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One Year In: The Places We Lost

Perspectives from the business owners who’ve closed their restaurants or kept their bars in perpetual hiatus

A white, empty doughnut shop in downtown Portland
In June 2020, Blue Star Donuts announced that they would be closing three shops in the Portland area, including their flagship space in downtown. The 5,000 square foot headquarters opened in 2018.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

Beyond the deaths, the illness, the grief, the relentless fatigue, the loss of taste and smell, in 2020 we lived in the stasis of another fear: losing places we call home away from home. The places where we met friends or future partners, the places where we celebrated or mourned, the places we received relief in the form of pasta, an afterwork drink, a morning cortado. On the other side of the counter, restaurant owners lost their dreams, lost the businesses they saved for, the culmination of years spent on sweaty kitchen lines over hot gas ranges, burns and cuts from stray chef’s knives like battle scars. New businesses, family businesses. Restaurants that held their own for decades. Bars that were about to change the game.

The sign at Bluehour in the Pearl District
Pearl District restaurant and nightlife spot Bluehour, open since 2000, permanently closed its doors in June 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

When the first presumptive coronavirus case appeared in Lake Oswego in late February 2020, the implication that it would impart the level of devastation it has was seen by many as preposterous. People compared it to a flu and assumed it would run its course in a matter of weeks. No one foresaw the damage to restaurants then — not until the state shut down onsite dining service, an act done out of necessity in order to save lives.

A year later, so many of the city’s iconic restaurants are gone. The places tourists flocked to years ago — Aviary, Pok Pok, Bluehour — have “for sale” signs in their windows, have new tenants packaging takeout inside their doors. Some sit idle, restaurants in perpetual hiatus, waiting for a potential future when they can reopen. All of those papered-up businesses are representative of the people who kept them alive, the voices of these closures, the chefs and managers and servers and bussers. We spoke to them, those grieving artists, about what this year has cost, what they have lost, and what keeps them moving forward.

The entrance to Pok Pok now has a massive “For Sale” sign on a gate blocking its entrance. Plywood blocking another entrance is now covered in posters.
The original Pok Pok location on Division is now for sale. In June 2020, the famed Thai street food spot closed all Portland locations except for this original space and Pok Pok Wing SE, with the brand eventually closing all Portland restaurants by October.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
The Aviary sign still hangs above the restaurant Gumba, which uses neon lights in the window to identify itself.
Now occupied by food-cart-turned-restaurant Gumba, this space on Alberta used to host chic New American cuisine spot Aviary. Aviary, which opened in 2011, closed its doors in August 2020. “It was hard for me to let go, but I didn’t see any way to keep going,” said chef Sarah Pliner.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

How did the beginning of the pandemic go for you?

“We had to [close] because of the executive order, but we pivoted to to-go sales for wine and beer and sake, which we were legally able to do because we already had an off-premise license. And that went well, but our business model kind of hung its hat on three areas. … One was that you could always bring a really large party in, any time of the day or night, and you’d be able to have the space for it. And then with our price point, you have to sell a lot of $7 Old Fashioneds and $3 shift beers. … Then just the hours of operation. The nice thing about Shift Drinks is that we went [until] 2:30 in the morning, without fail, never closed early.”
Anthony Garcia, owner of Shift Drinks, closed June 2020

“Aviary had been struggling for a long time before the pandemic. It was actually never what a business person would call a profitable restaurant, always just scraping by. When the governor announced she was closing restaurants halfway through dining month, I thought we were through.”
Sarah Pliner, chef at Aviary, closed August 2020

“We started off doing meal kits but only really focused on Instagram and direct-to-consumer. We were actually talking to everyone, making sure we gave them a time frame, what did they want to order, ‘Hey do you want to add some cookies? We just made some delicious miso chocolate chip cookies!’ It was really good to see that we had a lot of people that really liked that engagement and that customer service.”
Shaun King, chef at Bar King, closed December 2020

