Canard is one of those rare restaurants that feels near-perfect almost any time of the day. In the mornings, its front room warms with sunlight and the marble bar becomes a breakfast counter for an egg-and-sausage sandwich, a cup of coffee, a piece of cinnamon swirl toast. At lunch, the chef’s counter becomes something closer to a diner’s bar, roast-beef-and-cheese sandwiches and cheeseburgers sliding across the chef’s pass next to quinoa bowls and salted caramel paris brest. And as early as 4 p.m., the bar fills with diners waiting for tables as they hold glasses of vermouth or pristine white wine. Any sentence describing Canard feels wrong halfway through: It’s chic but also casual but also childish but also sophisticated. Most importantly, Canard harkens back to an era when Portland was celebrated for its innovative style and rebellious attitude — a style often attributed directly to Rucker.
Canard first came into the public eye in January 2018, when Rucker and his longtime business partner Andy Fortgang announced plans to open a wine bar with “French bar food” and an emphasis on accessibility. Those who couldn’t afford Rucker’s award-winning, not-quite-French destination restaurant Le Pigeon could afford this new Canard, which would open beside the original restaurant. The two pitched it as a place to grab a great glass of wine, maybe a snack, possibly before heading to the main event next door. “We just thought we’d open a little wine bar with coffee and cheeseburgers,” Rucker says.
When Canard opened in April 2018, however, Fortgang and Rucker quickly discovered that they underestimated the restaurant’s impact. It never quite felt like a traditional wine bar, and it certainly didn’t play lounge to Le Pigeon — it became a haunt for an audience seeking something innovative and cheeky, somewhere full of surprises but also where someone could easily camp out all day. It breaks the rules of what a wine bar, a diner, and a contemporary restaurant should be.
Within days of opening, Canard caught the attention of, well, everyone: it was every Portland publication’s best new restaurant, from the alt-weeklys to the city mag. It made its way onto a few national lists, not exactly a given in modern Portland. After the buzz started to calm, it seemed like the restaurant’s critical attention would start to peter out; then, more than a year after the restaurant opened, Oregonian critic Michael Russell named it the best restaurant in Portland — better than the old guard favorites like Beast or Ned Ludd; better than last year’s winner, Coquine. It wasn’t just the best that year; it was simply the very best.
“If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to eat at Le Pigeon in the early days, before all the accolades and expectations, just head one door down to its youngest sister,” Russell writes. He’s right: Canard looks and feels unlike any other restaurant in town, and yet it also feels familiar — quintessentially Portland.
Rucker grew up in California, where he dropped out of culinary school to work in a Napa Valley restaurant. He moved to Oregon in 2002, eventually working at Portland’s Pacific-Northwestern French institution, Paley’s Place. He moved on to another star-maker, the since-closed Gotham Tavern, before heading to East Burnside in 2006.
“I walked into [the then-closed] Colleen’s [Bistro], and Colleen [French] wasn’t there. I had to say, ‘What makes sense in a space someone else built?’” Rucker remembers. He had been hired to open a restaurant in the abandoned space. “I did whatever I wanted to do. I had fun. There was no pressure.” The restaurant changed its name to Le Pigeon two days after it opened, and Rucker got going.
“By fluke, I interviewed Gabriel the very first day he stepped into Le Pigeon,” says Karen Brooks, the restaurant critic for Portland Monthly. “I didn’t know him... I heard there was this kid who was talented. I said, ‘I want to try to understand how you look at recipes’... He goes, ‘I don’t know. I grab a ton of shit and I go.’”
He was a rule-breaker, young and rebellious, winging dishes like beef bourguignon. “I used to say the closest he’s been to France is Paley’s Place,” Brooks says. “[Le Pigeon] seemed to feel like an underground, back alley, Parisian-style restaurant, but he’d never been to France. He just channels things.”
