Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
All photos courtesy Avila/EPDX
Last January, Portland's 130-year-old Ladd Carriage House entered the next and most appetizing chapter of its storied life, reincarnated as the downtown dining and drinking duo of Raven & Rose restaurant and the Rookery bar. United by serendipity and the ever-buzzing Portland grapevine, owner Lisa Mygrant and bar director Dave Shenaut have spent the past year cultivating a bustling bi-level business in the face of meticulous historic oversight and the geographical challenges of being "just past the last stop" on the quiet end of SW Broadway (and they did it all while pursuing the coveted LEED gold status bestowed on them earlier this month).
Eater recently met up with the two and talked ambitious renovations, compost bucket pride, tossing creepy sleazy guys out the hayloft doors, and why you won't be able to dye Easter eggs in the Rookery this year.
People used the word "ambitious" a lot when the Raven & Rose project was announced: What made you take this on? Why the Ladd Carriage House and not a cheaper, less complicated space?
LM: Really it was all about the building. It's an amazing building that's really important to Portland, and it had been sitting here waiting for a new life for so long. I thought it was magical. To be able to put something in here where the public can come in and experience this building and learn about it and help keep it around, just seemed too good an opportunity and too good a fit for my concept to pass up. It was certainly ambitious, I wasn't looking to do something quite this huge, definitely not right away, but it was now or never with this building. I had John Gorham consulting, and we decided, okay we'll do it, and we'll get together an army of people who really know what they're doing and are the best at everything we need — historic and green building, and architecture, and cooking, and bartending.
Speaking of which, how did you find Dave?
DS: As soon as I left Riffle, it went up on Eater that day, and John reached out to me instantly. This industry is all about timing.
LM: John and I had talked to a bunch of candidates and hadn't quite found the right fit. We had a meeting about something else and he handed me a number and a name and said, "I really think you should call this guy."
Raven & Rose during build-out, December 2012. Photo: Avila/EPDX
What were some of the challenges of working with such a historic building?
LM: There were several different historic entities we had to work with — a state historic board, Multnomah County historic board, and City of Portland historic design review, plus the National Register of Historic Places and the National Park Service. The same entity that governs Yellowstone also tells us what we can and can't do with this building. They're all looking out for historic buildings and making sure that we preserve the history and integrity of this building, but it could be a real challenge, because sometimes the different groups would conflict with each other. For instance, the sign, we had to have it designed and the name for the restaurant very early, way before construction started, basically as soon as we got the building. And that sign had to be designed to every specific dimension — the type of wood, the colors of paint, the angle at which it would come off the building, how it would be attached, every material, it all had to be designed and submitted. So we submitted that in January of 2012 and when we opened in January 2013 we still had no sign. We didn't get it up until March, because it had to be approved by all those people.
DS: And then when the sign finally showed up, it was cracked because it had dried out in storage.
LM: We had to have it put back together. It was hand carved and hand painted. It was a long process.
DS: It was a nightmare.
LM: We ran into a wall with the ventilation too. We had permits to put a restaurant in here, but because of the historic nature of the building, we can't change the exterior at all, it has to look exactly the same, so we couldn't ventilate anywhere, we were stuck. Then the architect, Paul Falsetto, found this old black-and-white photograph taken in 1885, showing an old chimney that's been gone off the roof for over 100 years, and we sat down with the historical society and said, "If we rebuild a chimney that looks exactly like this so it's historically accurate, can we put the ventilation out there?" And they said yes, but until then, we couldn't build. So that was pretty exciting.
DS: That was the thing that was able to make this happen, because Paul was able to prove that there was this little chimney on the back of the building. If it wasn't for him doing that work, this could never have been a restaurant, because we have to have an exhaust system.
So he saved the whole project.
LM: Absolutely. We have a drink on the menu called El Diablo Falsetto, we named it after him.
Why El Diablo? Sounds dangerous.
DS: Well, it's dangerous but it's kind of soft too.