“We did to-go for about a week, and then shifted instantly to doing deliveries. Having Toffee Club and Away Days meant that we could bundle things up. So we started doing weekend survival packs; there were bake-at-home breakfast pies, Bloody Mary mix, some toilet paper, all the necessities! Then we started to bundle snack packs, so like sausage rolls, two pasties you could bake at home. We just shifted to a delivery model and we were canning — every single can that went out of the brewery was canned on a tiny tabletop canner by our brewer.”
Niki Diamond, co-owner of Toffee Club, on hiatus since August 2020

Wooden chairs are upside-down on tables at Tea Bar downtown
Tea Bar’s downtown location, temporarily closed since March 2020, plans to reopen in the next few weeks.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

A brewery and taproom in SE Portland has paper in its windows. It plans to reopen.
Toffee Club owners plan to reopen the pub this summer after temporarily closing in August 2020.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

Many restaurants started to get creative or look for ways to pivot; was there anything that worked for a while? Any new experiments?

“[After closing] I spent a day and a half at home and realized I couldn’t handle doing nothing. A good friend of mine had suggested doing lobster rolls for takeout, and I decided to give it a try. It took a while to pick up, and it was a little miserable to be in the restaurant alone every day, but I got to see people, and cook, and eventually it picked up enough I was able to bring my sous chef back to work, which made it much better.”
Sarah Pliner, chef at Aviary, closed August 2020

“We were doing things like [making sure] the dish actually got better as it traveled … like halibut wrapped in banana leaf, I would purposely undercook it because it had to travel 20 minutes. I would ask our guest, ‘Hey, how far are you going?’ and I’d try to time it out so that once you got home it would be perfectly cooked. Takeout food, especially seafood, doesn’t really travel that well. That’s something I’m seeing now, is chefs being really creative in how we package things, what travels well, what doesn’t.”
Shaun King, chef at Bar King, closed December 2020

“We slowly reopened mid-July, all around the football schedule. We did pre-reserved tables and we encouraged people to fill a table as much as they felt safe doing. We only had seven tables in here, which, now in our entire pub we were fitting as many people as we would have in just the corner back in the day. We started off just opening for those four-hour slots, so it was really easy to schedule our team. We knew who was coming in, we knew what number of people were coming in, we knew where they were sitting and that there wasn’t going to be movement between tables.”
Niki Diamond, co-owner of Toffee Club, on hiatus since August 2020

Blocked by a chain-link fence, Canton Garden’s marquee reads “Thank you for the memories and 76 magical years.”
Canton Grill on 82nd Avenue closed in August 2020 after more than 75 years open. The owners temporarily closed the restaurant in March, and after six months decided to make the closure permanent.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What led to the decision to close?

“As our liquor license started to get closer to the expiration date — which was the 30th of June — by about sometime in May, we’re like, ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to spend the money to renew something that’s not a guarantee.’ So we kind of knew at that point that the end of June was going to be our last go. … There was also so much going on downtown, just with the rightful protests. We just kind of felt like we were insignificant. There’s a lot more important, pressing things going on than a watering hole that’s not going to make it.”
Anthony Garcia, owner of Shift Drinks, closed June 2020

“We realized it because we knew that this wasn’t going to end anytime soon. We’d built out a beautiful space, we spent a lot of money to create this communal dining area with big tables and that wouldn’t work in a pandemic and it wouldn’t work probably after the pandemic. It’s going to be a few years I think before restaurants that have that kind of buzzing communal vibe, the sharing concepts. It’s going to be a long time until that gets back to normal.”
Shaun King, chef at Bar King, closed December 2020

“It became clear to me that the mandatory closure of restaurants would effectively be hitting the reset button on the whole industry. And while other concepts were able to pivot their concepts for the pandemic, I really couldn’t see a way to re-train my Bluehour clientele to think of it as a place to get good food to go. We worked hard for 20 years to get people to identify Bluehour as a great place for fine dining, special occasions, and nights out on the town. That concept has become obsolete.”
Bruce Carey, owner of Bluehour, closed March 2020

