Is It As Good as Gopher Prairie?

A new trend is developing as a number of restaurants around the United States and Europe are considering closing their doors due to the difficulty involved in trying to compete with Portland, Oregon as the new center of the food universe. Restaurants that have tried to copy the Pacific NW food scene are finding it a thorny task. “We are not quite ready to give it up yet,” says Chef Chris P. Bacon of Sirius in Healdsburg, California. “But trying to match Portland’s casual disregard for attention to detail has been more difficult than we imagined.”

Many owners complain that they find it difficult to break old habits and still feel compelled to perfect menu items and provide a pleasant atmosphere. “What can I say?” said one New Orleans chef. “We can’t compete when it comes to those things that come naturally to so many Portland owner/chefs –mismatched place settings, a hoarder style of ambiance, uncomfortable seating, and lack of experience. Even the servers we hired had been tainted by having eaten or worked in what were great restaurants in their day, both here in the US and around the world. So they lacked the essential obliviousness needed to be successful in a Portland style eatery.”

Some owner/chefs in Europe and NYC complain that their customers can still recognize superior food and that makes replicating a Stumptown experience more difficult. “Once people began to understand that our product was just ok, it then became impossible for them to experience our food as truly incredible – even though we hired people to tell them just that. So we started topping our dishes with poached eggs – even pork belly – but nothing worked. “said Chef Lance Fayeluck of Meiner Dun Restaurant. “Guests expected depth of experience and maturity in food preparations – we just didn’t have it in us,” said the 22-year-old Fayeluck who has owned Meiner Dun for five years.

A fundamental factor in the success of many Portland restaurants is the studied fawning of the food and wine press. Some award-winning restaurants even called the lack of serious food criticism in the Portland market the key to their success. “Bad food writing and the public relations company we hired have made us what we are” said Chris Coe, Chef/Owner of One Phunky Sleaze Joint in SE Portland. “Those two forces really come together in our market and it makes all the difference in the world. It freed us up from menu development and execution and we were able to concentrate on public relations and exposure. I think that is what made our award possible.”

But even long time Northwest success legends like Chicken, Fish, and Burgers Oh My need to be careful. CFBOM was the Restaurant of the Year in 2009 (opening mid December of that year) and a Bored Award winner in 2010. It will close its doors at the end of the month. “I think we lost focus on what made us cool and we made the mistake of adding seats in the dining room – we could seat nine people originally – and a few months ago we increased our seating to fourteen,” said Anna Graham, owner. “Once we had more seats, the media lost interest – and by that time the business was almost 18 months old – so the concept was getting pretty dated.”

Prospective food writers trying to mimic Portland style food writing are turning to Sinclair Lewis’  Main Street to get a feel for small stakes opinions and undemanding boosterism – along with the viciousness they can engender. “Reading Lewis really put me in touch with the narrowness of Portland life in its demand for conformity which is deeply ingrained in the culture,” said Amanda Reckonwith, local food critic. ”I have been able to tap into that conformity and mediocrity in my food writing. It’s really helped – people don’t even need to read my entire reviews anymore – they can just assume they know my opinions. It’s great!” Just as important in the minds of food critics are the many blogs that have arisen both locally and nationally. Local online critic Cody Pendant says, “We feel that the tone of our blog is  important in ensuring that we clearly are expressing a sense of place – a sense of what makes Portland – Portland.  We also want to make sure that readers get a sense of just who we are as well. We aim for a blend of smug self satisfaction and self righteous indignation.”

Local restaurateurs  are hoping that Portland never develops a serious food and wine press. They feel that the emergence of one could endanger the restaurant industry. “Well written food and wine criticism would only serve to make everyone unhappy, said one local chef. “It would put too much pressure on us to be consistent. What is most important is that people be told that what they are eating is great – and actually believe it. We just hope diners and readers never make the effort to consider the source.”

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