The Portland restaurant scene is hot, and it’s not just because of all the wood-burning ovens that have been cranking out perfect pizzas for the past few years. The city has a national reputation for great, small restaurants. Driving this renaissance are lots of creative young chefs and a ready supply of local produce and wines from the Willamette Valley. Bounteous ingredients can be sourced locally, including organic fruits and vegetables, hazelnuts and walnuts, wild mushrooms, and even Oregon truffles. And that’s not to mention those local pinot noir, pinot gris, and pinot blanc vintages.
And then, of course, there are the now-famous Portland food carts, which have started something of a national trend. You may have to dine standing up, or at a picnic table, but the grub should be great.
The only catch to the Portland dining scene is that it’s spread out, and some of the most talked-about restaurants are basically neighborhood spots in residential districts away from the city center. Bear in mind that some of these neighborhood gems don’t take reservations (always call first), so, unless you arrive before 7pm or after 9pm, you may end up having to wait a long time for a table.
Many Happy Hours
Happy hour is huge in Portland. And it’s not just because the drinks are cheap, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s actually more about the food. Every good restaurant—I mean every one—has a happy hour, with delicious small plates available for about half of their usual price. This is a fab way to save money on eats. I won’t go into the details of the arcane rules devised by the Oregon Liquor Commission, but restaurants with bars have to offer food with the booze during happy hour. That’s one Oregon law I can live with.
Dining a la cart
It’s such a simple idea, the food cart, and of course it originated in Portland, where hungry residents don’t (or didn’t) usually have big budgets for dining out but still like good food. Why not join them, and have lunch the Portland way, “a la cart”? The city has become legendary for its hundreds of food carts (trailers, actually) parked in lots all over town. Look for concentrations of them downtown at SW Stark Street and SW Fifth Avenue; SW Alder Street, and SW Ninth and SW Tenth avenues; and SW Third and Ash. Across the river; on the east side, you’ll find carts at NE 10th and Alberta Street, SE 28th Avenue, and SE Hawthorne and 38th Avenue.
There are many food-cart standouts, and the carts often serve as a springboard (running board?) for new sit-down restaurants. For comfort food from a Culinary Institute of America grad, do Dinner Bell BBQ at the SW 9th avenue and Alder St. pod. One block away at 520 SW 10th Ave. you’ll find excellent steamed Chinese dumplings at Bao Bao. The foods of Ghana are on offer at Black Star Grill (SW 4th Avenue at College St.) You’ll get fried plantains, meat in a citrusy sauce, and your choice of rice. But these are just a few possibilities for dining inexpensively at spots around town. For other locations and cartloads of information on Portland food carts, go to www.foodcartsportland.com.
At this site you can book a food-cart tour. The walking tours are offered Monday through Friday starting around noon at a downtown food cart and last for 60–90 minutes. The $50 tour price includes small bites at four different food carts in different locations. You can roam to different food carts around the city by bike, too. The 3-hour Food Cart Tour offered by Pedal Bike Tours, 133 SW Second Ave. (www.pedalbiketours.com; [tel] 503/243-2453) visits favorite food carts in different neighborhoods for $69 (the price includes samples at all the carts).
Vegan, Vegetarian & Gluten-Free dining
You’ll find that most Portland restaurants offer vegetarian dishes, and more and more of them have gluten-free selections on the menu. But here are a few favorable restaurants for those who don’t want to wade through meat-and-wheat-centric menus to find something that suits their tastes or dietary restrictions.
Sweet Pea The 100 percent vegan bakery of your dreams with breakfast and lunch items, too.
1205 SE Stark St. www.sweetpeabaking.com. [tel] 503/477-5916. items. Mon–Sat 8am–6pm, Sun 9am–5pm.
Rabbit’s Café Rabbit’s is popular with downtowners who come for its breakfasts, vegan bowls, scrambles, and fruit smoothies.
555 SW Oak St. (inside US Bancorp Tower). www.rabbitscafepdx.com. [tel] 503/206-4512. Mon–Fri 7am–4pm.
DC Vegetarian Food Cart This downtown breakfast and lunch food cart offers a large variety of fresh vegetarian sandwiches that can also be made vegan.