“My landlord had agreed to let me pay reduced rent, but I knew it didn’t even cover his costs, and he was in the same boat with his other properties. I honestly felt that by staying in the space, I was keeping him from being able to find a tenant who could pay the rent. … So when I saw that Gumba was looking for a brick and mortar, I contacted them. It was hard for me to let go, but I didn’t see any way to keep going, and I was confident they would be successful enough with takeout to cover the rent.”
Sarah Pliner, chef at Aviary, closed August 2020

“The main driver was just the emotional weight of it. That was huge. One of the big things for us is that we’re such an experience-driven business. We’re selling the experience of being here — primary to the fish and chips and the beer that we sell, really what we sell at Toffee Club is this space where people come and have these experiences. It’s a joyful place and a celebratory place. It really just felt kind of sad; the atmosphere just couldn’t be here [again].”
Niki Diamond, co-owner of Toffee Club, on hiatus since August 2020

The interior of Barlow is dusty and unkempt, with its chairs removed.
The Picnic House and adjoining Jazz Age-themed bar Barlow have been closed since March 2020, following the first wave of coronavirus closures in Portland. Signs on the windows at each restaurant indicate the closure is temporary, but effective until further notice.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
Public Domain is boarded up downtown.
Public Domain Coffee downtown appears permanently closed with boarded-up windows, but its Facebook page has been advertising subscriptions as recently as February 2020 and Google lists the closure as temporary.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What do you miss the most?

“[This industry] has always been the fallback place where we accepted people with open arms. You could always work in a restaurant to make ends meet. Or you were in an industry like tech and something weird happened and you could fall back to being a waiter or a cook. We’re the industry that catches everybody so you can put food on your table or have a means to make money. It makes our landscape so uniquely staffed, with great stories and people and those from all walks of lives.”
—Anthony Garcia, owner of Shift Drinks, closed June 2020

“The hardest pill to swallow was just, not necessarily closing the restaurant, but thinking of all the work we put into it and the time we put into our staff and our training. … You can’t pinpoint what the most emotional part of it is because you don’t really know, because the people that have been affected by it the most — which is our staff — I only see what they want me to see. They’re positive and they’re supportive, but there were a lot of people that were displaced by us closing.”
—Shaun King, Chef at Bar King, closed December 2020

“I miss the cooks the most. Aviary was a hard place to work: high standards, long hours, ‘meh’ pay. The cooks that stuck it out did it because they were passionate about cooking, liked challenges and problem solving, and had a sense of humor. Every single day something funny or interesting happened with them.”
Sarah Pliner, chef at Aviary, closed August 2020

“I think we all miss our people so much. Nobody opens a restaurant to make money; that’s the reality. You open it because you love people, you love community, and you love experiences. We all really hope that experience will come back, and we do believe it will, but there’s some caution around, ‘What will that new experience look like? Will we be able to have 50 people at our bar ever again?’”
Niki Diamond, co-owner of Toffee Club, on hiatus since August 2020

Plywood windows have been painted with images of cocktails
Boards cover the windows of Clyde Common, now known as Clyde Tavern, for its winter hibernation. The lauded gastropub closed in March 2020 under the governor’s COVID orders, only to reopen several months later in a new format as Clyde Tavern.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
An empty white bar with with tables with glass windows
Shift Drinks closed permanently in June 2020 after trying a few months of to-go wine and beer sales. The cocktail bar with a popular all day happy hour menu was opened by husband-and-wife team Anthony and Anne Garcia in 2015 with veteran bartender Alise Moffatt.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What do you wish diners knew about the challenges some of their favorite places are facing?

