Published in the September 2015 issue of Dispatch Magazine
As our city enjoys yet another year as the reigning food media darling, prompting visits from countless TV crews looking for the “Portland that only the locals know about,” it is more important than ever to realize that much of the best of Port City has already come and gone.
I recall the good old days, hanging out in front of Green Mountain Coffee, nursing a hangover and watching idiots hacky sack, an ideal prelude to nights at the Elvis Room and Zootz, before heading to an afterparty at that five-story Joe Soley-owned apartment on Exchange that was technically awesome but always in a state of complete disarray. There has always been great food and drink here, regardless of whether or not it photographs well for a four-page glossy spread in Bon Appetit. Here are some of the places I miss the most:
Fresh Market Pasta
Almost everyone who remembers FMP echoes the exact same opinion: How the hell did that place ever go out of business? You choose your (fresh) pasta shape, your sauce, receive soft bread and butter to use as a conduit for every last bit, and let the nap-inducing gluttony begin. I think this may have been the first place I ever tried pesto, and, because it was the ‘90s, I’m sure there must have been sundried tomatoes involved somewhere.
What’s there now: The Thirsty Pig, temple of sausage.
During its heyday, Mazza was definitely one of the more urban watering holes this city has ever seen. The key was assembling an all-star team of bartenders — most of whom are still prominent fixtures in the scene today — who could actually make a great martini and accurately suggest wines from an extensive, thoughtful list. The funky, dimly lit décor progressed toward modern while still keeping some of the tacky yet delightful patterns from the ‘90s, all set to a soundtrack of jazz and, I think, Morcheeba? Don’t quote me on that, but I’m pretty sure they were playing Morcheeba last time I was in there.
What’s there now: Lincoln’s, a place where everything costs $5. That’s why it’s called Lincoln’s.
Still to this day, one of the sexiest meals I have ever enjoyed in Portland was at Chef Erik Desjarlais’s flawless, albeit controversial, French eatery. The level of execution in the food was staggering, and I still remember dishes like skate grenobloise, cassoulet, and even a foie gras sandwich with shaved black truffles alongside fingerling potatoes fried in goosefat. Service was also pristine, a rarity today despite so much hype about the quality of our restaurants.
What’s there now: Crooners & Cocktails, a swanky bar for people who wallpaper their apartment with posters of the Rat Pack.
For most of its years in operation, Haggarty’s was owned and operated by a Scottish gentleman who had mastered the art of Brit-Indi cuisine. In addition to the regular menu, there were even “secret” sauces, like the chasne mango curry, that could be ordered if you were in the know, and if you ordered a dish spicy they fielded that request very seriously. They even offered delivery, and nothing can turn an otherwise shitty day around like a big container of spicy korma with garlic naan to dip in. Then, all of the sudden, things changed. I called one day and, when I tried to order the secret sauce, was met with dead silence. I came to find out that they had been sold, and almost immediately the food went straight down hill — and apparently everyone else in Portland agreed because they finally shut down about a year ago, but not before a death rattle that involved advertising “Philly Cheese Steak Kabobs.” R.I.P.
What’s there now: Both the Fisherman’s Net and the Fisherman’s Grill, or as I like to call it, “The natural progression of things.”
“You should order the stargazer martini! It looks like silver and comes with a big edible flower,” said every club-girl/guy to their club-girl/guy friends, between trips to the bathroom together, upon any visit to Una in early 2000s. Its long, curved bar and dim, flattering lighting made it a perfect haunt for those in search of liquid (and other) debauchery. What’s interesting is that it was initially meant to be a wine bar, and actually had a decent selection in the first few years, but by the time it had gone into full decline in 2010 it was known mostly for flavored vodka and shots of Grand Marnier.
What’s there now: Zapoteca, land of 10,000 tequilas.
Even though every meal I enjoyed at Perfetto was quite delicious, one of the most memorable elements for me was the warm caponata they served with the table bread — I seriously could have bathed in this stuff (apologies for the graphic imagery). Though it was open until the early 2000s, something about this place always embodied the ‘90s to me — it had a particular warmth to it, aided by large bowls of pasta and very good, yet reasonably priced, bottles of Italian red — a perfect base for a long night of drinking at Stone Coast Brewing.
