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Lifelong Gresham resident resurrects community cafe

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Omar Elkhal and his mother, Gisele, opened Park Place Cafe in early June after a two-month remodel. The cafe carries a Parisian influence, from decor to menu, inspired by Giseles birthplace in the Caribbean.

There’s nothing like a reunion with an old friend.

And if you add a cup of coffee and a homemade pastry, the whole experience is just plain comforting.

“People are really excited that this place is open again,” said Omar Elkhal, owner of the recently refurbished and reopened Park Place Cafe in Rockwood. “A lot of cars go by here every day, so we’re seeing a lot of new customers too. We want everybody to feel welcome — like Cheers, where everybody knows your name.”

A longtime gathering spot for the Rockwood community and others, Park Place Coffee closed its doors in February after a seven-year run by owner Dina DiNucci. It has re-emerged with a new look, an energetic new owner and a tasty new menu.

Elkhal, 31, is a homegrown guy who attended area schools and graduated from Centennial High School. He developed an early appreciation for good food from his mother, Gisele, who was always whipping up treats from her French birthplace of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.

“My first job was in the kitchen at Powell Valley Assisted Living,” Elkhal said. “I worked there with three or four of my friends when we were in high school. I prepared salads and helped the cook. We served about 150-200 people. But I was always helping my mom in the kitchen too.”

Elkhal spent several years in a variety of professions, from sales with Nike to construction. He acquired his contractor’s license and eventually landed in an advertising role for a Beaverton-based media company. The daily commute to Beaverton quickly wore thin, however, and he began to explore other options.

“I was real close to buying a food cart and putting it somewhere,” Elkhal said. “Then I found this place. I’ve always wanted to open up a place where I could serve food to people and share my mom's and grandma’s recipes. This is my life now.”

Elkhal spent two months overhauling the cafe’s interior, doing much of the remodel himself. He updated the kitchen, washed the walls in a soft, olive green and took advantage of his mother’s “downsizing” to repurpose her castoff high-backed chairs and tables. Artwork on the walls speak to Gisele’s French heritage and include a fabric map of her birthplace in the Caribbean.

“It’s an all new interior really. We sanded and refinished the floors, and almost everything in the kitchen is new,” Elkhal said. “I wanted to make it homey, so people will want to come in.

Gisele joined her son for what has become a mother/son operation and is the genius behind the cafe’s sandwiches, pastries and signature crepes. The menu is based around her French-influenced family recipes and include traditional baklava, breakfast crepes and homemade soup. After numerous years working for a Portland product testing company, Gisele has found a second career that is much more appetizing. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Park Place regular Richard Rueber enjoys a Croque-Monsieur  Croissant, loaded with smoked ham, Monetery Jack Cheese and Bechamel/Mornay sauce.

“I was always in the kitchen cooking,” she said. “I grew up eating all these dishes. My kids and their friends said I should open a restaurant, but I always said, ‘no.’ Now, look where I am.”

Elkhal is anxious to return the cafe to the neighborhood and community gathering spot it once was. He has applied for a liquor license to serve beer and wine and is busy lining up live entertainment to appear on a regular basis. He also plans to sponsor a disc golf tournament next door in Vance Park this summer as a way to announce the return of Park Place Cafe to the community.

In the meantime, the welcome mat is out.

“I’m excited to do more community engagement through the cafe,” he said. “This is my home and my community. I want people to think this place was never closed.”

More info

Who: Park Place Cafe

Where: 1288 S.E. 182nd Ave., Portland.

What: hot and cold coffee and blended drinks; homemade sandwiches, crepes, soups, salads and pastries.

Live entertainment on Friday, June 27, 6-8 p.m., local folk band The Grodie Boys.

For more information, call 503-512-7530.

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