“For a market like Portland that is independent, small businesses with chef-owners or bartender-owners, people that are in it and practicing their craft, those operators are truly doing it for the passion. These places that you love, they don’t have the profit margins that another company or category of business has. It’s really just a blood, sweat, and tears kind of industry. … We were truly a family-owned and -operated place. We didn’t take anything for granted. We loved being there, and we loved the opportunity to just be doing what we loved doing.”
Anthony Garcia, owner of Shift Drinks, closed June 2020

“[Chefs] are entertainers, we’re showing off our craft, and we put a lot of love and a lot of pride into it. It takes a long time to curate this love and this craft. It’s not just the one menu, it’s 20 years that I’ve been cooking. I’ve been cooking for 20-plus years to create this restaurant. … Restaurants are more than just places to eat, they’re places to restore you and a place to make you feel better than you did before you walked in the door.”
Shaun King, chef at Bar King, closed December 2020

“I’m not sure whether or not people realize that most restaurants are not making it on takeout. And most cooks and servers are still unemployed, or underemployed. I [know] there’s nothing anyone can do about it, or will do about it. But if you are employed and can afford it, and care about restaurants, spend as much money as you can in as many places as you can these next few months.”
Sarah Pliner, chef at Aviary, closed August 2020

“Resetting our expectations is going to take some time. We really will rely on our regulars to work with us on it as well. Portlanders are amazing and we’re so lucky to be here. The really cool thing I’ve seen, especially the last six months, is people are really understanding that small businesses have to be incredibly nimble, they have to be very flexible. Their plans might change day to day.”
—Niki Diamond, co-owner of Toffee Club, on hiatus since August 2020

The entrance to Imperial is lined with paper, with a small sign on the door indicating that the restaurant has closed.
In September 2020, coronavirus-related closures hit downtown stalwart Imperial. With no notice, the wood-fired grill restaurant quietly closed after a temporary closure and a shot at take out and modified indoor dining.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
The sign at Bar King still hangs off the black building, with a covered patio jutting out into the street.
Though once 2020’s most anticipated opening, Southeast spot Bar King eventually closed in December following several stops and starts with takeout, patio dining, and to-go service.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What’s next for you, or the restaurant?

“[Anne and I] moved to West Michigan, right off Lake Michigan. It’s a tourist destination on the water and we’re in the fruit belt of South Haven, Michigan. We were able to buy our first house ever, just a little under an acre. I got a job working for Virtue Cider, which is a place that makes the proper farmhouse ciders from Europe that we would serve at Shift Drinks. … It’s just been a joy to work in agriculture. My clothes are covered in mud at the end of the day. It’s all outdoors, even in the winter, so it’s a super-safe place that you can come and hang out and follow all the safety protocols.”
Anthony Garcia, owner of Shift Drinks, closed June 2020

“I’ll be working with Hai Hospitality, based in Houston. I’ll be the chef de cuisine for their newest Houston project, which is hopefully opening up by October. I’ll be based in Austin and training with them. My background is actually Japanese cuisine so their concept is like a sushi-bar-meets-wood-fired. I’ll be running one restaurant there and then hopefully moving into a regional chef’s position. It’s a great opportunity for us and we’ve always wanted to live in the South.”
Shaun King, chef at Bar King, closed December 2020

“Probably next fall or winter, I’m going to open another restaurant. It’s going to be much smaller.”
Sarah Pliner, chef at Aviary, closed August 2020

“When we closed we tried to keep our messaging as, ‘We hope this isn’t the end.’ We really believed that if Toffee Club didn’t come back in this exact incarnation and in this space, that the spirit and the community of it would live on in some form. … But we are planning a very slow reopen, as much as you can plan. The Euros are coming up this summer so we’re looking to take a lot of our learnings from summer 2020 and reopen again very slowly. Bring back as small a team as possible, and open just for those games and do it on our own terms as much as possible.”
Niki Diamond, co-owner of Toffee Club, on hiatus since August 2020

“Clarklewis, while still a fine dining destination, is well-suited for pandemic dining, with the wall of roll-up doors that make the entire dining room feel like a patio. We made other adjustments like adding a wood-fired oven for pizza (a to-go favorite), and added an annex dining room to offset the seating we were losing by placing tables eight feet apart from each other. Customer response has been overwhelmingly positive, which makes me optimistic that we have navigated through the worst of it.”
Bruce Carey, owner of Bluehour, closed March 2020

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