Apr 12, 2024 - Food and Drink

Tasting menus see resurgence in Portland restaurants

Two people stand facing the camera smiling in front of a counter top restaurant kitchen.

Andy Fortgang (left) and Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon. Photo: Courtesy of Le Pigeon

The hottest reservation in Portland is now typically at a restaurant where you don't get to choose what you're served.

Why it matters: To cut pandemic losses, restaurants everywhere pared down menus in response to rising food costs, labor shortages and changing dining habits.

  • The rise of the tasting menu — chef-curated, multi-course meals — is just the industry's natural response, local restaurateurs told Axios.

What they're saying: "People would rather save up for the week and eat at home and then have that one really nice special dinner," Elijah Rivers, executive chef at Quaintrelle, which offers a newly-developed 10-course, $155 menu, said

Flashback: Tasting menus are not a new dining concept. But because many of Portland's pioneering prix-fixe restaurants didn't survive the pandemic, fine dining was put on the back burner for a while in favor of takeout boxes.

  • James Beard Award winner Naomi Pomeroy closed Beast to open an all-day cafe, Ripe Cooperative, in its place, though it also shuttered shortly after.
  • Castagna closed its doors after two defining decades in Portland — chefs like Berlu's Vince Nguyen and Okta's Matthew Lightner sharpened their skills there — while Holdfast Dining, the popular supper-club style pop-up, said its small space wasn't suited for distance dining.
Two photos, the first of a person putting a garnish on an oyster and the second of a pillar full of smoke revealing a plated dish.
Executive chef of Quaintrelle Elijah Rivers prepares a dish. Photos: Courtesy of Heather Amistad and Zach Lewis.

The latest: Luckily, more chef-driven restaurants have popped up in their place.

  • Astera from chef Aaron Adams dishes out its vegan fine dining fare nightly and wine-focused L'Orange launched its first-ever seven-course tasting menu this spring.
  • Nationally acclaimed 25-course omakase spot Nodoguro revived after its initial pandemic closure, and Äniks, a new 16-seat "chef's counter" space in Kerns (from Quaintrelle alum Ryley Eckersley) opens next week.

Dig in: What makes a tasting menu more economical is that chefs can set prices that make sense for their bottom line.

  • "When you're trying to operate a restaurant, you can't afford to be there if two people decide to split a salad and an entree," Gabriel Rucker, chef of Le Pigeon, told Axios.
  • Back-end labor is still very expensive, as are high-quality, seasonal ingredients, but what makes one-off diners come back is "a really fun, comfortable three and a half hours where you feel taken care of and really special," River said.

The bottom line: This wave of new tasting-menu restaurants signals a craving for consumers who want to experience a chef's overall vision in an intimate, but non-pretentious setting, Rucker added.

  • "The accessibility of the tasting menu is all about what's on the plate and what's in the glass, and that's a trend Portland set."
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