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Fair-weather fortunes

McCall's tries to avoid seasonal ups, downs

McCall's Waterfront Restaurant has always been popular when there's a party going on. Its problem is the long-term relationship.

Several proprietors have endured the annual feast or famine cycle at McCall's since its opening in 1988, when it occupied the only building in Waterfront Park Ñ the former visitors center. The establishment gorges itself on overflow business when high temperatures and summer festivals bring crowds to the park. But the onset of wet weather usually ushers in a long, dry season for business.

'We are trying desperately to get out of that pattern,' says Tim Gillis, who took over a year ago with partner Laurie Matsuzaki. 'You're going to make money in the summer no matter what. If you can do well in the winter, that's where you make the difference.'

McCall's location is unequaled. The Willamette River courses by only steps from the restaurant's huge patio and outdoor bar. Mount Hood looms in the distance. 'You come down here on a summer day and drink margaritas, look at the river, watch the joggers,' says Sandee Cano, 31. 'It's beautiful.'

But even in summer, success can depend on the elements. East Bank Saloon owner Pudgy Hunt ran McCall's from 1997 until last year. 'It's so weather-driven,' Hunt says. 'You can be staffed with a full crew on Friday, do $8,000, the rain will come in on Saturday and you do $800. You're always off guard.'

'I have become a religious weather watcher,' says Gillis, 39.

When the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival landed next door over the sunny, three-day, Fourth of July weekend, McCall's got a workout. At midnight on the fourth, most of the dozens of outdoor tables were still occupied and a raucous singalong was under way at the patio bar. According to Gillis, every table was full since 10:30 that morning.

On a Thursday night two weeks earlier, even with a private party enlivening the dining room, chilly weather kept the rest of the place quiet, the patio virtually empty. The Crystal Dolphin, the midsize sister of the cruise ship Portland Spirit, glided past, its decks full. But it docks upstream at RiverPlace, where revelers are likely to be caught in the nets of several other restaurants.

Gillis says the up and down nature of business at McCall's has contributed to a reputation for poor food and service. To counter that idea, he has brought in a new chef and retooled toward a more upscale, seafood-heavy menu.

A cityscape in rather dated pastels crowns a modestly stocked bar. Server Margaret Tackett says the favorites from the specialty drink list are a cranberry-splashed margarita, a coconut and pineapple cosmopolitan and the vanilla and melon martini. 'We're pulling out a new drink list that has more frozen drinks,' she says.

Twelve taps offer beers ranging from Guinness to Pabst Blue Ribbon. The wine list announces 37 varieties by the glass: a handful of low-end Italians, the rest West Coast standards.

At happy hour, well drinks and selected drafts are a dollar off. There is a happy hour menu available from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with items ranging from $1.95 to $3.95 and a late menu starting at 8 p.m. that includes fish tacos, cheese ravioli with pesto and a white cheddar burger all between $5.50 to $6.50.

Gillis wants to create a casual, spirited atmosphere with a tropical flavor. The walls are splashed with bright colors, and bartenders sport Hawaiian shirts. The plan is for blues, jazz and steel drum bands on Fridays and DJ dancing and 'more upbeat stuff' on Saturdays.

'We've gone to kind of a Caribbean theme,' Gillis says. 'That's what it should be. We're the only place on the water. We should be lively. '

Contact Eric Bartels at

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