Six years ago, Bluehour alumni John Pickett and Doug Weiler took over the former Fenrir space to open Willow, their pop-up-turned-restaurant serving a six-course tasting menu. Weiler and Pickett pitched Willow as a true “Cascadian” restaurant, highlighting hyper-local Pacific Northwestern ingredients in an oft-changing tasting menu. Last week, the restaurant quietly closed for good, according to the restaurant’s recorded voicemail message and a small sign posted in the window of the restaurant’s front door. The note, dated March 9, notes that the restaurant “has permanently closed its doors to the public.”
In a conversation with Eater, Pickett noted that the decision behind the closure was not due to a lack of business — Willow was thriving, consistently fully booked since the restaurant reopened for dine-in last May. But as Weiler and Pickett attempted to keep the restaurant going in the current climate, they slowly started to burn out.
“We’ve been trying to show up for each other, but it’s doing more harm than good to us, so we’re ready to be done,” Pickett says. “I know that these last couple of years have been especially tough for restaurateurs, and we’re no exception. It’s just taken its toll.”
Willow opened in Southeast Portland in the spring of 2016, starting with three-course dinners before scaling up to the full six-course prix fixe. Dishes ranged from poached salmon with cucumber and dill to a steak tartare mimicking the flavors of a cheeseburger. The restaurant itself was meant to feel like someone’s apartment, intimate and homey, with fewer than 20 seats.
And, like a friend’s dinner party, Willow became an under-the-radar affair: It cultivated a loyal roster of regulars, who returned for the innovative and relatively inexpensive tasting menu. The restaurant regularly scored highly on user-reviewed sites: OpenTable ranked Willow as one of its Top 100 Restaurants of 2019, and Yelp called Willow one of its “Top 100 Places to Treat Yourself.”
When the pandemic struck, Willow was in a difficult position, as a tasting menu restaurant in a small space without outdoor dining areas. It hibernated for several months, eventually launching a takeout program in the summer of 2020. The restaurant reopened for dine-in in 2021, but announced another hiatus in December. “As the first weeks of the pandemic have stretched into months and years, we are still scrambling to offer meals that feed, nourish, and enrich. While we re-opened with excitement and trepidation six months ago, we are finding it harder and harder to create the experience that we have always offered,” an Instagram announcement reads. “Unfortunately, we are at the point where we need to take time away from Willow to re-focus and prioritize.”
Willow isn’t the only tasting menu restaurant to succumb to the pandemic: Holdfast Dining closed in 2020, and the space once home to Beast has transformed into the more casual Ripe Cooperative (owner Naomi Pomeroy has mentioned, on numerous occasions, interest in reopening Beast in a new location). Castagna has yet to reopen for dine-in service, and Le Pigeon cut its a la carte options as it returned to regular service. It’s unclear how — or if — Portland will continue to keep its tasting menu restaurants afloat, as the pandemic continues to trickle forward.
Those who wish to say goodbye to Willow can go to the restaurant’s farewell party on April 23, held at the restaurant from 4 to 8 p.m. After that, it’s unclear where Pickett and Weiler will head next. “We’re taking time to assess and think through our options for sure,” Pickett says. “We don’t know what the future holds for either one of us yet.”
Updated Tuesday, March 15, at 1:21 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from John Pickett.