When Chris Mateja and Luna Contreras came together to open a restaurant and bar, they knew that it wasn’t just going to be about food and drink. Their relationship, as collaborators, was founded on more than that: An interest in music, shared values. It was fitting, then, to name their space after the nightingale, a common brown bird known for its song. “Nightingale fits with the art, the music, the progressiveness,” Contreras says. “This little scraggly bird singing beautifully, cranking it out. Unassuming; little but with a powerful voice.” Their space — a Mexican restaurant, bottle shop, and bar in the space vacated by Cardinal Club — will be little, but once it opens, they want it to have a powerful voice, a haven complete with artful ceviches, meticulous cocktails, and compelling art.
Mateja and Contreras have a combined 35-some odd years of experience working in the hospitality industry. The two met while Mateja was behind the bar at the intimate cocktail lounge Kask; Contreras was working as chef de cuisine at its attached restaurant, the chic French spot Bistro Agnes. The two had discussed collaborating on a concept through the year, but the pandemic gave them the push to do so; they decided to leave the west side and create Nightingale on NE 28th, which they hope to open by early December. There, they could both focus on their passion areas: Mateja could concoct some house bitters and cocktails using his background and culinary inspiration, while Contreras focuses on a menu of Mexican dishes not often seen in Portland restaurants.
Contreras grew up in Jalisco before moving to California, where she worked at lauded restaurants Mamacita and Padrecito. She refers to her approach as “vibrant and light, elevated Mexican adapted to the bounty of the Northwest,” with a heavy emphasis on local produce. The menu will see street-food snacks like crudo, ceviche, and tlacoyo, an oval-shaped masa dish with a vegetable filling that she describes as “kind of like a calzone.” It’s topped with griddled meats, seasonal vegetables, and sauces like white or black bean purees, as well as manchego cheese. A menu of larger dishes will include shared plates with sides, like tacos de canasta with sweet potato, leek, and kale and enchiladas with slow-roasted chicken. For dessert, Contreras will offer ice-cream and popsicles made in house, often with elements from the bar, like a burnt goat milk ice cream with cookie crumbles and house-made apple bitters.
On the weekends, the restaurant will serve a brunch complete with pan dulce, chilaquiles, and bolillo with jamon. While diners will be able to enjoy Contreras’ dishes out on the patio or in few distanced tables inside, there will also be an opportunity to order online for an easy pick-up.
As for drinks, Mateja wants to emphasize agave spirits and rum to pair with the cooking, though he cautions that Nightingale is “not a tequila bar.” He’s bringing some of his favorite drinks from Kask, as well as the occasional guest cocktail that he’ll borrow from other bartenders, with a portion of the proceeds from that cocktail each month going to a different charity. The bar’s titular drink, the Nightingale, features reposado tequila, smoked maple syrup, cherry bark bitter, and house-made Nightingale bitters, aromatic with vanilla, cloves, and tropical notes. Beyond the cocktail program, the bar will also feature a large bottle shop, with everything from cheap tallboys to CBD sodas and some wines, all of which will be available to go. Additionally, the team plans to have something of a merchandise corner, where shoppers can find locally made items that will benefit local fundraisers, nonprofits, and other causes.
For the overall vibe, Mateja says they’re aiming for “neighborhood chic.” It’s also crucial to them for it to be as communal an experience as possible and a safe space, especially for members of the LBGQT community. “The toxic environment is over,” says Contreras. “It’s time to let that machoism culture, that egoism, let it go. We’ve been there, and that’s just not how we operate.”
The bar will also provide a space for artists and musicians to share their work, something both the co-owners deeply value. The walls will be decorated with paintings that evoke Mexican folk art, and the adjoining event room known as the “Dance Hall” will have works from local artists, as well as a projector for films. Once things start to recover from the pandemic, they plan to have live music and art shows.
Nightingale will open with around 10 to 20 seats inside, and 30 more outside on the sidewalk and street seating areas, which will be covered and heated. Hours will begin with 3 to 10 p.m. on weekdays, and with a weekend brunch opening earlier, though that’s not been finalized. Eventually they hope to expand hours and offer late night menus, DJ nights, games, and other activities to make it a local destination beyond just the bar.
Nightingale is located at 18 NE 28th Avenue.
- Nightingale [Instagram]