LM: All of the drinks in our single-barrel program have historic names tied to this project. Sim's Old Fashioned, Ladd's Manhattan, Caroline's Fancy, they all have a little story.
What was your favorite salvaged feature?
LM: The bricks. There's a big wooden post on the corner of the bar downstairs, and that wooden post is surrounding a big steel post that holds the whole building up, and that replaces what was originally a brick fireplace. The chimney went all the way up three stories and out the top, but by the time they did the restoration, it was seismically unstable, so they took it down brick by brick and saved all the bricks. When we got the building it was all empty inside, no plumbing, no HVAC, no electrical, nothing, but it had a big pile of bricks in here, the original 1883 bricks, and I knew immediately what I wanted to do with them. We were going to feature a wood-fired oven in here, so we had them rebuild the wall around the wood-fired oven with those original bricks.
DS: For me, it's the windows up here in the bar, you can see the history of the building through the windows, if you look at the hardware, and the glass. Every time somebody came in and remodeled the building, they changed out the windows that they had to and left the rest in. You walk from the parlor all the way around and see the story of this building through the windows.
Raven & Rose's downstairs dining room.
You just earned your LEED gold certification, what did that entail?
LM: We are gold! We finally did it. I wanted to make this building as green as possible and I went into it thinking, I don't need anybody to tell me how to do that, I know what matters to me and what's green. But once we got into it, it was pretty amazing, there were so many things tracked by LEED that I wouldn't have even thought to know about, everything from the recycled metal content in every nail to the formaldehyde content in the plywood.
DS: People would ask me why I kept moving from bar to bar, and I'd joke that I just love the new bar smell. But what that is, is chemical offgassing from all the materials used to build it. There's never been that smell in this room, and it's pretty cool. And the bartenders are very proud of the compost bucket behind the bar. We have a nice shiny metal wine bucket we use for compost and we compost everything we can. I used to take huge piles of trash out as a bartender, and now it's a huge pile of compost and a little bitty bag of trash.
This location is somewhat off the beaten downtown path. How has that worked out?
LM: Yes, we're just past the last stop. Higgins was the end, now we're the end. It's been a bit challenging. Our goal is to be the restaurant for people who live around here, but we also want people who live on the east side and in the Northwest to want to travel here. And it's tough, we hear all the time, "Oh, I just never get to that part of town" or "That's been on my list for a long time, but…" Portland has so many amazing restaurants and bars all over the place, and I think Southwest has the lowest concentration of them, and I'm hoping more will come, because I want this to be a dining destination, too.
What's the crowd like?
LM: Over the year, it's gotten more and more diverse. From very young to very old, people who live around the restaurant and lots of tourists, too. We definitely see business from shows, and we're still learning what shows affect us more.
DS: The ballet and art museum and opera have been great partners.
LM: And comedians, sometimes we'll get a huge hit from that.
DS: And from brain lectures.
LM: Academics like it here. We'll be like, "Where are all these people coming from, we didn't see anything on the list of shows," and it turns out there's a lecture on brain chemistry at the university, and they're all here for that.
DS: Something that's been neat up here in the Rookery is our ability to handle large groups. I never realized that people travel in groups of 15 or 20, but they do, and they show up at 10 o'clock, and we have the space to handle it. That's been really cool. I can't think of another cocktail bar in Portland where you can walk in with 20 people and sit together.
What were you thinking on opening day, any particular moments of joy and/or panic?
LM: Yes. It was a race against the clock. We needed to have the doors open pretty fast once we moved in, and it all felt a little rushed at the beginning. We didn't know what was going to happen, it was January, so we figured it could be really quiet. But the building was buzzy and a lot of the people on the team were buzzy, so we were kind of prepared for anything. And when we opened the door the response was overwhelming. We were slammed.
DS: We weren't sure the Rookery was going to be a bar that could sustain itself, or if it would turn into an event space. It was a big question mark, but we got rushed pretty quick up here.
LM: Even on that first day, it was just a constant stream of people, we couldn't believe the response. Some people just came to see the building, to see what we were doing in here.
