The very word "restaurant" comes from the French term for a "restoration," actually a bouillon thought vital to one's physical and mental health. In the 18th century, one went to a restaurant to drink a restorative soup. "Restaurant" was originally both an adjective, as in "revitalizing," and a noun meaning a person who repairs or re-establishes. The
(6th edition, 1835) used as an illustration: "The city had been ruined and the prince rebuilt it. He is its restaurateur." This would make Rudy Giuliani the new principal chef of New York, as well as its restorer of health.
In times of distress and crisis, food has always been a comfort. Janet Flanner, who wrote the Paris Journal for the New Yorker throughout World War II, reported that in the darkest days Parisians kept up their spirits with a fierce concentration on the table. It's no surprise that she once stated, "All over Europe government has become a sort of harried, food-spotted maître d'hôtel fumbling over the menu of what its people will eat next." Flanner's metaphor concealed the more literal truth that returning to normal meant returning to bistro and brasserie. Count on Churchill to make the point: After being informed of the bombing demolition of Coventry Cathedral--as surely a symbol of England as the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have been of the United States--the great prime minister considered for a moment and said, "Let's have lunch. Everything looks better after a meal."
After the shock of Sept. 11, restaurants seemed irrelevant to our concerns, indulgent cravings even somewhat obscene. But increasingly, ever since that divide in our consciousness, restaurants have come to serve a function we had not anticipated, satisfying our need for a community of people with whom to share our meals, either to feel a simple, comforting presence as we break bread in a circle of affection more necessary than ever or simply to talk about the monumental newness in our lives. Restaurants are kinds of collective meeting rooms, and we return to those cherished places where the food lifts our spirits and the surroundings bring us in touch with others of like mind and sense.
In such times I seek out restaurants where spirits sing a little, not hushed cathedrals of culinary reverence. If I imagine places that make me feel happy in that way, a few special oases come to mind. I think of Tapeo, where the close-packed tables at this tapas restaurant constitute not the annoyance they might be in more formal establishments but an invitation, if not exactly to schmoozing with your neighbors, then to camaraderie and good cheer. I have seen people pass plates across tables, drawing others in; but even without such generosity, Tapeo promotes energy and passionate talk.
If it's noise you crave, a scene that's packed and boisterous but with lots of serious, intelligent conversations humming all around you, the bar at Higgins is the spot. With its stupendous beer selection, one of the best bar and bistro lists around, and the full Higgins menu available as well, the bar is usually jammed after work, the strongest signal that life continues. Like its counterpart at the Veritable Quandary, Higgins' bar is the zone for informed, animated conversation, and for downtown people-watching and people-hearing.
The bar or cafe in Paley's Place is more sedate, but there are bound to be interesting folks around, and no other hostess in Portland can make you so welcomed as Kimberly Paley. Even if it's your first time, you will feel gathered into the arms of a genial family. The fact that Paley's is one of the best restaurants in town doesn't hurt, either. Go to the bar for a late supper of the freshest oysters imaginable and a sparkling duck salad, or a homemade soup and Platonic French fries. You'll immediately respond to the simple, unaffected warmth of the place.
If you seek to lose yourself in a euphoric mob, consider Sunday brunch at Legin. This immense Chinese restaurant, which reminds one of the gaudy palaces of Kowloon, is Portland's strongest contender for a family-values prize. You'll note scores of tables with three generations in attendance, the children as well-behaved as their elders, and everyone delighted by the steady stream of carts rolling up to their table, bearing not only the standard steamed dim sum delicacies but crab, duck and giant stuffed oysters as well.
Count on Italians to foster sprezzatura, that effortless art which makes for inspired playfulness. A cluster of trattorias in town are always joyful and gala. Caffe Mingo in Northwest, Piazza Italia in the Pearl, and Assaggio and Gino's anchoring Sellwood are all high-spirited, their earthy homecooking inspiring the impulse to get into a conversation with people at the next table. Especially at Piazza Italia, where Thursday nights are dedicated to using Italian as the sole language, the need to get help or commiseration from across the room may cause you to do the unexpected--pour your new friends a little of your wine, or invite them to have an espresso on you.
In troubled times, nothing soothes like the maternal touch, and so a final place to dispel gloom and offer a communal bond is the archetypically named Mother's. With photographs of mother figures surrounding the room, and the most doggedly comforting food in town (from matzo-ball soup to chopped liver to pot roast), you'll feel swathed in a materfamilial embrace. The only foods missing from childhood will be junket and Jell-O.
Everyone has his or her favorite comfort restaurant to soothe jangled nerves. The extreme edginess will be softened in time, but it's good to remind ourselves that food has always been a way to restore community, not necessarily united in purpose but certainly in the sheer pleasure of being with one another.