St. Jack, other restaurants usher in a new era of dining on Northwest 23rd

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - The newest Lompoc Tavern inhabits the Benevento building on Northwest 23rd Avenue, contributing to a possible resurgence of dining spots on the busy street.This month, the popular French restaurant St. Jack closed its photogenic yellow doors on Southeast Clinton Street and decamped to a much larger spot in a shiny new mixed-use building on Northwest 23rd Avenue.

At first, it seemed like an odd move to me. And it got me thinking about how neighborhoods change, and how the bouncing red dot of trendiness moves much more quickly than the lifespan of a successful restaurant.

St. Jack was the epitome of the independent, best-in-class, personality-driven restaurants that have swarmed in the Division/Clinton neighborhood in the past few years. It was part of the surge that began with Pok Pok and Lauro, and came to encompass nationally recognized spots like Roe and Ava Gene’s.

In other words, St. Jack was right there in a restaurant hot spot — sort of like what Northwest 23rd and Northwest 21st avenues were, say, 15 or 20 years ago.

It used to be, if you went out for a nice dinner, you went to Northwest. That was the trendy part of town, especially for the new generation of Pacific Northwest bistros that included Paley’s, Wildwood, Laslow’s, and the legendary Zefiro. But Zefiro and Laslow’s are long gone, and Wildwood caused shockwaves by closing just a few days ago, on Feb. 25.

It’s certainly the end of an era. It also seemed like a good time to explore the area, and see what’s it’s like on the ground.

Northwest hasn’t seen a really high-profile, anticipated, talked-about restaurant opening in years. At the same time, there’s quite a lot of new stuff going on, food-wise, especially in the lower part of 23rd. There’s Salt & Straw, drawing lines for ice cream at Kearney Street. Nearby there’s a second location for high-end culinary shop the Meadow, and a fourth location for the coffee-elite Barista (stealthily, neither of these businesses list their Northwest locations on their websites).

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - The new St. Jack inhabits the Benevento building on Northwest 23rd Avenue, contributing to a possible resurgence of dining spots on the busy street.There’s also a lot of new housing, including the massive Savier Flats apartment block and the 24-unit Benevento, which also houses the new St. Jack. Also built into the new development: Twist Frozen Yogurt, the second Pacific Pie Company, and the newest Lompoc Tavern, which haunts the ground where a previous Lompoc was razed.

The story of the name Lompoc is complicated — it’s a bar named after a bar named after a bar — but most people remember the New Old Lompoc on 23rd as a grizzled, kooky spot with uneven floors and a charming back patio shaded with vines. The new Lompoc has a strange feel to it. Some of the original flotsam and jetsam was preserved, and slapped back up on new walls in a loud new room. Despite its history, it feels like it hasn’t quite settled in yet.

History is also evoked in the name of the building. The Benevento is named after Rocky Benevento, who was the groundskeeper for the Portland Beavers from 1927 to 1966. Part of that time, the Beavers played at the vanished Vaughn Street Ballpark at Northwest 24th Avenue. Honestly, if Rocky could see it, I think he’d be pretty freaked out.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Lydia Chilton, 11, eyes the desserts at the second Pacific Pie Company (above), which is also part of the new Benevento building (below) on Northwest 23rd Avenue.The only thing he would recognize is Besaw’s, across the street. One of the oldest restaurants in Portland, Besaw’s is still holding its own, at least for now. The menu has gotten more upscale during the years, but it’s still eminently comfortable and cozy, and still sending out giant slices of chocolate cake. On a Saturday night, it’s also a good vantage point for observing the scene at St. Jack.

St. Jack is now more grown up — slicker, less funky, more packaged. The menu is intact, as are the crazy wax-drip candles, now relocated to a longer, wrap-around bar. It’s twice as big, and it’s packed to the gills. The hostess can’t even begin to guess how long of a wait it might be for a table. Whatever else this neighborhood is — or isn’t — it clearly has the customer base, and it’s working for this newcomer.

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