Unlike Canard, Le Pigeon wasn’t an immediate success; Rucker tells stories of how the team put coupons in phone books to try to get bodies in the door. Still, Portland Monthly named Rucker Chef of the Year in 2006; and by 2007, Rucker made Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. By the end of the decade, the chef had a handful of James Beard nominations, and Le Pigeon was essential dining in Portland.
Cut to: Portland, 2011 — the year Rucker finally won a James Beard Award. Portland is at the crest of its golden age of dining, after the meteoric rise of food carts and before the Washington Post names Portland the best food city in America. Le Pigeon — with its tiny chef’s counter, outstanding wine list, and head-turning foie gras profiteroles — was the official poster child for a new era in PDX dining.
“In the late aughts and early 2010s, Portland emerged as the coolest place to eat in America. It was a land of lamb brain meat pies, old-world butchery, hyper-contextualized Thai food, freshly roasted coffee, and micro-brewed beer,” writes Meghan McCarron, in a recent Eater piece about the city. “The tattooed chefs worshiped foie gras and bragged about their mushroom guy, cut their teeth in underground pop-ups, or left the supposed centers of American dining to cook how they actually wanted to cook.”
Back then, a tourist’s day of dining might have included Biwa’s chicken-fried kimchi, an evening of pickled oysters at Tanuki, peanut-butter-and-jelly fries at food cart Potato Champion, and, almost always, a reservation at Le Pigeon, a “French” restaurant from a young punk who lived on gas station coffee. More than anyone, Rucker represented all the assumptions out-of-towners made about Portland: Uninterested in tradition, a culinary-school drop-out, serving wild and inventive dishes without the trappings of fine dining. During this time, the price of a dinner at Le Pigeon was climbing, and Rucker had opened his second restaurant, Little Bird Bistro, in December of 2010. Still Rucker had no interest in growing an empire; now, the job was to avoid a comedown. “Anytime you’re known nationally... there are the people who come in and say, ‘I flew here for this?’” Rucker says. “They want tweezers.”
In the time between then and now, a ton of restaurants have shuttered, including culinary darlings of that era like Biwa and Tanuki. The food cart boom between 2009 and 2015 made the city swell with pods, before several closed. Carts fizzled or opened restaurants with varying levels of success. Like other West Coast cities — San Francisco and Seattle, specifically — Portland started to get cautious with its new wealth and influx of residents. People like critic Michael Zusman believe that’s part of the reason the city fell into a lull, a creative slump. “The cost of running a restaurant has gotten so high that so much of what we’re seeing are the same chefs doing branches of the same thing or variations of the same thing,” Zusman says. “I don’t know if Portland is ever going to be back to the bleeding edge.”
And of course higher operating costs translate to higher restaurant prices for Portlanders. City dwellers now have to grapple with $25 entrees as they wax poetic about the days when Portland was really cheap without sacrificing quality.
Enter: A Gabriel Rucker restaurant defined by its accessibility, with the spirit of the original Le Pigeon. From the beginning, Rucker wanted his restaurant to be inexpensive; Canard’s menu includes high-end ingredients like foie gras and caviar for $20 or less, as well as garlic fries for only $6. Still, the cheaper dishes aren’t throw-aways. The $6 American-cheese-laden steam burgers, with a beef patty fortified with French onion soup base, was the dish that inspired the entire restaurant.
“I’m personally a really big fan of when chefs branch out and do things that are a little more approachable and at a price-point that more people can enjoy,” says Khushbu Shah, the former food editor of arts and culture site Thrillist; Shah put Canard on her list of restaurants of the year in 2018. “Those steam burgers are particularly great, but they’re also really affordable. You can go in, get a cocktail and a steam burger and jump out.”
But Canard isn’t just inexpensive and delicious. It’s on trend. Intentionally or not, Canard opened at the height of the hypebeast era of dining. Both burgeoning Instagram influencers and national food writers noticed their audiences were more inclined to like, read, or share content featuring foods easily classified as “extreme”: Burgers topped with fried eggs and onion rings, milkshakes in glasses with candy bars using frosting as adhesive, bloody marys topped with jalapeno poppers and fried crabs and tiny cheeseburgers.