SW 3rd and Stark. www.dcvegetarian.com. [tel] 503/317-4448. Mon–Fri 8:30am–3pm.
Vita Cafe Since 1999, environmentally-oriented and community-minded Vita’s has been using only local organic products in its all-vegetarian (with vegan and GF options) dishes.
3023 NE Alberta St. www.vita-café.com. [tel] 503/335-8233. Sun–Thurs 9am–9pm, Fri–Sat 8am–10pm.
Petunia’s Pies and Pastries Yummy gluten-free baked goods and a new savory menu draw GFers to Petunia’s.
610 SW 12th Ave. www.petuniaspiesandpastries.com. [tel] 503/841-5961. Sun–Wed 9am–7pm, Thurs 8am–9pm, Fri–Sat 9am–10pm.
Thrive Thrive uses free-range and organic proteins and sustainable seafood in its gluten-free offerings.
4641 NE Fremont St. www.thrivesauceandbowls.com. [tel] 971/803-3833. Tues–Sun 11am–4:30pm.
Bijou Cafe -- Parents who care about the food their children eat will want to bring the family to this cozy old-fashioned diner that serves great breakfasts made with organic ingredients.
Newport Seafood Grill -- A cheery atmosphere, straightforward meals, and a great location on the Willamette River make this a good family pick. Just be sure to hold the little ones' hands when you walk out on the floating dock that leads to this restaurant.
Old Wives' Tales -- This place has been keeping young, liberal-minded families contentedly dining out for 3 decades now. A dining room with an attached children's playroom assures mom and dad of an enjoyable evening out.
Breakfast: The Most Important Meal of the Day
I have to admit, I'm not a fan of going out for long, sit-down breakfasts. At home I always start my day with a big breakfast, but when I'm on vacation, just give me a cappuccino and a pastry and I'm perfectly content. I just don't want to sit around waiting for food first thing in the morning, especially when there's a new city to be explored. I have, however, found that I am in the minority. I regularly get letters from readers recommending breakfast places, and even my wife has tried to convince me of the folly of my ways.
If you happen to be a breakfast person and are desperately seeking sustenance in the AM, check out the following places.
Founded in Portland in 1953, The Original Pancake House, 8601 SW 24th Ave. (tel. 503/246-9007; www.originalpancakehouse.com), has lines out the door every weekend. Maybe you've got one of these places in your city (they're in 26 states), but this is the original Original Pancake House. Get the apple pancake or the Dutch baby.
Everett Street Bistro, 1140 NW Everett St. (tel. 503/467-4990; www.everettstreetbistro.com), serves such morning delights as Dutch baby pancakes, Grand Marnier French toast, and wild mushroom scrambles. It's easy to see why this place is packed for breakfast on weekends.
Isabel Pearl, 330 NW 10th Ave. (tel. 503/222-4333; www.isabelscantina.com), a glass-walled jewel-box of a restaurant in the Pearl District, serves big, creative breakfasts. Try the coconut French toast or pesto scramble.
Both Bijou Cafe and Daily Cafe also serve excellent breakfasts.
Coffeehouses & Cafes
Coffee is a passion here—we used to say strong coffee helped to speed us up because we were so far behind the East Coast (now that New York comes to Portland for inspiration, the old saying doesn’t hold water). In short, you’re never far from a good cappuccino or latte in the Rose City. I recommend the following places:
Caffe Umbria Started in Seattle by a family from Perugia, this cafe in the Pearl serves, in my opinion, the best lattes in the most sophisticated Italian cafe atmosphere in Portland. There are excellent panini, gelato, and pastries as well, and wine in the evening. 303 NW 12th Ave. www.caffeumbria.com. tel. 503/241-5300. Sun–Weds 7am–7pm, Thurs–Sat 7am–8pm.
Moonstruck Chocolate Café At this chocolateria, chocoholics can choose from a variety of hot chocolate drinks and handmade chocolates. There’s another Moonstruck downtown at 608 SW Alder St. (tel. 503/241-0955). 526 NW 23rd Ave. www.moonstruckchocolate.com. (tel. 503/542-3400). Mon–Thurs 8am–10pm, Fri–Sat 8am–11pm, Sun 9am–9pm.
