Looking back, Americano never had a chance.
Sure, when it opened on East Burnside in March 31, 2016, it was in one of the best-known buildings in town. And it was started by one of Portland's most respected barmen, a national celebrity whose other spot in the city draws tourists from around the world. It had a hyped chef from New Orleans. The opulent white-on-white space was outfitted with the finest of everything—the Ferrari of espresso machines to make coffee they roasted themselves, oblong modernist couches and a tower of bottles at the room's center stacked with exotic Turkish and Lebanese wines, and a wide array of Italian liqueurs.
Portland's hype-obsessed food media tracked every move of the East Burnside bar. Americano was named one of the best new bars in the city by Portland Monthly after a media preview, and the very best new bar in the city by The Oregonian a few months later.
But by November, only two months after The Oregonian named it "Bar of the Year," Americano closed. The space still sits vacant on busy East Burnside. And unless a new tenant signs, the owners are on the hook for five years of rent.
"We wanted to manage a bar together," says Blair Reynolds, whose other Portland bar, Hale Pele, was a swanky nouveau tiki bar. "But instead, we manage a Wells Fargo credit card account…it's stacking up. Just closing down doesn't stop all the bills."
The windows still say Americano. If you peek inside, the $6,000 Modbar espresso machine is gone. But you can still see the solid quartz bar, the custom liquor shelves designed to look like a Chemex filter and the floor-to-ceiling Futurist mural depicting a smiling bar owner holding up a cocktail so apparently miraculous it is wreathed in a luminous halo, forever ready to serve.
How could something so promising fail so spectacularly?
It's a story of grand ambitions and wild talents, undone by an overly opulent build-out, bitter infighting over eggs and a roiling culture war that has come to define the Portland of today.
This week, we release Drank, our annual guide to Portland's best bars. Look for free copies around town in the next week. As we recognize the best bars in town from dives to opulent wine dens, we should also take a look back at one of the biggest belly flops we've ever seen in our city.
We talked to owners and staff of Americano—many of whom are no longer talking to each other—to figure out what happened. Here's the story in their words.
Blair Reynolds is a self-made superstar bartender and a well-known personality. In 2012, he was bartending at Acadia and at Northeast Broadway tiki bar Thatch.
When Thatch went up for sale, Reynolds partnered with San Francisco tiki superstar Martin Cate and made it his own, renaming it Hale Pele. Reynolds is a serious tiki geek, a student of what he calls "the first post-Prohibition cocktail craze." He imbued Hale Pele with that spirit—it's a place with a little moat and a menu that explains the history of each drink, from Krakatoas made with aged Jamaican rums and cold-press coffee that's set on fire and presented with an umbrella. Today, it's routinely named among the best in the world. His line of tiki mixers has become a staple in supermarkets like New Seasons.
Reynolds' bar is next to Coco Donuts on Broadway, and the two neighbors hatched a plan in 2015 to open Americano, a bar devoted to booze in the evening and coffee in the morning, with a menu devoted to amaro, the bitter liqueur of Italy.
To bring their vision to life, Reynolds and his partner, Coco Donuts' Ian
Christopher, hired famed chef Chris DeBarr from New Orleans, and Kate Bolton, who had recently been named San Francisco's best bartender by Eater.
DeBarr developed a menu designed to pair with both coffee and cocktails, built on idea of a "Bitter Circus," which he told Eater was "serious flavors not to be taken too seriously."
Blair Reynolds, co-owner, Americano and Hale Pele: Initially it was very simple: highballs in the evening, and in the morning a thorough coffee service and small plates. Imagine Italian, tapas style.
Chris DeBarr, founding chef and general manager: They wanted an amaro bar. They said, "What food would you cook? What's your connection to American cuisine in Portland?" I said, "Mr. James Beard." You think of America as a melting pot. Who better expresses that than James Beard? I was gonna have a lot of fun. The idea was that anything that James Beard has talked about, we could cook, and he talked about it a lot. James Beard defined American cuisine, and he was from Portland. That's why there was a turkey mole.
To make that work, they needed specialty equipment, including tiny deep fryers filled with duck fat, with which they would make waffles.
