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.
Day in, day out, Vitaly Paley's restaurant on the bottom floor of downtown's Hotel Lucia is a wood-fired, scratch-made machine that turns out a greater volume of sheer luxury than any other restaurant in Portland.
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
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