Smallwares, a Portland heir to famed New York restaurant Momofuku in more ways than one—chef Johanna Ware cooked at the famed at their noodle bar before starting her restaurant in Portland—was our 2012 runner-up for Restaurant of the Year, when we called her cooking "good enough to change how Portlanders look at unfamiliar dishes."
Last year, we named their signature dish—a beautiful riot of fried kale, candied bacon, mint and fish sauce—one of the 12 Wonders of Portland Food.
Ware announced news of the restaurant's closure in a long Facebook post today—beginning with lyrics from "Ivy" by Frank Ocean.
"Yes this is a song about a first love," Ware wrote, "and Smallwares was sort of mine. I should have closed many times over the years but I just couldn't because I loved it so much, maybe too much. I gave everything to it."
When we reached her today, Ware said she'd spent the afternoon getting messages of support on her phone, getting "choked up."
"I don't want to put any more money in," she tells WW, and beyond the bare minimum she needs to pay rent, she says she hasn't drawn a paycheck in months. "I would give myself what I needed for rent, but I'd take myself on and off payroll. If I can't even pay myself, it's time."
Ware says the Beaumont neighborhood—not typically home to adventurous fare or fine dining—had always been a difficult fit, and that compared to Hawthorne or Division streets you "can hear a pin drop on Fremont" at 3 pm on a Sunday.
But it's also a matter of the food culture there.
"I watch people walk up to the window to look at the menu and make a disgusted face, which is really disheartening," she told us back in 2012. "We joke about putting a fake menu in the window with, like, hamburgers and hot dogs. Once people get in they enjoy it, but they have to go in first."
Ware says this isn't the first time she considered closing, but that this summer was particularly rough. "We had a really awful summer—just awful," she says.
"One of the first times I thought we'd have to close was September 2012," she tells WW. "You guys telling us we'd win Restaurant of the Year runner-up made me think we could do it. But even getting through that September was really hard."
On her Facebook farewell, she heartily thanks her staff and regulars, but writes, "I can't tell you how depressing it is to work so hard on the menu and look out to an empty dining room, and try and convince your staff it's OK. So it is time to put an end to the feeling of constantly drowning and honestly I can already start to feel the relief."
Ware says she doesn't know what she'll do next—but she's in no hurry to get back in the kitchen.
"Part of me is like, 'I don't ever want to open a restaurant again,'" Ware says at first, but then reconsiders a little. "I'd love to do something that's the same concept in a way, a little different. It would take getting an investor. [Smallwares] was homegrown between me and my mom… I did the follow your passion, work hard, make no money. I'd like to work less and get paid more."
The restaurant will continue service through Saturday, Sept. 24. "We'll throw some kind of party," Ware tells WW. "Especially with our old staff members, friends and family. But there's still a lot of work to do. It's harder to close than open sometimes."
You can read Ware's full farewell message here.