Mark Stefan Reinoso
Portland, Part 5: "EATING"
"The idea is to eat well and not die from it—for the simple reason that that would be the end of your eating"- Jim Harrison
Think of your favorite restaurant in your home city. You know the one, the place you will travel 45 minutes to, the one you will stand in line in order to get in. This is the restaurant that has that special dish you really love....the restaurant where you love the ambiance and the wait staff. The place you linger in long after your bill has been paid, hoping to extract just a few more moments of whatever brought you there in the first place. The restaurant where almost everything on the menu is good, the one where you trust the chef so much that you will try foods you normally don't like. This is the restaurant that cares where their food comes from, where you want to go for special occasions, and also where you want to go when you don't know what you want to eat. This is your "go to" place in every sense.
Now, imagine if that restaurant was a 5 minute walk from your house. Imagine there was rarely a wait to get in. Imagine if the menu was different weekly, with rotating local beer, wine and spirits. Imagine if the chef knew you by name and many times gave you a free drink. Imagine if the chef followed you on Instagram. Imagine this place was on your way home, and you stopped in for a drink or a bite 2 or 3 times a week. Imagine if there were 20 restaurants just like that one, within walking distance of your house. Imagine if EVERY SINGLE neighborhood in your city had this same situation. THAT'S PORTLAND
I'm not an expert on the Portland food and dining scene, but my friends think I am. Part of that is because every time I come up for 3-5 days, I eat Portland. I don't cook, I only eat out. What the average amount of restaurants a Portlander might visit in a month, I do in 4 days. I leave the airport with a plan: Always visit a few of the favorites, along with a few new places to try. Consequently, every time one of my friends in the Northwest needs recommendations, they call me, living in Phoenix. I think it's hilarious but I also love it.
Restaurants around the world come in all shapes and sizes, but in Portland there are only 2: Small, and smaller. Portland is an older American city, and places to eat are constrained by the buildings and narrow streets that have been there for 100 years. Sure, they are some exceptions around the periphery of the city and in the suburbs, but that's mainly because of new construction and available space. Like squeezing into a corset, many places in Portland pack as many seats into a space as they can, creating a jovial and intimate atmosphere. Contrast that with Phoenix, where most restaurants resemble small stadiums and people freak out over communal tables. What's interesting to me is that Portland, a city with high taxes and lots of regulations, doesn't have high fees or regulations when it comes to restaurants or food carts. A liquor license is fairly cheap, and it's these low barriers to entry that foster innovation and creativity among individuals. It allows for small wine bar to be profitable and still deliver value. Don't have a 500k to build out a restaurant? Start a food cart for 20k! Phoenix, on the other hand, is the opposite, a city with low regulations and low taxes, very business friendly....EXCEPT when it comes to food and drink(I suspect it's highly religious roots have something to do with it). A liquor license can be 10x what a license in Portland costs, even up to 250k!....this has crowded out potential smaller restaurants and made it very tough for a sole proprietor to make money....which is one reason why restaurants have to be so big in order to make a profit. Chain restaurants are everywhere in Phoenix.
Food is everywhere in Portland. Go down any street, even side streets and you will see what I mean. It's incredible, it's amazing how much there is, how many places I have yet to try. Just last weekend, I went drinking with my sister Andrea, and she took me to a few places that I have never even heard of....on a side note, I am pretty jealous that she has surpassed my knowledge of the Portland Food scene. Food in and of itself can be pretty basic. In reality, food is just feces in waiting.... but restaurants? That's a totally different story....... they may deal in food and liquids, but what they really deliver is an emotional experience. Sure, they may be able to use ingredients and techniques that we could never duplicate, but they actually give us a ride that we can't possibly take ourselves. I love walking down the street on a slightly chilly, rainy evening, wearing warm socks, a coat and maybe a scarf. Suddenly we come upon it: a warm glowing scene in a backdrop of grey and black, the warmly lit establishment filled with jovial and interesting people welcoming you to come dine with them. The smiles are real, the atmosphere is palpable. The anticipation, the excitement of what's to come may be ephemeral, but in that moment, it's the only thing you feel. This is where barriers are broken, bonds are strengthened and love is cemented. The memories of that communion can stay with you forever. It's the best resemblance of home, a warm hearth and thanksgiving all rolled into one experience. It's pure magic, and Portland does it better than anyone else. P.S. I have 4 weeks left. There isn't enough time.