Food & Drink

The Best and Worst Trends of Portland's Food and Drink Scene in 2016

Published On 01/04/2017 Published On 01/04/2017
portland best and worst food and drink trends
Grace Rivera

Now that we've (thankfully) moved on from 2016, it’s time to reflect on what was important about the year -- namely, all the food and drink trends, both the insufferable and the refreshing, in Portland. Not all of these necessarily started in 2016, but rather were ones that peaked this year. From new ingredients to reinvigorated obsessions, here are the worst and best trends of 2016.

The Rookery Bar

The Best: Low-proof cocktails
The thing about having countless great cocktails in the city is that they’re too easy to drink. Sometimes, you’d rather wake up the the morning after a night out without wishing for death. Not every drink needs to be made with overproof rye, and there’s been a growing trend of basing drinks on low-proof spirits, amaro, and vermouth. The result is a variety of cocktails around town that you can have multiples of without ending up booted from the bar or passed out against the front door of your apartment.
Examples: Ava Gene’s, The Rookery, Oven & Shaker

Flickr/N i c o l a

The Worst: Gose
As if sour beer, the yeasty equivalent of Kombucha, wasn’t bad enough, Portland bartenders have recently embraced the German way of making it even worse: Gose. Pronounced Go-zeh, it’s a low ABV, low IBU, sour beer with the addition of saline. Because “salty and sour” is exactly the flavor profile you want in your ale. As a reward for choking this concoction down in the name of “craft,” you’ll get to feel bloated the rest of the evening before the next morning replicates the effects of a double serving of Activia. We summed it all up pretty well last year, and it’s obvious from the comments that there is universal agreement here: Gose is bad.  

Bit House Saloon

The Best: Sherry
This is directly related to low proof cocktails, but deserves a spot of its own. Sherry, what was once considered a beverage of only the stuffiest of bourgeoisie, is the hottest drink in town, both in and out of cocktails. It’s varied and versatile, from the bright, dry fino to the rich, oxidized oloroso. It’s incredibly food friendly on its own, and bolsters a cocktail without raising the ABV. It’s just nerdy enough to be fun, while still being accessible. Niles and Frasier, drink your hearts out.
Examples: Bar Casa Vale, Bit House Saloon, Ataula, La Moule

Oregon Brewers Festival

The Worst: Beer festivals
We get it Portland, you love beer. That doesn’t mean you have to have a festival for it every cursed week of the year. Oregon Brewer’s Festival. Fresh Hop Festival. Sour Beer Festival. Organic Beer Festival. Vegan Beer Festival. Fruit Beer Festival. Gluten-Free Beer Festival. Winter Beer Festival. Those are all real, and it’s endless. Here’s an idea: Why not go buy a beer at one of the ubiquitous tap houses and breweries around town instead? We have at least a few great ones, after all. Doesn’t that beat standing around in the rain or direct sun in an asphalt parking lot for a few hours to buy an overpriced two-ounce pour at the next Raw Beer Festival?

Farm Spirit | Nikki Under-Fink

The Best: Vegetables
For years, Portland was considered a vegetarian mecca, and then some chef discovered pork belly and every spot in town was building its menu around it (we see you, Lardo, and your delicious but ultimately damning sandwiches). Some of the vegan and vegetarian places survived, but it’s been a relief to see the recent return of vegetable-centric menus. Rather than just focus on vegetarianism, chefs have chosen to celebrate vegetables as their own worthwhile ingredient, with meat as the supporting act if they choose to incorporate it at all. Because vegetables can be delicious. Plus, they’re healthier for you, and better for the environment, so it’s win-win-win.
Examples: Tusk, Rue, Quaintrelle, Epif, Farm Spirit

The Worst: Food weeks/days
Much like beer festivals and Marvel movies*, a once good idea has gone stagnant from rampant proliferation. At one point we had Burger Week to look forward to each year, as well as Negroni Week, and that was basically it. Then we had Pizza Week, Nacho Week, and Chef’s Week. Add to that individual days like Donut Day, Coffee Day, Pizza Day (unaffiliated with Pizza Week), and Cupcake Day, and you soon might become suspicious that these aren't federally sanctioned holidays, but something made up by a bored PR rep looking to justify an Instagram post! We’re already looking forward to this year’s Lutefisk Week and Kale Day (which, holy fuck, that’s actually a thing already).
*Aside from Civil War and Doctor Strange which both ruled.

