Call it the Portland Paradox.
At some point, a small, cheap, livable city becomes so desirable everyone decides to move there. So the city becomes larger, more expensive and less accessible.
You've likely heard all this before—only not in a restaurant guide. This year, though, it's the backstory of any clear-eyed look at Portland's food scene.
In the past decade, our city has became a gastronomic hot spot punching far above its weight—boosted in part by the nearness of farms and the sea, and a temperate climate that lets us grow a wide range of seasonal produce. But we've also lured some of the nation's most talented chefs with our reputation as a low-rent paradise where ambitious first-time restaurateurs can experiment without taking on huge debts or risk-averse investors.
Now rents are going up, new overtime rules are thinning margins, and years of bullish openings have left the market a little flabby. Some great restaurants are closing, while successful restaurateurs are dropping ominous predictions about the dark days to come.
In other words, we're growing up, and it's a little scary.
It's not all bad. Being a world food city means we're getting an influx of new people and ideas. Two of Tokyo's best ramen shops have opened their first continental locations in Portland. A Seattle Beard Award finalist traveled south to open a branch of her Korean fusion empire. And Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant Can Fonto announced Portland as the home of its first overseas expansion.
Perhaps most important: What it means to be a Portland restaurant is changing.
Just as the brutal Bush economy made food carts the preferred way for ambitious young chefs to start their career, today's talent is also improvising.
Instead of opening traditional full-service restaurants in this climate, some of the most dedicated young chefs in town are doing pop-ups, which offer them more freedom and flexibility to do something unique. That's the story with our Pop-Up of the Year Mae, which offers diners a unique experience incorporating not only the food but the stories of chef Maya Lovelace's childhood.
Other new restaurateurs are going a different direction—opening more casual, counter-service restaurants with low overhead that nonetheless offer very serious food, like the Southern Thai fried chicken and extraordinary curries at our Pop-In of the Year Hat Yai.
In our continuing efforts to make this guide more useful, this year we've decided to pare our directory down to Portland's top 50 restaurants, and to rank them. We've used the extra space to highlight more of the best spots by cuisine, regardless of whether they're a 'cue cart surrounded by barbed wire or the most expensive steak house in town. We've also added larger features on our favorite counter-service spots.
With all the changes, it's heartening to see there are a few chefs doing exactly what our top-rated restaurant Le Pigeon did 10 years ago, when Gabe Rucker opened on a section of East Burnside still marked as a prostitution corridor on police maps. In a forgotten corner of Southwest, the Peruvian chef behind Paiche, our 2016 Restaurant of the Year, is serving some of the most extraordinary food in Portland, with bright ceviches and wildly innovative causas that are like nothing this town has ever eaten.
—Martin Cizmar and Matthew Korfhage