David Thompson, eventual general manager: The hood that we had to have was way bigger than necessary. We had a grill, a stovetop, a deep fryer, a convection oven, another convection oven. It required one of the most powerful hoods on the market, and fairly big.
Reynolds: The buildout was beautiful; we spared no dime. But we didn't have tons of investment. I'm not the most sensible human being when it comes to finances. I do things because it has to shape out and look right, and if it doesn't, what's the point?
John Willis, starting morning sous chef: I saw a receipt for $1,700 worth of silverware. There were more crazy-designed plates that you could have put in the restaurant—10 times more plates and silverware than there were seats.
Thompson: We ended up putting half of that in storage. It was more than we needed. There was a convection oven that didn't need to be there that was $700. There was a perfectly good regular oven already in place.
The cocktails were no less ambitious, featuring house coffee tinctures and elderflower syrups, fresh strawberries and bitter Italian artichoke liqueurs. The bar's $30 press pots were dramatic productions in which patrons were asked to mix their own drinks with sparkling mineral water.
Reynolds: Kate [Bolton] was phenomenal. She wanted to do something beautiful. She wanted to instate this highball concept—create these works of art, beautiful drinks.
Willis: I liked Kate, I liked her drink menu. I saw success in her. I thought, "If this is gonna be successful, this is gonna be why."
David Thompson, Americano general manager: Our cocktails would have rivaled anyone in Portland from beginning to end. But it required education. People came in not knowing what the liqueurs we were serving were. We might have reached for the stars a little bit, but you don't make that reach unless you think you can accomplish it.
Willis: Around the wine, the purchasing was crazy. Chris, Ian and Kate really butted heads [Both Kate Bolton and Ian Christopher declined to comment for this story]. Chris stormed out of lots of meetings. I think eventually Kate let him do what he was going to do.
Christopher and Reynolds signed the lease on the space in spring 2015. It was in an apartment building called Burnside 26. But not long after Reynolds signed the lease, the property manager debuted a new promo video featuring an obnoxious young couple named Luke and Jess, living a perfect life in their expensive apartment.
The video instantly became a citywide flashpoint over gentrification and the Portland housing crisis.
"Some people are alarmed by Portland's boom of new apartment buildings, fearing they will drive out longtime residents, eat up parking and destroy cherished bars. But not Luke and Jess. Luke and Jess are happy. Luke and Jess are the stars of a promotional video just released by the building Burnside 26, which is located at 2625 East Burnside Street and is currently renting studio apartments starting at $1,338 a month.
—WW, March 22, 2015. "Meet Luke and Jess, Your New Portland Apartment Overlords."
Reynolds: That building is hated among those who like to pretend they're not part of the gentrification in Portland. It's kind of symbolic with that Luke and Jess video.
Avant-garde filmmaker Karl Lind created a parody of the video.
Lind: Luke and Jess are obviously paid actors playing the part of transplant trustfunders. It's safe to say Burnside 26 and their marketing agency never considered that any of the locals would give one shit. Peering into the abyss, deep down we realize we all secretly want to be Luke and Jess.
Reynolds: Usually it seemed like every time there was a story, one Luke and Jess comment popped up. It was a thorn in some people's sides. In Holman's I was talking in the bar and I heard this guy who was a casting director, and he said, "This stupid place Americano trying to ruin Portland." I was like, "Dude we're people from Portland trying to bootstrap, three dudes with a dream." The guy was working for Portlandia. Of all the people to be commenting about people ruining Portland, I thought that was pretty funny.
Willis: Everybody hates that Burnside 26 building. The place suffered because of that. I got laughed at by some of my friends in town: "That place is New Portland, how could you work there?"
Reynolds: Portland could have taken it out on something else. That would have been great. Maybe one of those faux Portland places that is actually run by outside people with money. People said [Americano] didn't seem Portland enough. It's as Portland as Portland gets. It's real, but it's not this painted Portland in our heads now. It's kinda funny when you start buying into your own marketing. Someone will come in and, say, "Throw some pallet boards on the walls! Let's reclaim some furniture and call it Portlandy!" I was at Pip's doughnuts—good place, I loved it. But it had this feeling, like, "Where did you guys come from? That's some damn good branding." Nothing against that place, but they came in with a chalkboard and a Square register, and said "Here, Portland—have some more Portland!"
