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Bread & Brew: Portland's year in food from tipping to food halls

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As restaurants and food carts grow, will the bubble pop? Or has it?


COURTESY PHOTO - Pine Street Market opened with much buzz and creative food/drink in Old Town.We ate and drank a lot in Portland this year.

We took pictures of food, we read and wrote about food, we talked about food and created new concepts in food.

Basically, we are a food-obsessed city, for good reason: We are making — and eating — some amazing stuff.

Says Mike Thelin, a Portland food consultant: “As for 2016, I honestly have not been more excited about Portland’s food scene in years. There are so many new restaurants and supper clubs, and an entirely new class of young chefs like Peter Cho from Han Oak, Maya Lovelace of Mae, the duo from NoMad, Ryan Roadhouse from Nodoguro and more who are laying an exciting new foundation for what the next decade of Portland dining will look like. As for openings, 2016 had many strong new players like Tusk, Hat Yai, Chesa and Revelry — whose fried chicken is my current addiction of the moment. There was also Providore on Sandy, which seriously upped the game for neighborhood-scale markets, and Headwaters, which brought an all-star culinary team back to the Heathman Hotel. I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings.”

Portland Food Adventures, a monthly rotation of chef-driven prix-fixe dinners, lets everyday diners feel like insiders — both at Portland restaurants and at the favorite spots of Portland chefs’ international hometowns. Right at the Fork, a food-driven podcast, is one of several that dissect the local scene.

As Portland’s food scene continues to evolve, however, it walks a fine balance between innovation and mass appeal. Looking back on 2016 and ahead to 2017, here are six questions Bread & Brew has about food innovations and trends:

COURTESY PHOTO - Le Pigeon is piloting a gratuity-free policy.1. To tip or not to tip? Starting Jan. 3, Little Bird Bistro will follow in the footsteps of its big sister restaurant, Le Pigeon, and become the latest Portland restaurant to adopt a no-tipping policy.

Chef/co-owner Gabriel Rucker and co-owner Andy Fortgang rolled out the “gratuity-free” model at Le Pigeon in June, and — six months in — have declared it a “huge success,” providing more wages for kitchen staff and a “seamless” dining experience for the customer.

“I think it has made our service even better,” Fortgang says.

As with at other restaurants that have gone tipless (Farm Spirit, Park Kitchen, Navarre and Luce), prices at Little Bird will increase to compensate for the absence of gratuity, but the overall check will remain the same. No tipping doesn’t work at every establishment, however. The Loyal Legion, a beer hall, quickly abandoned the practice after finding it didn’t work there. Might this model extend to other types of eateries, including coffee and sandwich shops? It’ll be interesting to watch.

2. Has Pine Street Market lived up to the hype? What’s a food hall? Basically, a fancy food court, but much cooler. Pine Street Market opened in a renovated historic building in Old Town earlier this year, bringing exciting spinoffs of some of Portland’s top chefs and artisans under one roof. Right out of the gate, the throngs of hungry customers — tourists, downtown business people and others — at peak times were stifling, but since then it’s started to even out, as the market vendors promote breakfast, happy hour and late night as great times to visit.

Some of the vendors have switched out, some have added a delivery service, and most have pared down their menus to accommodate what people like best.

At first glance it’s an eclectic mish-mash of cultures and dishes — Korean bi bim bap, Israeli street food, Salt & Straw sundaes, Japanese-style ramen, healthy juice, Ken’s artisan pizza, loaded hot dogs, Spanish-style roasted chicken, whole-leaf tea, whiskey cocktails and more — but then again, it’s a perfect representation of Portland’s greatest hits.

There’s often a DJ in the house, and this spring they’ll add outdoor seating. The communal seating makes it easy for families and large groups to order what they want and still eat together. A happy testament, for sure, to the power of community.

COURTESY PHOTO - Feast Portland reigned as the city's largest food and drink festival.3. How does Feast Portland represent the city? Feast Portland, the city’s biggest food and drink festival, celebrated its fifth anniversary this year, rallying chefs, artisans and foodies from here and across the country to every corner of Portland. Feast attracted a record 16,286 attendees, and raised $70,021 to eliminate hunger in the state through the efforts of local nonprofit Partners for a Hunger-free Oregon. Feast gets bigger and better each year, staying on top of trends while pushing the envelope and celebrating Portland’s unique culture. Specifically, the four-day event brought 104 chefs from around the world, plus 21 artisans, 23 breweries and cider houses, 62 wineries, and 16 distilleries to participate in 42 events at various locations.