What’s there now: Second Time Around, a luxury that most restaurants are not granted.
Ahh, the Village Café. I’ll be honest, though I was never completely enamored with the food here, I was obsessed with the experience. As you entered and walked down the dark hallway toward the host stand, preferably accompanied by your impatient grandparents, you were immediately assaulted with the aromas of warm olive oil, cigarettes, coffee, and old people emanating from the lounge area. As you were seated, they had better have that basket of bread on the table promptly or gramps was definitely going to let them know about it. I generally stuck with chicken parmigiana, and though I always found their red sauce to be watery and uninspiring, I couldn’t have been happier.
What’s there now: Urban squalor
When we weren’t busy having an awful season in 1995, the members of the Cheverus High School football team could most often be found taking on mountains of spaghetti and meatballs at the Sportsman’s Grill. There is so much history to this place, and yet again there exists no place today that embodies the blue-collar family Italian eatery, that everyone could agree on and where everyone was welcome.
What’s there now: Yet more urban squalor
Though there have been many incarnations of Hu Shang, the one that I recall going to at a young age embodied everything a great Chinese-American restaurant should be — that kind of faux-opulence mixed with an atmosphere of serenity, only to be disrupted by the consumption of one too many tiki beverages. There were also a few traditional Sichuan offerings to offset the requisite General Tso’s chicken, a characteristic that has yet to be replaced in any Portland Chinese restaurant, save perhaps Empire. This was my first exposure to the salty, sweet, spicy flavors that I have been obsessed with my whole life, and have been chasing the dragon, so to speak, ever since.
What’s there now: I can’t remember if it’s Fuji or Club 21?
Though my memory is a bit hazy in regard to this iconic ‘80s eatery on Middle Street, I do remember being confronted with about 10,000 sandwich options, which in turn forced me to panic and order something that was, in retrospect, basic and forgettable, causing me to cringe with regret the whole ride home, while I was listening to my Samantha Fox tape on my (sports) Walkman. If only I could be given a second chance, but alas Carbur’s is gone for good, and with it the famous “Down East Feast.”
What’s there now: Not sure now, but I’m pretty sure it was also the old location of The Clown, an excellent wine and antiques shop that I miss dearly.
Yet another restaurant that was ahead of its time, Michaela’s billed itself as a “Modern American Bistro,” a title that would have fit right in and already had me completely annoyed were it to open in today’s dining landscape. They utilized fresh local ingredients without having the need to pat themselves on the back about it every three minutes, resulting in vibrant, modern (at the time) dishes like tamarind-cured hangar steak with mango-black bean relish and naan bread, complimented by a well-devised wine list.
What’s there now: Shay’s – the burger is delicious.
Chef Erik Desjarlais, during the period between closing Bandol and opening Evangeline, decided to do what many chefs dream of and just say “I’m over it — I’m going to make soup all day and serve it with really fresh bread and mind-numbingly good chocolate chip cookies.” Each day he would unapologetically run out of 80 percent of the soups by one o’ clock, prompting crowds to pack in early and allow Desjarlais the afternoon to relax and chat with regulars who happily gobbled up the leftovers. I still miss that goddamn rabbit stew…
What’s there now: Bliss Boutique and Andiamo! Salon
The original café in the Bodega Latina was where my old roommate and I would go to reward ourselves every single time we were forced to shovel heaps of snow out of our driveway. Nothing melts away that kind of frustration like braised oxtail, pigeon peas and rice, perfect fried chicken, and chicharron (to order), all washed down with an ocean of Jarritos soda. If you were lucky, you’d arrive before they ran out of braised goat and fried yucca stuffed with chorizo — a dish that I would honestly give my left arm for right now. Lastly, this place tended to scare white people, so, bonus points.
What’s there now: Another restaurant, not as good as the original
Throughout the ‘90s, along with Maria’s, G’Vanni’s was known as the go-to for a luxurious Italian feast, though in my mind they were always more of a red-sauce joint with a high-end wine list. They also owned Tony Baloney’s right across Wharf Street, which offered some of the best pizza Portland has ever seen, especially with meatballs (some people still think this is strange and I have no idea why). I have fond memories of waiting for my pizza while attempting to be sold faux-gold chains by men in track suits wandering up and down the cobblestones.