Pine Street Market

The Best: Food halls
Portland is booming, but our urban growth boundary keeps us population dense. With the ever-growing restaurant scene, we’re running out of space. The answer comes in the form of food halls, places where multiple restaurants (or occasionally food carts) can fit, each serving limited menus with counter service in a large shared space. They combine the communal, casual aspects of a food court with the high quality food you expect from Portland restaurants.  
Examples: Pine Street Market, The Zipper Building

Boris Zharkov Photography

The Worst: Small plates
America co-opted the concept of tapas and made them simply “small plates,” and they’re offered at every new restaurant in the city. Sure, it’s great to share and sample at a restaurant, and occasionally, it's well executed. The issues start when the small plates are the same price as a normal plate at another restaurant, and the “large plates” you’re expected to share cost the same as a full entree elsewhere. It’s difficult to justify paying $11 for a saucer of marinated olives, no matter how artisanal they are.

Full Sail Brewing Company

The Best: Lagers
At last, the IPA Dominance has been toppled! The Bitterness Battles that raged for so many years, with competing breweries coming up with new ways to shove IBUs into a glass until they were past the point of human perception, have ended. Behold, the lager! No mere acerbic beer made with rice or corn, but a truly delicious, complicated, and lovingly crafted product. Portland, which so long suffered under the yoke of ales, is free, finally, to try beers made with bottom-fermenting yeast. Pilsner and helles, dunkel and bock, lead us into our crisp, golden future.
Examples: Widmer Brothers, Breakside, Commons, Wayfinder

The Worst: Restaurant openings
It’s likely related to the explosion in the population over the last few years, but in 2016, Portland restaurant openings were nigh constant. It was hard to leave the house without seeing some new space pop up in an abandoned warehouse, the ambitious project of a sous chef striking it out on her own. It’s become an arduous chore to keep track and try out each new restaurant, and each time you do so, you abandon your favorites, the time-tested restaurants that still deserve your attention. It’s like playing solely with the new puppy while forgetting about your older, faithful, obedient dog, you heartless monster.

Drew Tyson

The Absolute Best Trend of 2016: Chicken
Chicken has, for many years now, been the forgotten dish of restaurants, relegated to weddings and dive bars in the form of strips and fingers. Every restaurant had an obligatory poultry dish on its menu, dressed up in French equivalents like “Coq” or “Poulet." But 2016 has been the Year of the Chicken, with some of our most stand-out dishes being the bird: Mae’s heartbreaking Southern style fried chicken; Hat Yai’s tantalizing Southern-Thai style chicken, roti, and curry; or Basilisk finally perfecting the fried chicken sandwich. Not all of it is battered and fried, as Coquine continues from last year to set the standard of roasted chicken, and Pollo Norte redefines rotisserie chicken as something far removed from the stuff you buy preprepared from the supermarket.
Examples: Pollo Bravo, Pollo Norte, Hat Yai

The Absolute Worst Trend of 2016: Restaurant and bar closings
2016 wasn't just brutal to celebrities, but also to restaurants and bars. From time-honored institutions like Veritable Quandary and Sewick’s, to painfully short lived projects such as Americano or Honky Tonk Taco, to something in between (RIP Smallwares) there has been a deluge of restaurants and bars that closed last year. Some of it is due to oversaturation; other restaurants simply weren’t bringing in customers. Many have shuttered because their landlords decided to jack their rent up to absurd proportions. Whatever the case, 2016 was the Red Wedding equivalent of restaurants.

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Alex Frane is a writer in Portland. Follow him on Twitter @FraniacDrinks.

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1. Ava Gene's 3377 SE Division St, Portland, OR 97202 (Se Portland)

You'd expect a restaurant by Stumptown Coffee Roasters founder to serve good coffee, but Ava Gene's also excels at vegetable-focused, Roman-inspired New American fare. The chef, Joshua McFadden, honed his green thumb during years spent working at Maine's Season Farm, and puts his experience to use in elemental dishes that are packed with flavor, from carrot and beef slaw to roasted cauliflower with chili and anchovies. That's not to say meat doesn't sing here: duck leg is sweetened with pomegranate, and buttery porterhouse steak is served with mussels. The menu is "aggressively seasonal," so while you can't count of it being the same during every visit, you can be sure it will be fresh, with a different farm or producer highlighted on that day's list. Family-style meals, which the chef will craft based on the harvest, are worth splurging for.

