to Northwest cuisine. 'It's OK. I'm picky, too. I don't eat fish at all, for instance.'

At the time of the interview, Vivid had just gotten its first review. It had only just opened when the online review was published.

'It's standard to wait 90 days,' Sugar says, justifiably miffed.

'You do run-throughs, but it's never the same until the customers are in and it's live and you're getting feedback.'

Last time, it was his first place, Old Town's Lush, that took a beating in food writing circles, with Willamette Week writer Roger Porter taking the lone dissenting view, albeit after Sugar fired his chef and hired Tom Hurley, who is now at Vivid.

'But (food) is subjective,' Sugar insists. 'It would be better to put the same food down in front of four people and try to get a consensus.'

Lush has scaled back its operating hours and is in the process of undergoing another makeover. It will reopen in late November as Electrofish. Why, you might wonder, is he changing it again?

'The food just really wasn't working,' he says. 'And I wanted to do something different. People are really into sushi right now. The kitchen's already set up, so I'm just changing a couple of things.'

Sugar, by the way, doesn't eat sushi.

Not very Portland

Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about the low-key Sugar is that the nightclubs and restaurants he owns Ñ there are three Ñ aren't very Portland.

Being 'not very Portland' can be tough in a town that likes itself just fine how it is, thanks.

Sugar says he's heard variations of that comment a lot and doesn't know how to react when he does.

'Portland is headed in a certain direction,' he says. 'Some people don't really want that. They want their 'big small town' feel. There is a large group of people who want it to say the same, you know, historical.'

Sugar moved to Portland in '98, from South Beach in Miami, where he also grew up. He liked Miami: 'It's a melting pot of cultures. The food reflects the vitality and the energy.' His formula, he says, is to 'put all that together in an exciting space.'

The reasons Sugar gives for moving to Portland, like those of so many transplants, are rather vague. He wanted to take a year off É likes to snowboard É prefers the West Coast pace.

'I was in New York, and then Maryland, and I just always wanted to come to Oregon,' he says.

Sugar leases two buildings on what's called a 'transitional' block in polite circles, where Lush and Level are located. Level is a two-tiered dance club tucked inside an old movie theater. At Level, long ramps curve down into a dimly lit sunken room. There are velvet chairs, mirrors and white tablecloths. At the moment, it's open on Friday and Saturday nights, but Sugar is thinking of adding an additional night for jazz.

Lush, an atmospheric restaurant and bar, is right next door, connected to Level by an outside patio.

Adult tastes

Sugar unveiled his most ambitious enterprise in October. The much more grown-up Vivid, located on Northwest Hoyt Street, is in the heart of the Pearl District.

'It's not as expensive as a lot of people think,' he says when asked about funding his growing empire. 'People end up spending a lot when they hire teams, instead of doing things for themselves.' Sugar employs 60 and does his own interior designing.

Will Vivid be another partying scene? Sugar says no.

'Vivid is a restaurant first,' he says. 'I'm not targeting the people who want to go out and party. If that's what you want, there's Lush and there's Level and lots of other places. I'm trying to stress the fine-dining restaurant.'

Asked if he has met many of his competing restaurateurs, he says he's noticed some who peek in the door, come up the ramp, look around and leave.

Looking in that general direction, Sugar says, 'I'm like, 'Come in, sit down. Let me buy you a drink.''

After all, no one should have to drink alone.

Contact Michaela Bancud at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..