For almost a year, the sudden and unexplained closure of one of Portland's favorite burger joints has baffled the city's food scene.

Last week, a food writer claimed responsibility—saying he had "killed" Stanich's on Northeast Fremont Street by naming its cheeseburger the best in America on the website Thrillist.

The confession went viral. But it wasn't the full story.

In fact, court records show that owner Steve Stanich's personal life had been spiraling into chaos long before his restaurant landed on the national radar.

Last year, after tasting 330 burgers in 30 cities, San Francisco-based food critic Kevin Alexander said the "Nick's burger" at Stanich's stood above the rest.

"This burger is a national treasure," Alexander wrote in May 2017 for Thrillist, a national men's lifestyle website. "This burger at an old mom-and-pop sports bar that's been sitting in a random Oregon neighborhood since 1949 is the best burger in America."

(Jason Quigley)
(Jason Quigley)

Then in January, Stanich's shuttered for what was announced would be a two-week "deep cleaning." Nearly 11 months later, the bar remains closed.

The closure was a mystery: Long before Thrillist showed up, Stanich's was a high-volume player in the Alameda neighborhood, cranking out its red-relish-topped burgers for a loyal following for decades.

The mystery at Stanich's became a national conversation last week. In a Thrillist article published Nov. 16, Alexander took the blame for "killing" the restaurant with his praise.

Revisiting the bar, Alexander writes that, after his initial story came out, the number of visitors to the restaurant exploded, overwhelming staff and causing interminable waits for food.

"I put a target on their back by naming them number one," wrote Alexander, "and that influx of people messed with the way they'd been running the business for decades."

The tale was picked up by The New York Times, Forbes and National Public Radio, prompting discussions about the responsibility critics hold to the establishments they write about.

But Alexander's explanation missed some important context.
On April 18, 2014, Stanich was arrested for choking his then-wife in front of their then-teenage son at their home in Northeast Portland.
Documents show his wife, then 57, had been a manager at Stanich's for 19 years before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

Stanich pleaded no contest to charges of misdemeanor harassment and strangulation, and was sentenced to four years of probation.

He was prohibited from owning a gun or contacting his wife. He was required to undergo treatment for his drinking, barred from consuming alcohol and, in a stiff prohibition for a bar owner, prohibited from entering establishments that primarily serve alcohol, except for work.

For the past four years, the only bar he was allowed to set foot in was his own.

In an interview with WW, Stanich says his ongoing legal troubles "had absolutely nothing to do" with the closing of the restaurant, adding he and his staff simply "did not handle the pressure" of the increased crowds well.

It's unclear how closely Steve Stanich's personal and professional problems overlap. But by the time of the restaurant's increased exposure, Stanich was struggling.

Stanich and his wife divorced, citing "irreconcilable differences," in 2016. He agreed to give her a family home in Tempe, Ariz., $400,000 in a lump sum and $8,000 a month in support payments—and custody of the family dog, Rambo. But almost immediately, according to his ex-wife's attorney, Stanich tried to renege. He claimed his wife "defrauded" him in claiming to be terminally ill (her doctor confirmed the diagnosis).

He failed to make the required payments. He also tried to hold onto Rambo.

His failure to live up to the terms of the divorce settlement he'd signed led to a December 2016 contempt-of-court charge, and he was ordered to pay $25,324.

Six months after the contempt charge, Alexander declared Stanich's burger the best in the country.

Meanwhile, Stanich, now 70, was also struggling to comply with the terms of his probation. He accrued multiple probation violations—two times for drinking alcohol and once for "offensive contact" with his wife.

On July 25, 2017, two months after the rave review, Stanich was pulled over on Highway 26 in Washington County after weaving across the highway. Stanich said he was returning from a friend's wake, where he had two drinks in honor of the deceased. Asked by the patrol officer if he was allowed to drink alcohol on probation, Stanich said he "thought that had been dropped."

"It would appear drinking is posing more problems for Mr. Stanich and the community than he is currently prepared to admit," his probation officer wrote in a report following the incident.

A Breathalyzer test administered one hour after the traffic stop found his blood-alcohol level at 0.07 percent, just under the legal limit of intoxication. Though he was acquitted of a DUII charge, Stanich was found guilty of reckless driving in April 2018 and sentenced to another two years of probation. His driver's license was suspended for three months, though he successfully argued for a provision allowing him to drive for work purposes.

"I'm trying to reopen our family restaurant," Stanich wrote to the judge on the restaurant's letterhead, "and would appreciate a hardship license to do the shopping for our business."

In his article, Alexander notes that undisclosed "personal problems" contributed to Stanich's closure. Alexander characterized those problems as "the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would've happened regardless of how crowded Stanich's was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be."

Alexander says he was unaware of Stanich's legal troubles, and that they were separate from the "personal problems" alluded to in his piece. But he still believes his original article exacerbated the restaurant's struggles.

"If things were crumbling," Alexander says, "they crumbled faster."

Stanich now tells WW he expected his closure of the restaurant to be brief, but it dragged on because his employees scattered.

"A lot of people disappeared," he says. "I thought they were going to come back to work, and they went in different directions."

Stanich, however, says he plans to reopen Stanich's in December, with a mostly new staff.

"A lot of people don't believe we're going to open up," he says. "I don't really care what anyone else believes. I know what I'm going to do."

Nigel Jaquiss contributed reporting to this story.

Update, 3:50 pm: After this story published, Kevin Alexander clarified that he had "heard there was legal trouble" involving Steve Stanich in 2014, but was unclear as to the extent of those issues until being informed by WW.