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2. Rookery 1331 SW Broadway, Portland, OR 97201 (Sw Portland)

Entering The Rookery Bar, housed in the historic 1883 Ladd Carriage house right above British tavern Raven & Rose, feels like stepping into an old boys' club. It's all too easy to assume a "dandy chap" pose when you're sitting sitting fireside in an armchair, sinking further in with every sip from your Manhattan. Any of the classic cocktails poured here will get you in the mood, really, and the proprietary concoctions are given so much care, you'd mistake them for old standards (try Caroline's Fancy: reposado tequila, curacao, cardamom bitters). The kitchen nods to Irish and English inspirations, with fish & chips, shepherd's pie and London broil feeding tipplers under the vaulted ceilings. Stir in some regular live Irish folk music, a bold green billiards table, and a rare liquor selection and the entire experience is intoxicating.

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3. Oven and Shaker 1134 NW Everette, Portland, OR 97214 (Pearl District)

Pizza wouldn't be worth much — let alone existent — without either an oven or seasoning shakers, and we're just thankful that four-time-James-Beard-nominated chef Cathy Whim's Oven & Shaker has both. The pies pulled from her wood-fired oven at this sleek Pearl District dining room are the real deal: creative topping combinations like salumi and honey on thin-but-still-chewy dough keep tables full. Italian street foods, from fried mozzarella to arancini balls, round out the meal. Italian whites and reds are sprinkled with local vintages, but the true stars are the cocktail options like the maple syrup- and bell pepper juice-infused anise vodka sip, Pepper Smash #2. But you don't have to be the only one drinking: let it be known that there's a special option on the menu where you can "buy the kitchen a six-pack." You should do it.

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4. Bar Casa Vale 215 SE 9th Ave, Portland, OR 97214 (East Portland)

Northern Spain invades East Portland in Bar Casa Vale, adding to the long list of reasons why we too should adopt the midday siesta. An extensive menu allows you to go small with a glass of Spanish red or sherry and a snack like anchovy olives or a tapas-sized portion of "chorizo-style" octopus, or settle in for a full, slow meal of smoked game hen. Reverence is given to Iberian ham here, and a slicing station displaying a tantalizing 4-year-aged pig leg next to the bar is evidence enough. Cocktails betray both European and pan-Latin influences -- from a Negroni Sbagliato (Campari, sweet vermouth, cava) to a Coquito (light rum, coconut cream, spices) -- and are best sipped on the large outdoor patio.

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5. Bit House Saloon 727 SE Grand Ave, Portland, OR 97214 (Buckman)

Even though it opened in 2015, there's an age-old feel to the 150-seat Bit House Saloon, named for how much a beer cost before the US outlawed foreign coins in the 1800s. You'll walk up to a bar on floors made from old bourbon barrels to order a whiskey-focused list of specials. But don't expect service as rusty as the brass accents in the space, this saloon has beed lauded for its mixology since landing on the scene. Stay traditional with an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, or dip into the punch-packing proprietary drink list, featuring sips like the Astro City Cracker Jack (popcorn-washed Applejack, smoked maple syrup, Verjus, soda). The food menu is fit to soak up the drinks, with fried pork rillette or smoked chicken wings playing opener to fried bologna sandwiches or a smoked pork plate.

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6. Ataula 1818 NW 23rd Pl, Portland, OR 97210 (Nw Portland)

Third-generation chef Jose Chesa's Northwest District restaurant Ataula is lauded for a reason: the Spanish tapas menu is augmented by his modern execution. Yes, there are welcome standards — hard-to-find jamon Iberico de bellota is sliced from aged hunks of acorn-fed pig, and cod croquetas come with a smoky piquillo sauce — but experimental dishes seal the deal. A mystifying order called xupa xup is essentially a chorizo lollipop imbued with goat cheese and membrillo, and should not be missed. The culmination of your meal, if you don't fill up on tapas (a perfectly noble choice, by the way), are servings of seafood-filled paella or rossejat for-two. And, because it wouldn't be a true Spanish dining room otherwise, white and red sangrias flow freely.

