Since this story first published in April, restaurant dining rooms have reopened, twice. Revelry closed permanently, but chef Diane Lam has moved to the bar Psychic, with a new fried chicken concept called Prey and Tell.
As the Portland food scene passes the one-month mark since bars and restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms, local restaurant owners and purveyors are still adapting to a changing landscape. While some have shut their doors until the crisis is over, others are finding new ways to serve hungry patrons — sometimes after taking a few weeks to close completely and reassess their plans. Others have gone to weekend service only, given out free food to unemployed restaurant workers, or created meal kits for customers to recreate their favorite dishes at home.
Currently, there is no set end date to Gov. Kate Brown’s order for Oregonians to stay at home, leaving many businesses in limbo as they figure out if — and when — they can reopen their dining rooms. For the moment, city streets and local markets remain eerily quiet as Portlanders navigate a landscape very different from the city’s usually bustling food scene.
Normally, early spring is an exciting time for the farmers market — Portland’s home cooks take advantage of early spring produce, with asparagus and rhubarb hitting stands from the city’s oft-celebrated local farms. But the Portland Farmers Market was quiet on Saturday, April 4. The few customers mingling among the booths wore bandanas and masks, while cauliflower and greens sat in individual plastic bags.
The market announced in March that it would remain open during the COVID-19 crisis, while instituting extra safety measures: It limits the number of shoppers in the market at one time, eliminated samples and food consumption on premises, and increased space between booths.
Still, some popular booths, like the chef darling Groundwork Organics, attracted crowds — albeit smaller ones. Customers waited in spacious lines to grant access through an invisible barrier before carefully picking out radishes and carrots. The farm set up a display table of its produce and asked customers to point out what they would like to purchase, as opposed to allowing customers to sift through the selection themselves; several vendors set out signs asking customers not to touch produce, allowing only staff members to handle their goods.
Stepping outside the farmers market grounds, the rest of the westside — often populated by workers and tourists — felt empty, quiet. Chinatown and Old Town had a few open businesses, but many remained closed, including the area’s many clubs. Hotels were mainly vacant, and foot traffic had basically disappeared. Visitor favorites, like the often crowded Pine Street Market food hall, had closed to customers; only the Pollo Bravo stall remained open for curbside pickup and delivery, though customers couldn’t step inside the hall to retrieve it. Pioneer Courthouse Square was almost completely empty, though food carts Fried Egg I’m in Love and the Block remained open. Burger Stevens, however, had temporarily closed; its owner Don Salamone, now makes takeout Italian food across the river.
The businesses that have stayed open have been forced to adapt. Aaron Richardson, the kitchen manager at Sisters Coffee in the Pearl, helped a customer with an order on Saturday, April 4. After closing for two weeks to come up with a new strategy, the coffee house reopened on April 3 for to-go orders only. Customers ordered at one door and pick up at the other entrance to the cafe, which was running a three-person team inside to maintain social distancing requirements. A table, jutting out from either side of the entrance, was split vertically, creating a long, narrow barrier between him and his customers.
When it opened in 2005, Andina was the hot table in Portland, a high-end Peruvian restaurant with colorful ceviches, causas, and anticuchos. Now, the longtime Portland institution has shifted to takeout in the wake of COVID-19 closures across town; a sign in their window on Saturday, April 4, advertised 15 percent off all pickup orders. Takeout and delivery menus didn’t include the restaurant’s notable ceviches, sticking instead to heartier, more durable fare.
Some of Portland’s newer restaurants have had to make quick pivots into takeout and delivery. Bae’s opened in the fall of 2019, but was forced to close to dine-in customers within six months of opening its doors. Despite the appearance of a chain-link fence across the front, the restaurant was still operating, sending out piles of spiced fried chicken through delivery apps.
While many restaurants have figured out novel ways to serve regulars, some have started feeding new clientele because of the pandemic, carrying trays of individually portioned meals to makeshift homeless shelters, testing sites, and hospitals. On April 7, Bhuna owner and chef Deepak Kaul packaged up bowls of yellow-tinged saffron rice, pork vindaloo, chettinad chicken, and raita for workers at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, in Southeast Portland, Bar Carlo owner Melinda Archuleta worked on her own delivery order, carrying out trays of burritos for the workers at the Providence Regional Laboratory. She wrapped the boxes in plastic, to keep them sanitary, wearing gloves and masks as she prepared to drive the food to health care workers evaluating tests.
Kaul and Archuleta, like many other top chefs in the Portland area, are working with national nonprofit Frontline Foods to feed hospital workers and COVID-19 test site employees: Sponsors donate to the organization, and those donations go to restaurant workers to make a certain number of meals any given night. The restaurants then use the money to pay staff and food costs, and deliver individually wrapped, free meals to medical personnel. The medical personnel pay nothing.
Some chefs have gone with a more DIY approach to aid, like fried chicken food cart Jojo. Instead of going through a specific organization, owner Justin Hintze started offering free meals to kids and out-of-work restaurant employees, accepting donations through a Venmo account. Soon, the offer expanded to free meals to anyone in need, no questions asked. Beyond the cart, Hintze has worked with other chefs to deliver meals to hospitals, as well, collaborating with chefs Craig Melillo of Gracie’s Apizza and Richard Le of Matta. The truck is open a few days a week now, with the most current information posted to its Instagram account.
Farther north, chef Diane Lam prepared a meal at Revelry to deliver to a nearby homeless shelter, stirring pots of teriyaki sauce to pour over chicken for individual clamshell containers. The hip bar and restaurant, normally thumping with electronic music and attracting crowds, was empty except for her, a makeshift American flag mask across her face. Donations provided by lunch counter and job training center Stone Soup helped Lam prepare and serve the 80 meals for people at the temporary East Portland Community Center shelter — the sixth meal she’d cooked for a shelter since the closures in March.
Lam, Revelry’s chef de cuisine, has jumped at the opportunity to explore new and different business models during the shutdown. She’s created multi-meal kits meant to last at least half of each week, individually texting customers with help if they need it. She’s packaged up cans of Rainier with the restaurant’s popular peanut-brittle chicken, and played around with different cuisines for takeout, dusting off childhood recipes like vermicelli-filled cabbage rolls. While her music still blared loudly through the speakers, she joked that the worst part of running the kitchen solo was having to clean all of the dishes herself at the end of the day.
Even as the world changes dramatically, Portland remains Portland. Its chefs continue to cook; its diners continue to eat. Farmers still come to the markets on Saturdays. Baristas slide cups of espresso across a table from six feet away. And the city’s weirdos continue to be weird, in the safest ways they can be: Customers stopped to stare at Anna Kovalenko, dressed in a dinosaur costume, as she walked past Portland’s iconic Voodoo Doughnuts. Kovalenko and her friend Kim Yablonski dressed up for what they called “Jurassic Distancing” and walked around downtown Portland. “We wanted to spread some cheer,” Kovalenko said.