Portland isn’t even amongst America’s 20 most populous cities. Yet this verdant Northwestern metropolis is considered the USA’s top dining destination not only by residents: it recently was named just that by Travel + Leisure. Portland dining has become a must-do for twosomes with a few vacation days and an appetite. Hungry romantics can savor Portland dining just wandering around its central neighborhoods, where a good-looking restaurant or bar winks from virtually every corner. Here are our picks for can’t-miss Portland dining. More thirsty than hungry? As an aperitif, read Drinking in Portland.
Ten-01 restaurant has become a Portland dining destination in the central Pearl District, whose cultural heart is the legendary Powell’s Books. Ten-01 blends the best traditions of Portland's culinary reputation: fresh, local cuisine; arty cocktails and Oregon wine, beer, and spirits; and a fashionable yet relaxed ambiance. The menu is a pleasure to read and to sample. Among many standout dishes, the chef’s braised veal with crispy sweetbreads is a riot of great flavors. Ten-01 entices Portland dining pilgrims with a bargain lunch and a lounge menu that complements its full-throttle, creative cocktails (try a chorizo burger with a bracing Julianna margarita).
Many sushi lovers are uncomfortably aware that they are feasting on endangered fish. But Bamboo Sushi, the world’s first certified sustainable sushi restaurant, presents a feel-good alternative. Owner Kristofer Lofgren’s sushi is so good, his restaurant’s atmosphere so pleasant, and his ideas so sensible, you can’t help but hope that Bamboo Sushi expands beyond its Portland roots. Try the Alaskan smoked cod, the salmon nation roll, and the chocolate egg rolls.
The name may be Italian, but Castagna exemplifies Portland dining. Repeatedly honored by knowledgeable publications such as Food + Wine magazine, this simple, elegant eatery offers a four-course prix-fixe menu that showcases seasonal local produce, seafood, and meat. Some of the green matter is even grown in the restaurant’s garden. (However, the wine list is mainly French.) A less-pricey Portland dining alternative next door, Café Castagna, offers a similarly hearty menu at lower, a la carte prices. Unlike the mother ship, it is open for lunch, and has a breezier atmosphere and a lighter menu strong on salads, sandwiches, burgers, and imaginative pizzas.
Clyde Common is an upmarket mess hall tucked into the Pearl District’s glam-grunge Ace Hotel. This popular place's modest motto is “domestic & foreign cooking,” but you can expect hearty, rustic fare with farm-fresh Oregon ingredients. Cases in point: lamb with farro grain, tagliatelle pasta with wild mushrooms, grilled Pacific fish with salt-roasted potatoes. Ample yardage is given over to Clyde Common’s old-school bar, which has perfected classic drinks like the Negroni and the Sazerac. It remains open, and lively, late into the Portland night.
Pan-Asian food is usually a fancy name for vaguely Chinese noodles and fried snacks. But in the hands of the Portland dining pros who run Ping, Pan-Asian translates to a tasty range of authentic, inexpensive dishes. The menu showcases various skewers, Thai-style meat salads, noodle dishes, and unclassifiable but irresistible Asian treats like a fried vegetable “carrot cake." The biggest dish is also the best: a deep-fried whole pork knuckle, with a crackling skin and spoon-tender meat. It’s huge, so all you may need with it is a Ping cocktail like the Hibiskiss. Ping’s Chinatown interior is an appealing cross between a vintage diner and a Japanese after-hours bar. It’s open for lunch, dinner, and afternoon-long weekday happy hours.
Amongst the pioneering food trends in Portland dining is the reinvention of the hotel restaurant. Prime example: Urban Farmer, the handsome canteen in the fashion-forward Nines Hotel, which bills itself as “a modern steakhouse.” Here over a dozen cuts of beef, many from Oregon farms, moo at you from the lunch and dinner menus. But Urban Farmer’s breakfasts — on weekdays and weekend brunch — are the second-best way for loving couples to spend a Portland morning. Expect fresh, delicious dishes like Wagyu steak and eggs, eggs Benedict with a scone-rich, house-made English muffin and smoky local ham, and a Dungeness crab and wild mushroom omelet the size of a personal pizza. Do not anticipate hunger pangs till dinnertime.
