Before there was Ken's Artisan and Apizza Scholls, before "cheese pizza" became "margherita" and buffalo mozzarella bubbled in wood-fired ovens, a hole-in-the-wall pie joint on Northwest 23rd Avenue started Portland's pizza obsession. In 1983, Phil Geffner, now 54, and his sister Lauren opened Escape From New York Pizza, serving NYC-style slices—thin-crusted, floppy and huge. It was the first place in Portland to serve pizza by the slice. In the 26 years since, the restaurant has become a Portland institution, both for its pioneering pies and the Old Portland ethic it embodies.
Geffner hitchhiked from New York City to Portland in 1978 after his job selling cotton candy for Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey grew stale. He'd wanted to relocate somewhere sunny but found himself happy in Portland despite the drizzle. "I couldn't believe how beautiful it was," he says.
For $150 a month, Geffner rented a two-bedroom apartment at Southeast 14th Avenue and Madison Street. He got a day job teaching kids with behavioral problems in Gresham, but always the hustling entrepreneur, he also converted his bike into an ice cream cart and started slinging frozen treats on the side. Geffner's ice cream earnings soon exceeded his teaching salary.
"I just knew I couldn't do things the standard way," says Geffner. "I knew I had to find a niche and do something a little differently. The status quo wasn't going to work for me."
New York's Lower East Side, Geffner's home before Portland, was lined with places where people from all walks of life ate side by side—something he saw lacking in Portland. "There was a place where the rich went, a place where the poor went, where punk kids went, but there wasn't a place where everyone went," he says.
Geffner set out to fill that void with a pizza joint named for a B-grade 1981 action flick. In the movie, one-eyed hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) must rescue the president of the United States from a Manhattan that's been walled into a prison. Geffner borrowed the title as a reference to his own exodus from Gotham, and like the movie, his pizzeria quickly earned a loyal cult following. When it opened, people queued around the block.
The restaurant's significance extends beyond pizza. Before Northwest 23rd Avenue was invaded by upscale chain stores in the '90s, the street was an eclectic cultural center of independent businesses, and Geffner's shop was a hub. Elliott Smith and Courtney Love dropped in for slices, and it was not uncommon for Geffner to spearhead impromptu parades and parties. Today, both a Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Bed and Bath have sprouted, and the iconic Music Millennium record store has been vacated. But Escape From New York still proudly abides, as both an anchoring destination and a reminder of what the street once was.
Reflecting on his 31 years in the city, Geffner says, "I would like Portland to not keep growing, be more human and less business and go, go, go. But it's not anybody's place to say, 'I want this place to stay the same.'"
Even as Portland continues its evolution at breakneck pace, Escape From New York has stayed uncannily, comfortingly the same.