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7. La Moule 2500 SE Clinton St, Portland, OR 97202 (Clintondivision)

There's something sexy about muscles... um, mussels, and that fact is especially apparent at La Moule. Eccentric patterned wallpaper and black leather booths set a seductive, vaguely European mood for four takes on the specialty shellfish, from a creamy iteration with saffron and thyme to a Korean-influenced broth with miso, ginger and kimchi. That's not to say you should stop there: Belgian-inspired favorites like rabbit pie are broken up by specials, like a heaping lobster BLT on buttered Texas toast with thick-cut bacon and caper-mayo skewered by a knife. An impressive Belgian beer selection is notable, but complex cocktails offer just as much reason to drink.

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8. Tusk 2448 E Burnside St, Portland, 97214 (Kerns)

Named for the iconic Fleetwood Mac album, this airy eatery brings remixed Middle Eastern food to Kerns. Following Portland's penchant for farm-centric food, Tusk gets its ingredients from nearby farms like Ayers Creek to bring sharable plates of cured meats, roasted and picked veggies, and flatbread to the table. In addition to an ever-changing menu, you can also expect top-notch pastry desserts and spritzy cocktails.

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9. Rue 1005 SE Ankeny St, Portland, OR 97214 (Kerns)

Rue takes a fresh, light, and clean approach to both its decor and menu, serving up small plates in a modern French bistro space. The menu is composed entirely of small plates with many veggie-centric options in the mix, and range from roasted carrots to smoked trout to roasted guinea hen. Alongside them, you'll want to order from the lovely and herbaceous lineup of cocktails (go for the Fernet and and huckleberry soda), or a glass of wine off a list including Old World and Pacific Northwest options.

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10. Quaintrelle 3936 N Mississippi Ave, Portland, OR 97227

Quaintrelle, inhabiting a space that used to house a macaroni & cheese joint, couldn’t be more different than its predecessor: the vegetable-forward fare here is an homage to the power of well-prepared produce. Vegetables and salads are given prime billing, with plates like fried young squash with blossoms, and Little Gem lettuces dolloped with carrot creme. Even when paired with meat or fish, the green stuff still shines: broccoli and wasabi top beef carpaccio, while cucumbers and pistachios liven grilled squid. Photos of harvest scenes from the farm where the restaurant sources its edibles further the farm-to-table theme.

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11. Epif Restaurant & Pisco Lounge 404 NE 28th Ave, Portland, OR (Kerns)

Take a seat at Epif, a sun-filled spot housed inside a teal building with yellow trim, and you'll find an equally colorful menu that highlights the rich flavors of South America, and does so without using meat and or nearly any animal products whatsoever -- not an easy feat. It more than pulls it off (most dishes are vegan), particularly with the ceviche: mushrooms soaked in bright mango leche de tigre. When it comes to cocktails, you'll be introduced and treated to variations on the traditional Peruvian pisco sour with recipes from all over the Andes region.

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12. Farm Spirit 1414 SE Morrison St, Portland, OR 97214 (Buckman)

If you move fast and manage to snag tickets to a table at this sought-after Buckman restaurant, you'll be treated to an utterly insane amount (usually over 10 courses) of small fruit- and vegetable-centered dishes created by a team of culinary experts who could otherwise be artists with the way they dice and drizzle. Bringing in produce directly from nearby Groundwork Organics among many others, the menu is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, but they keep an updated list of available ingredients online to keep you prepared.

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13. Pine Street Market 126 SW 2nd Ave, Portland, OR 97204 (Downtown)

This unassuming spot tucked away in the historic Baggage and Carriage Building by the waterfront is actually the Pine Street Market, a behemoth of culinary exploits with eight vendors from Portland favorite restaurants. All corners of the globe are covered in this one food hall, from South American coffee at Brass Bar to Germany's franks at OP Wurst to Spanish chicken at Pollo Bravo. You can have your pick of the bunch or sample them all at one, we won't judge.

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14. The Zipper 2705 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR (Kerns)

Think you're familiar with the food court format? Grow up and think again. The Zipper reimagines what the format could be, trading in your typical fast food and mall-quality Chinese for fresh concepts from leading restaurateurs. The building -- which, yes, kind of looks like a zipper, we guess -- houses four restaurants, a bar, a coffee stop and a late-night salon, all of which are situated around a communal dining room. Expect crispy falafel from ChickpeaDX, fried chicken and grape-Kool-Aid soft-serve from Basilik, roast beef po'boys from Bywater Grocery, and pizza topped with alligator sausage at Slice.

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15. Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. 929 N Russell St, Portland, OR 97227 (N Portland)

Widmer Brothers is capable of filling 300 kegs per hour, which, if you're keeping track at home, is a lot of kegs. The Gasthaus Pub features an assortment of German-inspired dishes, and the banquet facility on the second floor has three separate rooms with a combined area of 2,818 square feet.