Beaker & Flask may be named like a science lab, but look closer. Its circular booths entice couples to settle in, cuddle, eat, and drink. Its dining menu celebrates Oregon’s agricultural bounty; typically, a clutch of fresh vegetables surrounds one beautiful, locally sourced main ingredient such as crab, quail, or pork. Portland reveres its mixologists, and Beaker & Flask is owned by a ballyhooed bartender. His list of libations puts a modern Portland dining spin on classic mixed drinks. Tipplers are guaranteed one surprising ingredient per cocktail, such as orange flower water, pine syrup, or coconut-water ice cubes. And you’ll drink to this: Beaker & Flask’s prices are agreeably moderate for an eatery of this quality and innovation.
What’s a great American city without a storied seafood bar-and-grill? Jake’s Famous Crawfish, founded in 1892, fills the bill for Portland dining loyalists. You’ll know it by its nostalgic neon sign lording it over the Pearl District. Jake’s atmosphere is rollicking, but rest assured that those brass spittoons, once a necessity of tobacco-chewing Oregon settlers, are now part and parcel of Jake’s flavorful décor. The joint is open for lunch and dinner. Its signature dish, crawfish (a kind of miniature lobster), shares menu honors with local salmon and crab, chicken, steak, and pasta, plus a full bar. Of course, this being Portland, the bar plies Oregon craft beers and made-to-order cocktails.
In chow-obsessed Portland, numerous neighborhoods harbor streets lined with semi-permanent, chef-owned food carts — more like open trucks — in groupings that locals refer to as pods. Many are open only for lunch, but some have longer hours. Most carts serve ethnic fare with a healthy spin. You will find Chinese dumplings, Vietnamese spring rolls, Venezuelan arepas, Lebanese falafels, Mexican tacos, Italian pork sandwiches, Cajun jambalaya, Canadian poutine, Polish pierogies, and vegan cupcakes. Some carts even sling old-hat pizza and hot dogs, gobbled with ironic glee by porkpie hat-wearing Portland hipsters. Many carts serve a sole dish, so dining duos can make a multi-course meal zigzagging from one cart to another.
This romantically named bakery, café, and restaurant is set on a sunny corner amidst the restored lofts of Portland’s Northwest quadrant. Lovejoy Bakers serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But it made its name with morning fare, particularly baker/owner Dan Griffin’s dozens of breakfast breads, always fresh out of the oven. When you walk in, you will be seduced by his kitchen crew’s ravishing rolls, luscious loaves, and provocative pastries, cooling on racks before you.
It’s easy to find this beloved Portland institution. The flagship branch of this three-shop takeout store is set in a vintage Old Town brick theater located across from the wall emblazoned KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD. Or you can just look for the line snaking down the block. (The crowds thin around 6 pm, and the joint is open 24 hours). Everything about this enterprise is quirky:
- Varieties (bacon is a best-seller)
- Names (“crueller” replaces “cruller” here)
- Day-glo-hued toppings
- The owner is licensed to perform nuptials for doughnut-dazed duos
- Merch: who dares don panties printed with the shop’s slogan, “the magic is in the hole?”
What Portland needs is an old-fashioned Jewish deli, and Kenny & Zuke’s comes close. Piquant and peppery, the house pastrami complements its fresh house-made rye bread and mustard. But – and this is a big but – the meat arrived at less than room temperature. We knew we weren’t in NYC’s Katz’s when the waiter agreeably returned it to the kitchen for warming — and when he politically corrected our order of Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda. ("It’s got high-fructose corn syrup and it's owned by Pepsi,” he reported, and encouraged us to sample Thomas Kemper, a local brand, instead.) Thing is, he was right.