4. What are these good food hubs, The Redd and James Beard Public Market? There are no places to eat at The Redd — the sustainable food hub that Ecotrust launched at Southeast Seventh Avenue and Salmon Street earlier this year — so people may not be as familiar with its purpose.

But think of it as an upstream site for all of the food you will soon eat. A handful of local food businesses and nonprofits that exemplify sustainability call The Redd West their new homebase: FoodCorps, SoupCycle, New Foods Market, Wilder Land and Sea, and B-Line Urban Delivery.

The second half of the development, The Redd East, is still under construction, slated to open in spring 2018. It’ll offer a community kitchen, food cart pod and retail and office space for sustainable food-based enterprises.

James Beard Public Market, meanwhile, also saw a milestone year, as leaders scrapped their plans for a downtown location at the west end of the Morrison Bridge due to logistical problems with the road design. They’re now working with OMSI and other partners on the east side Innovation District, continuing fundraising efforts for a hopeful groundbreaking in upcoming years. The year-round, indoor-outdoor market will be a shot in the arm for Portland’s food community whenever it launches.

5. How do I make that? Can’t get enough of the beef empanadas at Ox, or the buttermilk biscuits at The Country Cat? Don’t worry, the recipes aren’t exactly top secret: They’re published for all fans to use and enjoy, because that’s just how Portland chefs and artisans roll. This accessibility is a key factor that sets our city apart.

Here’s a list of just some of the Portland cookbooks published this year:

Elizabeth Beekley: “Two Tarts Cookbook”

Judy Bennett: “Bloody Marys”

Mark Bitterman: “Salted”; “Salt Block Cooking”; “Bitters & Amari”

Lucy Burningham: “My Beer Year”

Liz Crain: “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland”

Gabi and Greg Denton: “Ox Cookbook”

Jacob Grier: “Cocktails on Tap”

Janie Hibler: “Wild About Game”; “Dungeness Crabs and Blackberry Cobblers”; “The Berry Bible”

Martha Holmberg: “Short Stacks Cookbook”; “Modern Sauces”; “Puff”

Ellen Jackson: “Portland Farmer’s Market Cookbook”; “Cookies with a Twist”; “Lemon Cookbook”

Elyse Kopecky: “Run Fast, Eat Slow”

Ivy Manning: “Better from Scratch”; “Crackers and Dips”

Diane Morgan: “Salmon”; “Roots: The Definitive Compendium with more than 225 Recipes”

Naomi Pomeroy: “Taste & Technique: Recipes to Elevate Your Home Cooking”

Laura Russell: “Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen”; “Brassicas”

Adam and Jackie Sappington: “Heartlandia: Heritage Recipes from Portland’s The Country Cat”

Linda Ziedrich: “The Joy of Pickling” third edition (new for 2016) and “The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves”

COURTESY: CARLY DIAZ - Kachka chef/co-owner Bonnie Morales (pictured with husband Israel) plans to open a second Russian restaurant in Southeast Portland.6. Has the bubble burst? How do neighorhood eateries survive, if not for the enduring support of their uber-loyal patrons? How many more incredible restaurants can the city support before many of our favorites go bust? That’s already started. Portland (Multnomah County) now boasts a whopping 3,319 restaurants, 43 more than last year and a steady rise since 2005, when 667 fewer restaurants were established.

Food carts mirror that trend, and haven’t stopped growing since 2005 either. There are now 895 food carts in operation, 38 more than last year and a nearly three-fold increase since 2005.

With so much fresh new talent and tasty innovations, how do the established restaurants stay in business? After all, we can eat out only so many times per day.

When Johanna Ware, chef/owner of Smallwares — a beloved Northeast Fremont neighborhood restaurant — closed earlier this year, Ware wrote a heartfelt note to her customers. It sums up the undercurrent of success that isn’t often voiced in public.

“Unfortunately the restaurant world is so saturated nowadays and it requires so much extra work to keep yourself relevant, promote yourself, or stay ahead of all the new things,” Ware wrote.

“I struggled from the start and we had pockets of success but we just couldn’t keep steady business. Some of our busiest times were Portland dining month, burger week, or our dollar oyster Mondays. It’s hard because I just want people to come eat here, like it and tell their friends, I don’t want to constantly promote myself or honestly have to give everyone a ‘deal.’”

Being understaffed, stretched in all directions, dealing with rising staffing and food costs and a changing Portland demographic are all real struggles, and all the more reason to support local eateries if you want them to stick around.

@jenmomanderson