Under a small-town Texan chef named Doug Adams, Imperial became the big-city hotel restaurant Portland never achieved even in the heyday of the old Heathman.
If Clyde Common at the Ace was designed to distract you from the fact it landed in a hotel, Imperial became our 2015 Restaurant of the Year because it murdered its role as a grand-halled ambassador to decades of Portland dining while still kicking out stunning, inspired surprises like a beer-braised elk shank. And unlike other fine spots in town, Imperial does it from morning to night.
The restaurant kicks off each weekday at 6:30 am with delicate brûléed grapefruit ($4) and Dungeness crab omelets ($18), and ends at 11 pm with a late-night happy hour so generous it feels like a mistake: a $4 liver pâté that inspires hundred-dollar ecstasies, $5 Vieux Carré cocktails that could raise the spirits of New Orleans more than 2,000 miles away, and a cheese-and-pickle $6 flat-top burger whose flavor dwarfs burgers twice its price.
Nonetheless the mighty machine is grinding a bit these days, as it lost chef Adams this July when he left to start another hotel restaurant called Bullard. On one of several recent visits, a fish-sauced cod special ($22) lacked both ideas and flavor. And with Paley's team stretched thin by opening yet another big hotel restaurant—seafood spot Headwaters—service was less on-point than previously.
But wood-fired grill meats like a succulent Tails and Trotters pork secretto ($31) remain some of the most beautiful protein in town, and Adams' recipe for honeyed-and-hot-sauced fried chicken ($19) could still make Grandma slump in shame. We'll have to see what happens under just-named chef de cuisine Matthew Jarrell.
Eat: The fried chicken ($19, or $8 at happy hour), a couple of the housemade Parker rolls with brown butter ($1), plus ember-roasted potatoes and grill meat of choice.
Drink: With the wood-fired meats, double down on smoke with New Money, a smoked-vermouth take on the Manhattan.
Most popular dish: After multiple tries, Imperial was too busy to answer. Just get the fried chicken.
Noise level: 50/100. The room is always packed with upward of 100 diners, but it's remarkably good at absorbing sound.
Expected wait: Reservations are usually available same-day, but don't expect to walk in on a Friday without an hour wait.
Who you'll eat with: Boutique-hotel denizens, tatted bartenders downing happy-hour burgers and tap tails, West Hillsers eating steak and potatoes, a conference of dentists in the back room.
Year opened: 2012