What’s there now: 51 Wharf Street, where all the kids go now INSTEAD of Una
Portland Public Market
You know, it could have really been something. Starting with high-end restaurants like Commissary and Market Side Grille, incorporating fresh produce, a butcher shop, and well-loved institutions like Scales and Oi Shi, this should have been the crown jewel for Portland food culture. Instead, it became a place for homeless people to use the bathroom and high school kids to get stoned during study hall — prompting me to wonder how it would have been if it had opened 10 years later.
What’s there now: Offices and Slab Sicilian Street Food – curious to see what the future holds
Woody’s Bar and Grill
Located in the space that now houses Duckfat, Woody’s is the kind of bar that I wish still existed today — low key, with a long list of delicious burgers and a decent wine and beer list. No themes, no pretense, just a comfortable place is get unreasonably drunk and take the edge off with delicious comfort food. In fact, I guess I don’t really remember all that much about Woody’s, except that every time I would leave I’d say to myself, “I should really go to Woody’s more often.”
What’s there now: DUCKFAT! OMG!!! AGGH!!!! LETS WAIT IN LINE FOR 4 HOURS! WE LOVE DUCKFAT!
While normally any place that consistently earns the title of “Most Romantic Restaurant” from idiotic local polls is going to fall off of my radar completely, there was definitely something comforting about The Roma. I never saw it during daylight hours, but at night the décor felt quite dramatic and grandiose. I will admit the last time that I was there was in 1997 — I was dating an attractive opera singer who turned me on to the joys of excessive red wine consumption above all else — and I had the veal involtini, which was delicious.
What’s there now: I guess that’s up to the man who owns Bramhall…
Aubergine Bistro Wine Bar
Easily one of the most refined Portland restaurants to emerge from the ‘90s, with chef/owner David Grant at the helm, they featured dishes like lamb sausage in puff pastry with four peppercorns and horseradish, alongside a contemporary wine list. Grant’s now celebrated exploits, professional and otherwise, are a welcome topic of conversation for any ex-employee, as they are the stuff of legend.
What’s there now: 555, though they have since expanded the space considerably
Honey’s Soul Food
A small, unassuming family operation, Honey’s served up inexpensive lunch and dinner, specializing in dishes like smothered pork chops, mac and cheese, braised greens, and oxtails and rice. Their fried chicken was also superlative, as were the pig’s feet — at one point they were looking to get their BYOB license; then, inexplicably, they were gone, replaced by a place called “Mr. Sandwich and Mrs. Muffin,” which also closed, explicably.
What’s there now: Not sure, I remember someone drove a truck through the window of whatever it was not too long ago.
If you lived in Portland in the ‘90s and weren’t a hardcore Go-Go Burger fan, you’re kind of dead to me. They had a simple drive-thru kiosk that was practically custom-made for stoned teenagers to harass their one classmate unlucky enough to be working/suffocating in there, slaving over a griddle and assembling the mighty Quadzilla — which, if you might have guessed, is a four-patty burger more formidable, and delicious, than Godzilla.
What’s there now: Goodwill Donation Kiosk, part of the Quadzilla Foundation
Remember Crab Louie? No, of course you don’t, because you, and everyone else for that matter, never actually went there for Chef Mike Keon’s delicious chowder, pizza, fish tacos, and more. Seriously, the food was delicious and the place was empty every single time I went in. The silver lining to this story is that Keon went on to open a series of pizzerias called “OTTO,” which you may or may not have heard of.
What’s there now: Olive Mediterranean Cafe
Another iconic Portland burger joint, Ruby’s found itself comfortably nestled alongside the three doors of death, and felt more like going to a backyard BBQ at someone’s house than a restaurant. Still, there was something incredibly comfortable about the thin patties and pillowy soft bun, piled high with toppings and wrapped in wax paper to go.
What’s there now: Olive Mediterranean Cafe