Americano was also about to lose its celebrity bar owner. After his wife gave birth to twins and the bar opened after a rocky buildout that stretched six months longer than they expected, Reynolds suddenly disappeared. It was two days into the bar's tenure.
Reynolds: We had a lot of trouble with the buildout. It was a brand-new building, that changed things significantly. We went three times over the budget, and it took twice as long as expected. The inspector comes in and says, "you have to have your alarm tied into the main alarm in the building." We didn't know that. We regretted giving that one contractor $80,000 [before learning about the alarm].
Thompson: Blair was there for about two days after opening—I don't know. I don't want to speak ill of anybody. He was dealing with a lot of stuff.
Reynolds: Some bad shit went down for me personally, and I ended up having a nervous breakdown. I silently left my partners to it.
Running a normal bar without a key owner is difficult, but running a wildly ambitious one in a controversial location was brutal, and the chef and operating manager were locked in a war for control. From the start, Americano struggled.
Reynolds: Unfortunately, without me behind the wheel, things continued to deteriorate, particularly management-owner relations, what the vision was for that place. The staff couldn't explain what the vision was to the customers.
Kurt Huffman, owner, ChefStable: I don't think Portland likes to be confused when they walk into a restaurant or bar…Viewed through this lens, Americano did not make sense. Was it a coffee bar? Was it a cocktail bar? Was it both?
Thompson: I'd see the look of confusion when people came in the door. Our menu had a very in-depth look into amaros and vermouths, but people would come in and see coffee. People would turn around thinking they'd come to the wrong place. They came in looking for coffee and saw a giant wall of alcohol. It has been said we shouldn't have tried to go so fine. Maybe we should have been more bar snacks.
DeBarr: When it started slow in April, they panicked, they just flat-out panicked. They said, "We want snacks." I said, "This menu is small plates! What do you mean, snacks?"
Willis: The decor, the menu Chris put out at first, it was just a jumble of weird poetry. The food itself was a lot of stuff out of cans. When he hired me, he was like, "You've got all these connections to farms, that'll be great." But then he said, "We've gotta earn some money before spending real money on food." At that point, I knew Portland was going to eat him alive.
"Raw Meat Torn by Trumpet Blasts
Oregon beef turned into Italian Futurist carpaccio, featuring aioli, Mama Lil's peppers, spring lettuces, a dusting of pecorino cheese, and a mysterious boozy perfume $13"
—Americano menu, April 1, 2016
Thompson: Chris got a lot of his products from Sysco—if you're trying to do fine dining that's kind of a no-no. And his menu was sort of price-gouging. I can't believe how many people came to those early brunches and said, "Is that all I'm getting?" I was ashamed to bring some of those plates out. It'd be one waffle and some mole for $14. When Chris wasn't in the kitchen, I would just throw them something extra—"Let me get you a salad or some fries."
By May, the owners told Chris DeBarr they were letting him go.
Thompson: When dealing with Chris, there were things he was not doing. He wasn't putting people on payroll, doing hours, difficult general-manager stuff. I just started doing it. The staff and everybody came to view me as the de facto GM.
DeBarr: They just up and fired me. They gave me one week pay—thanks! The results speak for themselves. The place tanked, closed, didn't even make it a year. Kate quit shortly after I did—she's a brilliant bartender, we liked working with each other.
Thompson: Kate and I had at least two meetings with Blair before we even opened about how bad Chris was being. We couldn't get him to put eggs on the brunch menu. I think the eggs were the final straw. [The owners] said, "People just want eggs at breakfast. They just want them." He said, "Those people are stupid, and they're wrong."
DeBarr: I thought they were chickenshit. They cut their nose off to spite their face. You know, you're running an amaro bar, the food has to have elegance and worldliness. Did you think that was gonna be popular right off the bat? Everybody would run in and drink bitters?
At the end of May, Americano elevated John Willis to kitchen manager. Bolton left in June, and now bartends across the street at Tusk. Americano kept losing money, and the bar was often empty through most of the day.