Hand-in-hand with hypebeast is the concept of “high-low,” or pairing expensive, “luxury” ingredients with foods associated with the middle class. When Canard opened serving White Castle-style burgers, Texas toast topped with uni, and dumplings stuffed with foie gras, geotags from the restaurant flooded Instagram. No dish has received the same amount of love as the duck fat pancakes topped with duck sausage gravy and a sunny duck egg, dripping and glistening when photographed in the light streaming in from Canard’s big windows. “It’s not intentional at all; it’s what comes naturally to me,” Rucker says. “I don’t take credit for anything.”
Still, the attractiveness of that style of cooking is waning on the food media’s side of things. While writing about a recent meal of lobster-stuffed fried chicken at Rucker’s flagship, McCarron says, “This vision of craft-culture hedonism now feels overly familiar, even absurd. Some of the reason is because Portland was too successful in remarking American cooking in its image, while still commanding tons of attention for itself. But I’d argue the playfulness rings empty these days in part because there was never a reckoning over how obsessing over restaurants run by white Gen X and millennial men left out a lot of folks.”
McCarron, instead of commending the long-beloved, hypebeast Portland classics, praises a more diverse set of chefs and restaurants that cover a wider swath of the world, like Southern Thai restaurant Hat Yai and Vietnamese soup shop Rose VL. In general, these are the restaurants that are attracting a new wave of attention in Portland. In his “Portland Food Diary” for The Ringer, Danny Chau similarly commended Rose VL, as well as places like Peter Cho’s Han Oak and Afuri ramen.
And yet, Canard is still a national favorite, staying fresh while also harkening back to Portland’s golden age. Brooks says the chef’s raw talent and earnestness keep the restaurant from heading into emptily outrageous or overdone territory. “Canard is almost like slightly elevated party food: chips and dips and nachos, but in a way that you just haven’t tasted before. It doesn’t feel like eating a wink,” Brooks says. “He has a different pressure on him now at Le Pigeon; people are going there for death row dinners. I think that’s always harder on chefs. But I think at Canard, he feels like, ‘God, I’m just having fun.’”
Canard doesn’t seem to be trendy for the sake of trends; in fact, Rucker will often bring back something explicitly off-trend for fun. “Fads come and go, things get played out, but we’re not scared to put the thing that’s played out on the menu,” Rucker says. He remembers, in particular, designing his own version of tuna tartare with crispy-fried wontons, a classic hotel bar staple spotted throughout the early-2000s.
Rucker won’t assign any sort of narrative to the restaurant, because that’s not how he cooks. He says that he comes up with an idea and then tries to make it work. “That’s always how it is — from the gut.” He doesn’t love mass-produced Franz bread ironically; he just loves Franz bread, especially the cinnamon swirl kind, preferably with a side of 7-Eleven coffee. Maybe that’s what distinguishes him from the caricature of Portland he, perhaps unfairly, ended up defining. His goofy take on food is something replicated again and again, across the country, photographed and filmed and mukkbanged. He cringes at the idea of being some genius orchestrating any sort of grand trends, or even defining what Canard is; he’s just as inclined to commend his partner’s exceptional wine list, or chef Nathan Cheek’s desserts.
And that’s exactly what sets the restaurant apart — its honesty, its humility. It’s not just the duck fat pancakes and the cheeseburgers; it’s the cinnamon toasts, the “oeufs en mayonnaise” dotted with trout roe, cabbage salads with theoretically tired dressings like ranch or balsamic blue cheese. Canard is the great equalizer, taking all things trendy or tacky or boring or ridiculous and turning each one into something pure and delicious. “[Canard] can be so many different things. You don’t have to be in the mood for anything in particular.” Rucker says.
And so Rucker’s third act adds a new line in a story about Portland that had almost dissolved into cliche. Rucker doesn’t care what other people want or will like; his disregard for the zeitgeist ends up being what makes his food so attractive. Even if it’s just a cheeseburger or a peanut butter fun cone, there’s nothing like the real thing.