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Introduction: Wait, are you sure you want the burger?

Here we are at Portland’s hottest new restaurant, Allegory. It’s a busy Friday night, but somehow we landed a booth below the taxidermied cast of Bambi. The menu—individually typed on a vintage Smith Corona by our server—is huge and everything looks great. And you want the burger? Yes, it has house-cured bacon and cheese from a local creamery. The bun comes from the best bakery in town. But it’s a burger. Are you going to douse it with ketchup, too?

Portland does a wonderful job fancying up comfort food—the New York Post recently called our city “a 12-year-old’s dream.” Farm-to-table tuber salad, Kobe burgers topped with matsutake mushrooms, ice-cream sundaes flavored with lavender from the Gorge—we’ve ridden this shtick through glossy pages and on to international fame. And we do it better than anyone, which is why this guide includes at least 30 restaurants serving such fare. But the problem with inspiring a theme restaurant in Canada—yes, there is a place in Vancouver, B.C., called Portland Craft that sells beet-topped burgers, cheddar grits and braised pork belly—is that it means our act has become predictable. Imitable is forgettable. Mighty though our gastropolis is at the moment, let’s not spend too much time resting our pork chop on a bed of bay laurels.

The crowd always wants to hear the hits—which is why so many of this town’s best restaurants offer bistro burgers—but failing to create something new charts a path from arenas to county fairs. Madonna reinvented herself; Martika didn’t.

Please, pause to marvel at how far Portland has come in a decade. Enjoy last year’s Restaurant of the Year, Podnah’s Pit, a prime-cut barbecue joint owned by a restaurateur who clawed his way up from a humble food cart to a chic space serving the city’s best comfort food. But let’s push things forward, too.

This year’s Restaurant of the Year, Aviary, and the runner-up, Smallwares, do just that. They have much in common, namely bold, Asia-influenced flavors in sampler-size portions from chefs trained in alpha cities. Both Aviary and Smallwares are totally out of step with Portland’s most Portlandy restaurants—and we like that. Both restaurants are selling new flavors and experiences instead of soft and familiar comforts. Give one or both a try. And, please, let us know what you think. We had a lively internal debate about which restaurant is better, and welcome your feedback on our decision.

If those menus don’t appeal to you, that’s fine. This guide has 96 other wonderful restaurants. All restaurants are listed alphabetically, with indexes also by cuisine and neighborhood. If you’re looking for more information on our city’s bars and carts or how to eat on the cheap, wait for those guides—each gets its very own. Hours and prices are accurate as of Oct. 5, 2012, but please consider double-checking before you drive across town. And wherever you end up, please consider ordering something other than the burger.

—Martin Cizmar


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