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16. Breakside Brewery and Dekum Pub 820 NE Dekum St, Portland, OR 97211 (Concordia)

Breakside Brewery has drawn industry accolades, boasting a lineup of medals from the Brewers Association World Beer Cup, because it isn't afraid to take risks with its beer. Breakside minds have birthed salted caramel stouts and habanero-infused lagers, and you can sample a rotating cast of the creations from any of the 24 taps in use in the onsite taproom and Dekum Pub. The food at this brewer's tavern takes a backseat to the beer, as it should, but still provides almost anything you'd want with a cold one: namely, wings, a burger or some fried pickles.

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17. The Commons Brewery 1810 SE 10th Ave, Unit E, Portland, OR 97214

Central Eastside's The Commons Brewery specializes in small-batch beers made using European-inspired methods and regional ingredients. The brewery's small size allows it be nimble and play with new ideas, which can be tasted in the selection on offer in the onsite taproom. Thirteen Commons labels are poured at the brick-backed wooden bar in the warehouse space, and flavors rage from a light German-style Pilsner to a plum-kissed farmhouse ale aged in wine barrels. Because snacks and beer shouldn't be separated, a cheese window by Cheese Bar owner Steven Jones matches slices to the suds.

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18. Wayfinder Beer 304 SE 2nd Ave, Portland, OR 97214

Beer drinkers know how to find their way to Wayfinder Beer, housed in an 8,9000-square-foot warehouse in Central Eastside. The 110-seat space is a modern beer hall with an emphasis on local beers, and a large wood-lined deck with communal tables and gas-fire pits provides plenty of space for sloshing pints. That doesn’t mean the food is an afterthought: yes, there are expected items like smoked beer nuts and cheeseburgers, but some elevated sandwiches (duck confit bahn mi) and wood-fired grill offerings (steak frites, Jamaican jerk ribs) graduate Wayfinder above many beer pub competitors.

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19. Pollo Bravo 126 SW 2nd Ave, Portland, OR 97204 (Downtown)

At Pollo Bravo, tucked into Pine Street Market, there's a secret to the namesake chicken: it's marinated in carrot juice. John Gorham, of Toro Bravo, learned the trick from an elderly street vendor during his many trips to Madrid, and it's become the inspiration for his Spanish-Mexican tapas spot. Tapas portions encourage you to slow down and savor the flavor, and there's plenty in a plate of skewers sporting chroizo-wrapped manchego, anchovies, olives and pickled peppers. Pork loin sandwiches and rotisserie chicken (with that special carrot marinade) provide more substantial dining options, which you may need after cocktails at the 17-seat bar.

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20. Pollo Norte 5427 NE 42nd Ave, Portland, OR 97218

Pollo Norte took Portland by storm with its focused and simple menu featuring Mexico City-inspired rotisserie chicken, with people clamoring to get one of the limited birds on offer each day. What could be so great about just chicken? For starters, the poultry here is local and free-range (everything tastes better when it didn't live exclusively in a cage). Secondly, they brine the birds in lime and achiote chile, Mexican sea salt, and cane sugar. Thirdly, it's just beautifully simple. The birds, sold by the half and whole, come with fresh tortillas and cabbage, and can be paired with a limited selection of sides including roasted potatoes, bacon-spiked pinto beans, and two kinds of salsa. This second location, with more room and an outdoor patio for pecking at chicken bones, has helped ease some of the demand.

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21. Hat Yai 1605 NE Killingsworth St., Portland, OR 97211 (Alberta Arts Dist)

Hat Yai is centered around mortar-and-pestle-ground Thai spice, and the fast-casual eatery on Northeast Killingsworth delivers it in specialty chicken dishes with the flavor and impact of a full-scale sit-down restaurant. The spot is named after a city on the border of Thailand's border with Malaysia, which is the inspiration for the preparation style here: spicy with lots of chili. The fried chicken is a must-order, the rice flour batter giving legs a golden crunch, while sprinklings of peppercorns and fired shallots give them extra punch. You can also have a half-bird with sticky rice, but non-poultry options like red chili-coconut curry with roti make a nice alternative. Sweet cocktails like a Tamarind Whiskey Smash and Asian import beers provide lubrication, and a few drinks might help you get creative in stacking plates to make room at the tiny tables.