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Chef Sarah Pliner, Owner of Celebrated Restaurant Aviary, Has Died

The chef was known for her crispy pig’s ear and polished, eclectic culinary style, even after her restaurant closed

A woman in chef’s whites and a black apron sits in front of the chef’s pass at Aviary.
Chef Sarah Pliner.
John Valls
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Sarah Pliner, the chef known for her venerated, now-closed restaurant Aviary, died in a traffic collision yesterday, October 4, Bike Portland first reported. Pliner was struck and killed by a truck while riding her bike near Southeast 26th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, according to the blog; the news has been confirmed by Portland food writers Karen Brooks and Michael Zusman, as well as former Aviary co-owner Jasper Shen. Portland Police has confirmed that Pliner was the bicyclist killed in the October 4 collision at that location.

Pliner started her Portland career in the ‘90s, cooking at places like the Heathman and Giorgio’s, before leaving the city. She re-entered the Portland restaurant scene as a New York expat, spending time at restaurants like Michelin-starred Nordic destination Aquavit. In 2011, she opened small plate restaurant Aviary with Shen, now of XLB and Win Win, as well as pastry chef Kat Whitehead. Portlanders were quickly wowed by dishes like glazed black cod and oxtail croquettes, served in a sophisticated but relaxed setting. Five months after its opening, the restaurant closed abruptly following a two-alarm fire in the building, returning that December.

In the following years, Aviary’s popularity only continued to grow. Conde Nast Traveler called the restaurant “inventive” and “excellent,” and Willamette Week named Aviary its restaurant of the year in 2012. It held a spot on Eater Portland’s 38 essential restaurants for years, and people consistently returned to the restaurant for foie gras bao, crispy pig ears, and cardamom pudding. The restaurant closed in 2020, which Pliner partially attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zusman noted that Pliner was most recently cooking at Southeast Portland Greek restaurant Bluto’s, and she had been participating in tasting dinners with Fullerton Wines.

Pliner was known for her culinary creativity and her humility, according to those who knew her well. “She was a wonderful person first as well as a great chef,” Zusman writes in a Facebook post. “She was an introvert and never craved the limelight as is the fashion in the industry these days. Make no mistake, however, her food at Aviary was peerless in its creativity and execution.”

“Aviary was a bright light of Portland’s food scene when it opened in 2011,” Brooks writes in a tweet. “She was always in the kitchen, a beacon of creativity and commitment.”

Updated Wednesday, October 5, at 3:01 p.m.: This story has been updated to show that Portland Police has confirmed that Pliner died in the bicycle collision on October 4.