By Don MacGillivray
Portland used to be a distant second to the likes of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and even New York City.
In many areas we still have a ways to go, but the pundits have placed Portland at the top of the list for having the Best Restaurants in America.
Both Wallet Hub and The Chicago Tribune have placed Portland above all the cities in the country. Many of Portland’s stellar restaurants are located right here in SE.
Wallet Hub’s criteria includes affordability, diversity, accessibility, and the quality of Portland’s restaurants. Other factors include features like ice cream and frozen yogurt shops, food carts, craft breweries, and wine bars in the 182 cities surveyed.
The city has become a place that attracts talented young chefs from around the country. Part of the reason is because many creative and unique small restaurants that have caught on thrive. Creativity has attracted even more. One reason for the great restaurants here are the beverages (wine, beer, and coffee) that have developed over the last thirty years.
Another important factor are prices the restaurants charge. While the finest restaurants are typically expensive, competition and multitude make for many medium or lower-priced options available for delicious options. Competition is fierce and unfortunately, many eateries go out of business each year.
The bounty of fresh local produce, the natural abundance of marine life from the ocean, and small farms with viable produce-to-table businesses add considerably to the quality of Portland’s dining scene.
Wild resources in fish, game, natural berries, mushrooms etc. abound. There are ingredients like the several hundred kinds of truffles to be found in Oregon and fiddlehead ferns, another specialty.
The food cart revolution has provided locals with upwards of five hundred food establishments where almost anything and everything can be found except for the common hamburger or hot dog.
These places are a laboratory for creative cookery encouraging strange and wonderful culinary delights and dishes from around the world. If successful, food cart vendors will sometimes make the transition to a brick and mortar restaurant.
Driving through the inner city on a Sunday morning, lines of thirty-somethings wait in line to buy breakfasts that are not the typical eggs, bacon, and hash browns. Many eateries have a menu for vegans and one serves southern style buttermilk fried chicken stacked on a sweet potato waffle. Part of the reason for the recent success is the folks with incomes that support a higher class of dining.
A few locally-developed fast food operators take pride in their specialty menu items. Burgerville has their raspberry milkshakes and Walla Walla onion rings. Stumptown Coffee rivals Seattle’s Starbucks in quality if not in scale. New Seasons Market is well known for its higher-class specialty selections.
The city’s renaissance may partially be due to the legacy of James Beard, America’s dean of culinary arts.
Beard grew up in Portland enjoying the fresh ingredients we love today like salmon, shellfish, mushrooms, strawberries, fresh fruit and vegetables and other natural foods. Over his long career as chef, restaurateur, author, and media personality, he maintained connections with Oregon and its food.
In the works is a Central Produce Market named for James Beard. It will be located at the east end of the Morrison bridge and will be similar to Seattle’s Pike Place Market. This is Portland’s historic location where everyone bought their food daily before there were supermarkets, refrigeration, and automobiles.
Wine in Portland is a huge draw too due to Oregon’s fifty years of world-class vineyards. It is estimated that the state has over seven hundred winemakers making a variety of products valued at $3.4 billion.
This city holds its own internationally as a wine-loving city along with others located around the great wine regions of the world. One pundit has called Oregon the single most exciting winemaking area in the United States.
The Columbia River and Willamette River valleys provide access to more than two hundred and fifty wineries. Oregon’s awards have mostly been for their pinot noir grapes that make up sixty-four percent of the acreage in the Willamette Valley.
This may be the best place outside of France to grow Chardonnay grapes. In Oregon’s “out back” there are a wide variety of climates for new growers to successfully cultivate almost any well known grape varietal.
Beer is the other beverage skyrocketing the Rose City into prominence. A self-proclaimed beer lover’s heaven, the city has the most breweries and independent microbreweries of any city in the world.
More than seventy breweries call the city home and thirty more are in the metro area. Breweries and taprooms are within walking distance in nearly every neighborhood.
Widmer Brothers began business in 1984, (then the cutting edge of craft beer) and now the Oregon Brewers Festival typically draws 85,000 beer lovers who enjoy sipping the cold beverage in the shadow of beautiful Mount Hood.
There are events celebrating Fruit Beers, Belgian Beers, and there are unpasteurized, unfiltered, naturally carbonated beer called Firkin beers.
Another factor that keeps Portland weird: the city sells more craft beer than anywhere in the United States, with the widest range of beer in the country.