Nearly a decade ago, the proximity of flourishing vineyards spurred Portland, Oregon, to become one of the country’s pioneers of the urban winery. Next up on the city’s trend agenda is changing the model of the wine bar. Snacky bites such as olives, nuts, charcuterie, and cheese are no longer sufficient for today’s tasters, as demonstrated by a spate of new wine bars whose food menus are just as refined as their wine lists.
Two spots from leading Portland chefs offer wine-heavy adjuncts to award-winning restaurants: Canard, overseen by two-time James Beard Award–winner Gabriel Rucker, of Le Pigeon; and Enoteca Nostrana, featuring the cuisine of six-time James Beard nominee Cathy Whims, of Nostrana. Two other spots are wine establishments that are upping their food ante: Arden, from the owners of Thelonious wine shop, which snagged Michelin-starred chef Sara Hauman from San Francisco; and Oui! Wine Bar and Restaurant—within the SE Wine Collective, an urban organization of 12 local wineries—which jump-started the movement in late 2017 with a menu by up-and-coming chef Althea Grey Potter, formerly of Ned Ludd and Lincoln restaurants.
SevenFifty Daily talked with the teams behind each to discuss how they expanded on their already-thriving establishments, how they stand apart, and what their new models mean for Portland’s food and drink scene.
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“We call Canard a wine restaurant, not a wine bar,” says the wine director, Andy Fortgang. His partner, chef Gabriel Rucker, clarifies further, describing the establishment as a “chameleon of a restaurant” that provides all-day café service and morphs into a wine-driven restaurant with cocktails at night. Conveniently located next door to the award-winning Le Pigeon, on East Burnside Street, Canard expands on the duo’s popular eateries (which also include Little Bird Bistro downtown). “We always knew it would be a good idea for people to have a spot to have a drink and wait for Le Pigeon,” Rucker says, because they were always sending people to other spots in the neighborhood. “When the space next door became available, we thought, Why not take advantage of that?”
Flexibility is the goal at Canard, Rucker points out. “Before Canard,” he says, “we didn’t have a restaurant that people could waltz in and have it be anything they wanted it to be. They can go in in the morning and have coffee, walk in in the afternoon and just have an ice cream sundae, come in for just a beer, or come in for a four-hour meal with four bottles of wine.” The wine list, which Rucker and Fortgang describe as a “perpetual work in progress,” with more than 230 bottles and 20 wines by the glass, has much to please wine geeks, from Spanish and French favorites to hard-to-find Germans and Georgians, with plenty from the vicinity too. “I know it seems counterintuitive to have a long list at a casual restaurant,” Fortgang says, “but this way people can try different things, from the edgy to the classic, to go with our dishes,” such as foie gras dumplings and uni Texas toast.
Chef-owner Cathy Whims of Nostrana, less than a mile from Canard in the Southeast, found the same opportunity as Rucker when the space beside her restaurant became available. “We needed it particularly for overflow of people waiting at Nostrana,” she says. “If we had walk-ins or a table wasn’t turning, there would be this crazy mass of people by the host stand.” Whims and her team also wanted space for large groups and private parties, which were not easily accommodated at Nostrana. Driven by this need, the team, including the wine director, Austin Bridges, found that what initially started as a space expansion started to have its own identity.
Sleek and colorful, with a two-story glass-walled storage area that holds 3,000 bottles, Enoteca Nostrana feels more Milan than Portland—chicer and more energetic than the rustic, cavernous original next door. To highlight the idea of a separate experience, Bridges, who sees Enoteca as “skewing younger,” took the opportunity to customize the wine list. “The younger generation is influencing how things are changing,” he says. While Nostrana’s wine list is predominantly Italian and Oregon, the team wanted the opportunity to expand the list with some off-the beaten-path selections. “We’re really interested in what’s happening in Spain right now,” Bridges says, “and the natural wines from the Canary Islands, for example.”
He also champions the greater dining freedom that comes with the wine bar—especially reflected on Whims’s menu, which includes customizable garnishes for pasta. “I previously worked for a place with a six-course tasting menu with all these wine pairings,” Bridges says, “and I slowly saw people going away from that because it’s a large commitment to go out for three hours and have this whole dinner. People today want more control over their dining and drinking.”
When it opened in December 2017, Oui! added instant value to SE Division Street’s five-year-old urban winery group, the SE Wine Collective. The restaurant and wine bar, which features executive chef Althea Grey Potter’s seasonal cooking, stands out because of its family-style tasting menu option—$39 per person for any size party. According to cofounder Kate Norris, that option has been the “number one seller every week since we opened.” Before the full-on restaurant debuted, Potter had designed an abbreviated menu for the space. “The food we did in the bar was much more simple,” she says. “At that time, I think I was really trying to make the foods that I thought were what wine bar food should be. Over time it shifted into the food that I really wanted to eat.”
Potter says Oui’s client base has been especially receptive to her seasonal, family-style dishes, such as asparagus with Meyer lemon–kosho vinaigrette. “I have nothing against cheese and charcuterie,” she says, “but I really wanted people to be able to expand their horizons and expectations of what wine-friendly food is. I want people to be inspired—people who maybe would never have thought of Asian flavors with a bottle of Chenin Blanc, for example. These untraditional pairings will inspire them to experiment more.” Experimentation is further encouraged with 60 wines by the glass from the collective, local wineries, and wineries abroad.
Sommelier Kelsey Glasser’s customers spoke—and she listened. The co-owner, with Alex Marchesini, of Thelonious Wines had already opened a traditional wine bar at her Pearl District retailer. “We opened two years ago with the intention of being a bottle shop, but we quickly realized that people wanted to drink wine here too.” She and Marchesini secured a license to serve on premises; without a commercial kitchen, however, they could only offer small bites.
Customers expressed disappointment that they couldn’t have a full meal at the bar, and Glasser noticed that the spot would empty out at 6 or 7 pm. That prompted her and Marchesini to keep their eye on an empty restaurant space down the block. Around the same time, they met Michelin-starred chef Sara Hauman of San Francisco. It was a fortuitous confluence of time, space, and necessity, and now Glasser’s customers can visit Arden to enjoy a four-course, $64 prix fixe menu that highlights Pacific Northwest ingredients such as Oregon coast black cod with black chickpeas. The wine menu favors natural producers from France, Italy, and Oregon, with 30 wines by the glass.
“These new chef-driven wine bars signal a maturity in the Portland dining and drinking scene,” Glasser observes. “I’m seeing a huge market of people in their 30s who used to be beer drinkers in their 20s. But now they have real jobs and real apartments, and some of them are having kids, and wine is the adult thing to drink. They are joining wine clubs, going out to wine country more often, and are excited to learn about wine—and they want to drink it while eating quality food.”
Kathleen Squires is a James Beard Award–nominated and IACP Award–winning food and travel writer and cookbook author. Based in New York City, she is also the coproducer of the film James Beard: America’s First Foodie.