The Food Taliban

Portland is a place where you can buy a beat up Tuff Shed storage unit; poke a dozen nail holes in the roof for light; use empty plastic mayonnaise buckets as chairs and a two-by-ten as a table; use your clock radio for “ambiance”; beat two eggs in a coffee cup with the fork tool on a Swiss army knife; cook ’em over a Bunsen burner in a crusty aluminum pie plate; serve it on chipped plates; call it the next new thing in “dining”; and according to our local blogs and newspapers you’re a  genius.

There is a lot of great food in this town but there are only a few good restaurants – places where in addition to the food on your plate, there are other creature comforts  like nice decor, appropriate lighting, comfortable seating, noise control, matching flatware and china, and good glassware – all the things that people in other metropolitan areas think of as a given. One of the most attractive things about Portland and the Pacific NW is our casual, comfortable way of life. What we profoundly lack is an alternative to this epidemic of neighborhood restaurants that focus strictly on what goes on the plate.

I think that it is difficult to appreciate the outstanding neighborhood restaurants that we have without an alternative to that form of dining. You can’t have an up without a down or a back without a front. We Portlanders  need to demand more – not only of restaurants – but of ourselves. We have forgotten how much fun it can be to dress up and to eat off matching plates and silver. We have forgotten what great service is. It is more than just a friendly server. We need to put an end to the profound underlying disrespect toward customers that remains unchecked in the restaurant scene in Portland. We need to get over the stumbling block of thinking that Portland is the center of the food world and begin to look outward – and learn.

One more thought. Our city will never be a first tier restaurant town until it develops a food and wine press that can think and write critically. A great food and wine press can be invaluable in raising the standards of quality and service.  What we have – and have had for the last 20 years is food and wine criticism like you might expect  from a town out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. How does one take seriously critically acclaimed restaurants that end up out of business six months later? How does one take seriously the bloggers or paper that anointed them with significance – sometimes before the first plate of abalone puffs or calf brain fritters was even served? If they can’t get the good restaurants right – how can we trust their opinion about the restaurants they hate? Amateurish and undisciplined, with astonishingly low standards of quality, our critics and bloggers have been way too cozy with those they write about.

Now we get the even more troubling news that the Oregonian has decided that it doesn’t need restaurant critics at all and has let go of its last remaining restaurant reviewer. All we are left is the self appointed food and wine Taliban in the Portland blogosphere.

But then, as much as I love Portland – it has never struck me as a very demanding city. Good enough has always been just that – good enough.

I await your hate mail.

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