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Kimberly Paley on Dancing, Cravings and 20 Years of Staying Power

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Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their experience.

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Next month, Vitaly and Kimberly Paley will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Paley's Place. And while it may not be old enough to drink, it's definitely an impressive accomplishment to have the kind of staying power that not only keeps the doors open, but keeps your restaurant a dining destination for two decades.

One of the reasons for that success is Kimberly, co-owner, manager, and the driving force behind the restaurant's stellar service and staff loyalty. We spoke with her recently about how things have changed in the neighborhood and in the industry, and how she's kept things going strong for 20 years.

Paley's Place opened in 1995. What was the neighborhood like then? How has it changed?

Well, there is now a massive amount of new restaurants. There are just so many places to eat. Of course, some have gone, and some remain. And in 1995, the term mixology wasn't used, and you wouldn't see large blocks of ice in your drink, but Portland has really transformed into a culinary food culture.

You were a dancer, which probably gives you some insight into achieving that special kind of choreography between the front and back of the house each night. How do you do it?

You've heard the term having eyes in the back of your head. It's like that. It's all about seeing, and not just seeing what's in front of you. It's about being aware of everything that's around you and behind you. It's sort of like a performance, and over time, you develop this acute sense of awareness. It becomes part of your cells.

When mistakes happen, how do you deal with them? What's your style of management?

The healthiest way to perform is to look at the work. If we screw up, we have to get ego out of the way. Then we look at the successes and work to achieve that. The approach I take, as an owner and a manager, is the healthier the performance of the staff, the better the service. They want to achieve. They want to learn about wine. They know that it's not about them, but about what they want to achieve. And you just give them the tools they need to do it. And they're responsive. We've developed a lot of devotion and loyalty with our staff, and when you have that devotion and loyalty and people who want to achieve, you get great performances.

Constant staff shuffles are usually a given in the restaurant industry, but your staff tends to stay stay put. Chef Patrick McKee just left after 10 years. The new chef de cuisine, Luis Cabanas, has been with you for 16. How do you achieve that kind of loyalty?

I think you just need to treat everyone with so much respect and care. You give people a sense of ownership and create an environment where they want to work and excel and learn. And whenever there's a problem, we treat it honestly. No B.S., no lecturing. Plus, I would never ask of my staff to do something I, myself, wouldn't do.

What places in town have you been to where the service is impeccable? And what's it like, doing what you do, if the service is off?

Honestly, when I go out, which isn't often, I don't go out looking for good service. I'm able to turn it off. And when I do go out, I'm just looking to eat and have a conversation with my husband.

What is it about the service at Paley's Place that you think makes it work so well?

We pull out chairs for everyone. When someone asks for the bathroom, we don't point and say, "It's around the corner." We direct them. We know that people have taken the time and effort to dine with us, so we want them to feel a little pampered. It's also all about how we seat and how we great. How we say "Hello" at the door and how we say "Hello" on the phone. We focus on service way before someone's in the restaurant and is about to take their first bite.

You and your husband haven't coasted, have kept yourselves very busy. Almost three years ago, you opened Imperial and Portland Penny Diner. And, more recently, you started the pop-up DaNet. How do you two keep your work lives fresh and fulfilling?

Really, it's a dream for me to have customers continue to show up to have food they love and crave. I think that staying power has a lot to do with food that people crave, and it's great to see someone come back again and again and again for food that they want. And with DaNet (the Paley's monthly Russian pop-up), we thought why not open a pop-up once a month in the Penny Diner, which closes at 3 p.m. People aren't use to Vitaly cooking like that. It's inspired by his childhood memories. It's food hew grew up eating and craved himself. There's a history to that food, and there's a story to tell, and people want that connection to history just as much.

Paley's Place

1204 NW 21st Avenue, Portland, OR 97209

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