The Rookery and the restaurant have very distinct personalities, how's their relationship going?
LM: So well. My original vision and hope for this space was that people would come here for a drink upstairs and then go downstairs for dinner, or, go downstairs for dinner and then come upstairs for an after dinner drink or dessert, and I didn't know if it would work, but they do it, it's so awesome.
DS: I love it, there are times when I'm up here behind the bar and it's loud and people are having fun and laughing and pool balls are cracking and we've got The Doors playing and there's somebody drinking a shot and a beer sitting next to somebody drinking cognac. And it's loud and boisterous and fun. And then you go downstairs and turn a corner and it's quiet and there's jazz playing, and candlelight, and somebody's sitting at the bar reading a book and enjoying a Pink Lady.
LM: They really are two separate spaces, almost like two separate businesses, but they work really well as a team.
Any colorful regulars that you've come to know and love or weirdos you have funny stories about? Have you had to bounce anyone out the bar's hayloft doors yet?
DS: Well, we've had the creepy guys who want to sit at the bar of the cute bartender girl...
LM: They're always asking their schedule and only want to come then.
DS: I've been lucky enough to be able to kick those people out, because I really do enjoy kicking out the creepy sleazy guy, that's one of my favorite things. But then we have a couple of guys who come in and play pool and drink beer a few times a week and our bartenders know them and it's the opposite of the creepy guy, these guys are friends with the staff. We have had a couple people try to steal bar tools and stuff, but less than I would expect.
LM: We had a guy sitting at the bar who had a little too much to drink and took a crystal mixing glass and tucked it in his jacket, and our bar manager at the time saw it, and she took him around the corner and said, "I think you have something that belongs to me" and he gave it back to her and she kicked him out. But no real big trouble. We've been lucky so far.
The upstairs Rookery Bar.
What are your most significant restaurant opening hindsights?
LM: Know your demographic. Like, we're still learning how to be prepared for shows, sometimes we'll staff way up because it seems like it will be a big night, then nothing happens and people are standing around. Then sometimes we'll think nothing's going to happen and literally a hundred people will come through the door at the same time and everybody is running around trying to take care of them.
DS: It's important to hire based on personality rather than experience and skill, that's a big lesson I've learned. I can teach people how to make drinks and how to do their job, but if they don't come with a great attitude and personality every day it just isn't going to work.
LM: And marketing — you can't just assume people know you're here. We're so wrapped up in our little world where it feels like everybody knows we're here, but all the time, we have people come in and say, "I didn't know you were open yet," or "I didn't know a restaurant moved in here," or "I never noticed this building before and I've lived here my whole life." Every time I hear that I realize we still have a lot to figure out about how to get the word out.
DS: Price point has been an interesting thing too, with the single-barrel program. If we give people cocktails that they recognize and want, like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan or Irish Coffee, it doesn't matter whether it's $10 or $14. Especially when it comes to bourbon, they understand the value of a great product and they'll pay for it. I never knew people would be able to handle a $14 cocktail but in the first two months it was our most popular item.
Opening chef David Padberg recently left, and former Market chef Troy Furuta replaced him. What are your hopes for that transition?
LM: We're really excited about Troy, he's bringing some really good ideas, and an excitement about the food program up here in the bar. He's interested in doing elevated snack and bar food, which is what we wanted to do up here the whole time, and we're finally going to get to really do it, amazing super quality versions of things like hot wings and stuff like that.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
LM: We crammed a lot of stuff into the year, which made it feel longer. We spent a long time saying, "It will be so great once we've had a year under our belt because then we'll know next year what to do on the 4th of July and Valentine's Day and Thanksgiving, and we'll know if people want to come watch football up here or have a Kentucky Derby party up here, we'll know what works and doesn't work." And we've finally reached that year.
DS: Coloring Easter eggs didn't quite work. And now we know.
· Raven & Rose [Official site]
· All Previous Raven & Rose Coverage [Eater PDX]
· All Previous One Year Ins [Eater PDX]