For more than half a century, Stanich's has been known locally as one of Portland's best burger joints. It opened on Northeast Fremont Street in 1949 and has appeared frozen in time ever since—the decor along with the food.
But for almost a year, Stanich's has existed in a state of purgatory. In January, the restaurant closed for what was said to be a two-week "deep cleaning." Nearly 11 months later, it's still closed, leading the city's food media to wonder aloud just what the hell is going on.
Turns out, the place was damned by high praise.
In an article published today, Thrillist food critic Kevin Alexander takes part of the blame for the bar's sudden shuttering. In 2017, Alexander, who is based in Boston and San Francisco according to his Twitter bio, criss-crossed the country in search of America's best burger. He found it at Stanich's. He deemed their classic Nick's Cheeseburger "a national treasure," praising the ground chuck and grilled onions and describing the combo of mayo, mustard and red relish as "a mixture of sweet and salty flavors I haven't experienced anywhere else."
Although it's served celebrities ranging from Michael Jordan to Dan Rather during its lifetime, the honorarium put the tavern on the national radar for the first time. And apparently, it was ill-equipped to handle all the attention.
Earlier this year, in The Oregonian, second-generation owner Steve Stanich described the accolade as a "curse" and "the worst thing that's ever happened to us." Wait times ballooned, health inspectors started looking at them more closely, and random internet trolls began writing scathing reviews online.
That prompted Alexander to write what is effectively a mea culpa. In the new article, the writer revisits Stanich's, using it as a jumping-off point to critique digital media's obsession with best-of lists and examine the responsibility critics hold to the establishments they write about.
In the process, Alexander gives us some insight into just what the hell has been going on at Stanich's:
"Apparently, after my story came out, crowds of people started coming in the restaurant, people in from out of town, or from the suburbs, basically just non-regulars. And as the lines started to build up, his employees—who were mainly family members—got stressed out, and the stress would cause them to not be as friendly as they should be, or to shout out crazy long wait times for burgers in an attempt to maybe convince people to leave, and as this started happening, things fell by the wayside. Dishes weren't cleared quickly, and these new people weren't having the proper Stanich's experience, and Steve would spend his entire day going around apologizing and trying to fix things. They might pay him lip service to his face, but they were never coming back so they had no problem going on Yelp or Facebook and denouncing the restaurant and saying that the burgers were bad. And then the health department came in and suggested they do some deep cleaning (he still got a 97 rating, he told me), and the combination of all of these factors led Stanich to close down the restaurant for what he genuinely thought would be two weeks.
And then, in a quieter voice, he started to explain why it wasn't just two weeks. He asked me not to reveal the details of that story, but I can say that there were personal problems, 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. Stanich explained that, as these issues were going on in the background, it was hard to read the social media screeds attacking them, and listen to the answering machine messages at the restaurant calling him a fat fuck and telling him to fuck himself for closing his own restaurant. He didn't care about them, he insisted. He only cared about people like that woman who'd shown up, the regulars who live in NE Portland. 'I need to take care of the people who took care of me,' he said. "They don't turn on you.'"
According to Alexander, Stanich is considering either partnering with another restaurant operator to open back up or potentially franchising, but notes that the restaurant "will likely not re-open."
Read the full article here.