Willis: There was such bad business going on. At night they'd sell $150 worth of food and that was it. The numbers were better in the morning—some of our brunch success just came from the waiting crowd from the Screen Door.
Mike Mayaudon, bartender: If anybody came in, we were ready. I had espresso glued to my wrist, I was wired and ready to jam out some cocktails. But no one came in. I'd stand there for three hours waiting for customers.
Reynolds: We lost a lot of staff pretty quickly. I ended up doing far more W-2s than I ever expected to. Part of that was I wasn't available to say, "Hey, let's not spend 80 percent of our revenue on labor. Maybe we should chip in as owners and be there."
Hope came in the form of an Oregonian cocktail writer named Colin Powers, who surprised pretty much everyone by naming Americano the best bar of that year.
"Americano is also The Oregonian/OregonLive's 2016 Bar of the Year. That's because this sleek spot, on the ground floor of a new apartment building on a stretch of East Burnside Street with a couple of auto body shops, a shuttered karaoke bar and Laurelhurst Theater, represents the best-yet local example of a major craft-cocktail trend: the low-proof drink."
—Colin Powers, oregonlive.com, August 24.
Reynolds: I read about it in the paper, and said, "Oh, holy shit!" I crossed my fingers. It meant they were able to paint a nice good picture on the front of the place, particularly for Colin. But on the back end it still didn't gel.
Willis: I left in August, three days before bar of the year was announced. When I saw it, I just laughed. I said, "Oh man, they're screwed."
Thompson: The article came out, people came in, our sales went up. We went into the black for two weeks. Things were looking good. But then the rain came. If we had an extra five months' worth of money, we could have made it through the rainy season. Ask any restaurateur in Portland: Portland restaurants do best in the summer and worst in the winter.
Low-proof cocktails and an influx of suburban OregonLive.com readers were not enough. The bar of the year nod offered just a band-aid, say Thompson and Reynolds. In September, Reynolds returned to Americano in crisis mode, after the other owners told him the bar was near closing.
Reynolds: By then it'd been losing thousands every month, if not every week. I found out there had been money brought in—but you can't just throw money in if you're losing it. You have to plug the holes.
Thompson: By the time he came in, there was no chance.
Reynolds: It was months too late, the numbers didn't add up, the staff was down to three people. Closing a bar is difficult, way more than building it out…Just closing down doesn't stop all the bills, but if there's no capital to pay staff, purchase ingredients, pay the lease, it's better to move on.
Thompson: Rent is high enough now you have to be making money. At this point in Portland, anytime you open a restaurant you need to be prepared to spend a year in the red. I've opened five restaurants. The ones that succeeded are the ones that came in thinking, we can make it a year. Obviously that didn't happen. We didn't make it a year.
Reynolds: A bar closing like this is—excuse my language—it's fucking ruining. You look at these Yelp reviews—there are real human beings behind this and every business in Portland. You see these petty reviews, I think, can't we all have a little understanding? The Americano closing post on Eater, people were like, "This place never had it together. Fuck this place." I was like, "Dude, I'm still trying to feed my family."
"Try as they might, the developers constructing new buildings aren't able to displace everyone in the neighborhoods who appreciate the more casual vibe of the Central Eastside. I went here a couple times and was totally underwhelmed, which is a shame because I love Hale Pele."
—Vitaminx, Eater commenter
"AMERICANO is for sale as a turnkey operation… Located on East Burnside and 26th, it's right in the heart of a neighborhood that continues to grow with high-density living, car and foot traffic, and many popular restaurants and booming nightlife. Take over the 1390+ sq.ft. space and all its assets for $65K."
—LoopNet real estate posting
Reynolds: Talk about a lesson in ego and humility, to have a bar of the year and to have it shut down so quickly. Everyone will have a perspective—and I'm fairly sure I was the enemy in all of them. I barely talk to them.
Willis: I posted on Facebook on my last day—the final scene of A Comedy of Errors. That's how I'd best describe the Americano experience. It was a comedy of errors. Or, if you lost a lot of money, it was a tragedy of errors.