Sometimes it’s best to be true to your voice, chef Kiara Hardy has learned.
Hardy, a former private chef to NBA player Hassan Whiteside, started to take over the kitchen at cocktail bar Capitol in late 2020. She knew it would be a challenge: She was walking into a known space and making it her own. Capitol, formerly of the Lightning Bar Collective, was a vegan haunt with karaoke and a colorful interior, serving things like dairy-free mac and cheese. As the bar’s ownership shifted and Hardy stepped into the kitchen, she tried to appease the vegans and keep a few meat-free items, while slowly introducing a few South-Florida dishes she loved.
“I wanted to do something that was unique, something that looks like me... South Florida is a melting pot of cuisines — Latin, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Southern comfort food, soul food — so I wanted to implement all of that in the menu, while also creating a couple of vegan items initially,” she says. The vegan clientele, however, felt resistant to any meat entering the kitchen at Capitol. “They gave us hell on social media. It was my attempts to try to appease them, but those folks were not interested at all. That’s okay.”
Instead of transitioning back into vegan dining — there are plenty of Portland restaurants offering fully vegan menus, after all — Hardy decided to go all-in on her vision for the space. She brought out some of her greatest hits: a fried chicken sandwich with whiskey bacon jam, jerk wings, rasta pasta. That choice has been a boon for Capitol and Hardy: Now, more than six months in, Capitol’s food menu feels like that of a new restaurant, one that is delivering something distinct and lively to Portland’s culinary scene at large.
Hardy has gone through plenty to get where she is today: After working in grocery stores for years, Hardy put herself through culinary school, cooking for a Florida detox center for $10 per hour in between classes. “I was making lunch and dinner for patients and the staff, and I had the freedom to create all my own menus,” she says. “It let me be free; I didn’t have to make the same thing every day. I got to practice the stuff I was learning at school there, and they loved it.”
After building a brand as a private chef and caterer, cooking for people like Hillary Clinton, Hardy and her partner, Crystal Chanel, moved to Oregon with Whiteside. “My partner, Crystal, runs a marketing company. She was reaching out to folks, and wanted to make friends,” she says. The couple connected with Kevin McDowell, then at Lulu, and they hit it off. “We kept throwing ideas at each other. He had just bought into Capitol, and said ‘Hey, I have something that I think would work really well for us together.’”
So Hardy moved into the kitchen at Capitol and used it as a place to highlight her former home. Her Southern fried chicken sandwich, “The Killa,” comes with a whiskey bacon jam using Portland’s own Rex Whiskey, alongside chipotle mustard and sweet pickles. The restaurant’s wings marinate in jerk seasoning for at least 24 hours, slow-roasted and then finished on high heat, topped with mango pico and mango ranch. A tequila shrimp salad represents some coastal flair, and a fried catfish sandwich delivers the Southern heat. Even the restaurant’s fries, tossed in a pepper-laden seasoning blend, has developed its own fleet of devotees, who now buy the blend by the bottle.
Looking forward, Hardy is excited for things like Memorial Day, when she hopes to throw a socially distanced barbecue event outside, and is developing a web series highlighting local chefs and products. “A lot of the stuff we try to do is different,” Hardy says. “We’re doing something that’s not typical, but inviting the community in, to see what this Southern vibe looks like.”
Capitol is open for onsite dining and takeout at 1440 NE Broadway Street.