For the last eight years, Portlanders have been flocking to Aaron Barnett’s neighborhood corner restaurant La Moule for bistro-style dishes and bartender Tommy Klus’ cocktails. Inside the dimly lit space and perched on the sidewalk outside, diners would pry open mussels prepared marinière, in the traditional French style, but also those dressed in salsa verde, puttanesca, or a Creole-inspired roux preparation.
At the end of July, it will serve its last plates of mussels and chicken liver mousse to its dedicated patrons — some of whom are so attached to the restaurant that Barnett says he’s even gotten requests to buy cut-outs of the restaurant’s iconic mussel-print wallpaper, a design that a friend of Barnett’s adapted from some old wrapping paper. Through the pandemic, the restaurant adjusted its service to survive in a changed industry. Ultimately, nothing proved sustainable.
“Portland as a dining scene has changed a bit and when you’re an older place, you try to do things to keep up and keep interesting and that’s what we did,” Barnett says.
The idea behind La Moule found Barnett while visiting Washington D.C. for an event. “I stumbled upon this little pub that was underneath a brownstone and I walked in and it was just a mussel frites place,” Barnett says, “a Belgian pub with lots of beer and lots of mussels and French fries, and that was kind of the menu.”
St. Jack owner Aaron Barnett and Scotch Lodge owner Tommy Klus opened La Moule in 2015 with the late chef Cameron Addy at the helm. Even though their intention for the place was more Belgian beer pub than swanky seafood restaurant, the latter ended up resonating more with diners. “It was just a bunch of friends trying to open a place,” Barnett says. “We always wanted it to be dark and kinda loud, and open later.” Barnett felt an affinity for the neighborhood where his French bistro St. Jack once resided before moving to Nob Hill — it also happened to be the stomping grounds of himself and longtime friend, sommelier Joel Gunderson, in the ’90s.
Throughout its span, several of the restaurant’s staff bounced between La Moule and its sister restaurant, St. Jack — sous chef Elise Walker, Dylan Sprenger, John Denison, and veteran chef Lucian Prellwitz. Celebrated bartender Anna Moss also spent several years at La Moule; she won a StarChefs Rising Star and was named one of the city’s best bartenders during her tenure. Barnett cites the restaurant’s team as its greatest legacy.
“I’m proud of what everybody who worked there did,” Barnett says. “I loved all the quirky, weird, funny people who came through the doors, and the quirky, weird, funny people who worked there.”