Stumptown Many a Portlander swears by the strong, flavorful coffee at this big, bare downtown cafe with an art-school aesthetic. Whether you go for the French press, a latte, or a double shot of espresso, you’re sure to get a kick out of this brew. Other Stumptown locations: Ace Hotel, 1026 SW Stark St. (tel. 503/224-9060); 4525 SE Division St. (tel. 503/230-7702); 3356 SE Belmont St. (tel. 503/232-8889). 128 SW Third Ave. www.stumptowncoffee.com. tel. 503/295-6144. Mon–Fri 6am–6pm, Sat–Sun 6am–7pm.
Tao of Tea Not a coffee drinker? Try this funky teahouse, which specializes in traditional Chinese tea service and feels like it could be in some Kathmandu back alley. 3430 SE Belmont St. www.taooftea.com. tel. 503/736-0198. Mon–Sat 11am–10pm, Sun 11am–9pm.
Bakeries, Gelaterias & Pastry Shops
Pearl Bakery One of Portland’s first artisan bakeries, Pearl Bakery is famous for its breads and European-style pastries. The gibassier, a chewy sweet roll fragrant with anise and orange, is a must-try. The gleaming bakery/cafe is also good for sandwiches, such as a roasted eggplant and tomato pesto on crusty bread. 102 NW Ninth Ave. www.pearlbakery.com. tel. 503/827-0910.
St. Honoré Boulangerie Not only does this place turn out mouth-wateringly authentic French pastries and breads, it makes great coffee and offers a good simple lunch menu, too. They have a new branch at 3333 SE Division (tel. 971/279-4433). 2335 NW Thurman St. www.sainthonorebakery.com. (tel. 503/445-4342. Daily 7am–8pm.
Salt & Straw We are now in the post–Ben & Jerry’s and post-post–Baskin-Robbins world of ice cream, a time when people are willing to stand in line for half an hour and think nothing of plunking down $4 for a scoop of homemade ice cream in a flavor unheard of a few short years ago. Salt & Straw is now Portland’s ice cream mecca, serving up flavors like salted caramel cupcake, bacon ale, freckled woodblock chocolate, and honey balsamic vinegar with cracked pepper. The Northwest location is also a bakery; the other two locations are “scoop shops”: 3345 SE Division (tel. 503/208-2054); 2035 NE Alberta St. (tel. 503/208-3867). 838 NW 23rd Ave. www.saltandstraw.com. tel. 971/271-8168. Daily 10am–11pm.
Voodoo Doughnut I’m not a fan of gooey doughnuts, but apparently everyone else in Portland is, because there is always a line here. Voodoo has become a tourist destination where new Portlanders bring their visiting parents and grandparents. Be forewarned that this corner hole-in-the-wall is not in the most savory location, and your wait to get in may be 15 minutes or more; but as I’ve said elsewhere, standing in line for food is now a Portland thing. Open 24 hours, Voodoo sells voodoo-doll doughnuts (pretzel through the heart, jelly filling), bacon-topped maple bars, vegan doughnuts, and even X-rated doughnuts, packaged in an immediately identifiable pink box. There’s a second Voodoo Doughnut across the river at 1501 NE Davis St. (tel. 503/235-2666). 22 SW Third Ave. www.voodoodoughnut.com. tel. 503/241-4704. Open 24 hrs.
It’s such a simple idea, the food cart, and of course it originated in Portland, where hungry residents don’t usually have big budgets for dining out but still like good food. Why not join them, and have lunch the Portland way, “a la cart”? The city has become legendary for its hundreds of food carts (trailers, actually) parked in lots all over town. Look for concentrations of them downtown at SW Stark Street and SW Fifth Avenue, SW Alder Street, and SW Ninth and SW Tenth Avenues; SW Third and Ash across the river; on the east side, you’ll find carts at NE 10th and Alberta Street, SE 28th Avenue, and SE Hawthorne and 38th Avenue. There are many food-cart standouts, and the carts often serve as a springboard (running board?) for new sit-down restaurants. For spicy Georgian (as in Russia) specialties, try Kargi Gogo (www.kargigogo.com), on SW Washington between 9th and 10th avenues. Tiffin Asha (www.tiffinasha.com), 1313 NE Alberta St., serves great southern Indian food. Dalo’s (dalos-kitchen.com), corner of SE Martin Luther King Blvd. and Washington St., serves a mixed vegan platter for $5. But these are just a few possibilities for dining inexpensively at spots around town. For other locations and cartloads of information on Portland food carts, go to www.foodcartsportland.com.
