The folks in Portland, Oregon are pretty serious about restaurants: they like to eat, eat well, and eat out often. The adventurous residents encourage and support innovative chefs and operators along with the ideas and trends that are emerging from this bubbling pot of creativity. It’s become a pilgrimage site for aspiring chefs and foodies who want to get in on the action.
Willamette Magazine, like so many regional glossies, publishes a guide to Portland’s 50 best restaurants. It’s a fascinating window into a diverse, vibrant, edgy, restaurant scene. I was surprised to see a sidebar with the title, “What is a Restaurant?” Seemed obvious to me. We all know what a restaurant is, don’t we? But in innovative Portland, it turns out, the lines are blurry.
Martin Cizmer, Culture Editor at the magazine and author of the guide, has come up with the following four criteria to sort out restaurants from other food establishments in Portland:
There must be “at least four days of service per week.” This eliminates supper clubs and other endeavors that are not really in business full time. Pop-ups in private homes, dinners occasionally served in retail spaces or tasting
rooms, BYOB dinners and the like, don’t make the cut.
Servers” are a must. You know you’re at a restaurant if you sit down and someone comes over to take your order. No counter service, take out, or food trucks included. Your favorite clam shack has great food I’m sure (think Overton’s), but is it a restaurant?
His demand for both “heat and flush toilets” surprised me until I knew more about Portland. The climate there is mild most of the year, and there is a fluid boundary between indoors and out. What Cizmer’s getting at here is that a restaurant must be in a permanent building with all the usual facilities. Food trucks and carts where you have to eat outdoors and use the porta-potty down the street don’t make it, even though some of the best food in town comes from these establishments.
I don’t like to wait in line or at the bar, so I favor restaurants that take reservations. Cizmer, on the other hand, requires “some walk in seating.” A restaurant can (and must for me) take reservations but not to the point of reservation only. The casual, laid-back lifestyle in Portland calls for spontaneity and at least the chance to walk into the hottest spot in town.
I see what Cizmer is getting at with these criteria. He wants to walk in, be served, in a real building, almost any day of the week. And he wants to eat very well – which goes without saying. Willamette Magazine, covering all the bases, does publish recommendations of eateries in the non-restaurant categories, too. Good food knows no boundaries here.
The distinctions in Connecticut are not quite as elusive as in Portland, but those trends will work their way east, so we should be ready.
I asked a few local experts for their thoughts on the question.
Erik Ofgang, senior writer at Connecticut Magazine who writes a lot about restaurants, broadly defined it as, “anywhere that you can get food that is a permanent physical location.” He then further opened the door by saying that he sometimes includes food trucks in the restaurant discussion. Clearly, he’s in pursuit of good food, wherever it may be.
Linda Kavanaugh, a long-time restaurant consultant and publicist, had already considered the question and had three categories at her fingertips. Restaurants, for her, must include a full service bar. Beyond that, there’s fast-casual with counter service and maybe some tables but usually not a bar. She includes a broad range of options from the everyday 5 Guys to the acclaimed Nom-Eez. Eateries, according to Linda, are high-end, primarily retail places that also offer some eat in – Aux Delices, SoNo Baking Co, and Garelick & Herbs, for example.
Pat Brooks, who spent a career reviewing restaurants for the New York Times, found the question interesting. Her basic requirement is for, “a place with tables where food is served.” But she added, “with the food prepared in a separate room or an area separated from the dining.” She wants a dining room and a kitchen, even if it’s an open kitchen where you can watch the cooks at work.
On our visit to Portland we chose a B and B within walking distance of the Division St. restaurant enclave. This strip, a little more than a mile long, had restaurants like the nationally acclaimed Ava Gene’s and Pok Pok along with highly praised up-and-comers like Jacqueline. We passed a corner lot that had been turned into a permanent location for food trucks and carts. Along the length of the street we saw wine tasting rooms and breweries, bakeries with lines in the morning, and ice cream shops with lines in the evening. The diversity of cuisines, cooking styles, and ambiance was a lesson in the future of the food business. I could see why Cizmer had developed his guidelines.
Definitions aside, just about anything works if the food is good. I’d be hard pressed to write the rules, but I know a restaurant when I’m in one!