Quick Bites & Cheap Eats
If you're just looking for something quick, cheap, and good to eat, Portland abounds with great options around the city. Designer pizzas topped with anything from roasted eggplant to wild mushrooms to Thai peanut sauce can be had at Pizzicato Gourmet Pizza (www.pizzicatopizza.com). Find them downtown at 705 SW Alder St. (tel. 503/226-1007), in Northwest Portland at 505 NW 23rd Ave. (tel. 503/242-0023), and in southeast Portland at 2811 E. Burnside St. (tel. 503/236-6045). However, if you find yourself near a Hot Lips Pizza (www.hotlipspizza.com), give it a try. They're located at SE Hawthorne Blvd. and SE 22nd Ave. (tel. 503/234-9999), in the EcoTrust building at NW 10th Ave. and NW Irving St. (tel. 503/595-2342), and SW Sixth Ave. at SW Hall St. (tel. 503/224-0311). For inexpensive sushi, stop by one of Portland's many outposts of Mio Sushi (www.miosushi.com). Locations include 2271 NW Johnson St. (tel. 503/221-1469), 3962 SE Hawthorne Blvd. (tel. 503/230-6981), and 4204 NE Halsey St. (tel. 503/288-4778). For fast organic and mostly vegetarian food, search out a Laughing Planet (www.laughingplanetcafe.com). You'll find them at 721 NW Ninth Ave. (tel. 503/505-5020); 922 NW 21st Ave. (tel. 503/445-1319), 3320 SE Belmont St. (tel. 503/235-6472), and 3765 N. Mississippi St. (tel. 503/467-4146).
As in most cities, restaurants in downtown Portland tend to be either cheap lunch spots for the cubical set or expense-account places for management. If your vacation budget falls closer to the former category, then you may want to eat "a la cart." In recent years, Portland has become famous for its many food carts. You'll find these carts and trailers in parking lots all over town, with concentrations at the corner of SW Stark Street and SW Fifth Avenue and the corners of SW Alder Street and both SW Ninth Avenue and SW Tenth Avenue. The following are some of my personal favorite carts. For cart-loads of information on Portland food carts, go to www.foodcartsportland.com.
I used to write about Amsterdam and Brussels for Frommer's guides, and in both cities, I lived on the exquisite fries. You can now get those great frites here in Portland at Potato Champion, SE 12th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard (www.potatochampion.com), which stays open late and also serves poutine, the national dish of Quebec.
Waffle sandwiches. 'Nuff said? Try the sausage and maple at Flavour Spot, North Mississippi Avenue and North Fremont Street (tel. 503/282-9866; www.flavourspot.com). Yumm!
At Nong's Khao Man Gai, SW Alder Street between SW 10th and SW 11th avenues (tel. 971/255-3480; www.khaomangai.com), such simple ingredients -- a pile of rice, a heap of boiled chicken, a cup of broth with vegetables -- become the stuff of Portland legends. How? The sauce. It is heavenly. Order extra.
It's cold. It's rainy. It's time for hot soup, and Savor Soup House, SW Alder Street and SW 10th Avenue (tel. 503/750-5634; www.savorsouphouse.com), is the place to take the chill off. Pair your soup with a grilled cheese sandwich for the ultimate comfort meal. Now where did I leave my blanket?
In a city known for its great espresso, can it be true that the best espressos and cappuccinos are served out of a cart in a downtown parking lot? Don't leave town without doing your own taste test at Spella Café, SW Ninth Avenue and SW Alder Street (tel. 503/752-0428; www.spellacaffe.com).
What, more waffles? Waffle Window, SE 36th Avenue and SE Hawthorne Boulevard (tel. 503/239-4756; www.wafflewindow.com), isn't officially a cart, but it is a window in the side of a building, which sort of counts. Waffles with jam and panna cotta, waffles with bacon, brie, and basil. What's not to love?
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.