Best for: A tapas tour of Barcelona and the best paella in town.
José Chesa moves through his compact Northwest Portland dining room with the grace of a trained dancer yet also the stealth of an orchestra conductor. The Spanish-born chef seemingly never stops his well-timed choreography—he's there to open the door for an arriving customer, deliver dishes, bus tables and simply circle the space to keep a well-trained eye on food execution and satisfied looks on diners' faces. But leading without distracting is what makes Chesa a true maestro. Even on a Tuesday, the Barcelona native directs dinner in a packed house. When you arrive, put in for one of Ataula's substantial platters that takes more time to prepare, like Spain's arguably most famous dish, paella, or the rossejat if you're in the mood to explore, then order tapas with abandon. Eating the milky-white liquid spheres of xeese ($12) is like revisiting your first kiss—both sensual and electrifying, though it may take some practice to get the execution right. "Make sure the whole thing is in your mouth," my server warns, "before you pop it. I don't want to see you ruin your outfit." Salted cod croquettes ($9) with crisp shells encasing gooey centers are nearly as big as goose eggs, and come packed in a four-count carton with smoky piquillo aioli for dipping. You can think of the montadito ($10) as a miniature open-faced sandwich: Crackerlike glass bread is iced with a yogurt mascarpone and then layered in house-cured salmon that pushes back against the sweetness. By the time the rossejat ($36) arrives, there's a good chance you'll be stuffed. It's a good thing the traditional Catalan dish of toasted noodles, chicken and chorizo is excellent when reheated the next day. ANDI PREWITT.
Best for: Boundaryless cuisine prepared with boundless creativity.
Sarah Pliner, chef and owner of Aviary, doesn't gladhand in her simply decorated dining room. In fact, she rarely leaves the kitchen. Her low profile is a shame, really, because Aviary has been one of the top shops in town for years, consistently serving creative, seasonally changing dishes (plus a few standbys) that incorporate ingredients and ideas from around the world. One of the standards from the opening-day menu, a casserole of coconut rice, pig ear, Chinese sausage and avocado ($22), is as delicious as it is distinctive. Another standby of more recent vintage, a foie gras hum bao ($7), is also a knockout. Vegetarians can find ample rewards at Aviary, such as a recent snap pea and cantaloupe dish ($15) enhanced with an Indian-accented lime pickle vinaigrette, or your table of produce-preferring friends can take down the four-course vegetarian tasting menu that runs $40 per person. And let's not forget lobster roll ($20) Wednesdays, when you can get a plump bun filled with lobster salad accompanied by golden-fried potato wedges. MICHAEL C. ZUSMAN.
Best for: Vibrant Peruvian classics and tangy pisco sours.
Located next to Interstate 5 between a cheapo cellphone shop and a leather daddy bar, Casa Zoraya seems the last place one would expect an Andina alum to succeed with an unfussy Peruvian restaurant she runs with her family. The food is elegant and unhurried in spite of its surroundings, resulting in a dining experience as soulful as it is unpretentious. A colorful plate of ceviche ($23), which bursts to life with contrasting flavors of fresh lime juice, crispy corn and soft Alaskan halibut, is generally the best place to start, but a vegetable dish made with one of Zoraya's signature ají chile sauces should be an auto-include as well. On a recent visit, the menu featured picante de hongos ($18), a mushroom and corn cake dish garnished with avocado, almond and mozzarella that softened the delicate tinge of the sauce. To wash it all down is a quartet of pisco sours ($12-$14), which come in flavors like tart passionfruit, gently spiced ginger or a traditional chicha morada that puts the purple corn of Chile and Peru to good use in its drinkable form. PETE COTTELL.
Best for: Spanish food, à la carte, and wines by the glass in one of Portland's original small-plates restaurants.
In a city replete with small-plate restaurants, it's easy to forget that Navarre was, in many ways, the progenitor. Opened in 2002, the restaurant eschewed traditional menus and fancy French terms in exchange for a list of dishes with boxes to check for either small or large orders and food simply named "pork" or "bird." Today it maintains its relevance in a saturated city by offering well-executed French-, Spanish- and Italian-inspired cuisine as well as an extensive wine list—probably the best by-the-glass list in town. With a close relationship to local farms, its quality is in its simplicity—a seared duck breast garnished with huckleberry sauce ($17, $51), a few pieces of aged cheese with some Ken's bread ($1, $3), or the trout in parchment ($12, $36), which has been a staple for years. About half the menu is consistent, the other changes day by day based on ingredients and the chef's whims. ALEX FRANE.
Best for: New American cuisine in a casual setting—a standout among restaurants along North Mississippi Avenue.
Quaintrelle, which refers to a woman of passion, has found new energy under chef Ryley Eckersley. This was probably the necessary move as the nondescript storefront along a destination street hasn't generated a lot of buzz over the years. Another part of the problem has been the seasonal/local "New American" mantra. The label has become so common, it is difficult to rise above the crowd. At least Eckersley is trying. A late-summer dinner was solid, featuring produce that was clearly farm fresh. Burrata cheese with heirloom tomato, peaches, shishito peppers and chanterelles ($17) was as colorful as it was flavorful. Likewise, an unusual combination of seared albacore with more peach and peppers in a Thai coconut-curry broth ($26). Areas where Quaintrelle could do better would be platings that are more attractively composed and perhaps fewer components on each plate. MICHAEL C. ZUSMAN.
Tasty n Daughters
Best for: John Gorham's globe-trotting menu in the former Woodsman Tavern space.
Tasty was Portland's "all-day restaurant" long before the all-day restaurant was a thing. Tasty n Daughters, which opened in early 2019, is also a pretty different experience from the now-departed Tasty n Sons, especially at dinner. Where Sons felt like an ambitious diner, Daughters, in the old Woodsman Tavern space, is more clubby (think: Higgins' bar), with an elevated menu (I refuse to say "bougie" in WW) that nods to all of chef John Gorham's most beloved culinary regions, including Italy, Morocco and the American South. Depending on what you order, you're either at a steakhouse (during my visit, there was an impeccable flat iron for $21 and prime rib for $30), a blue-plate restaurant (blackened catfish with fried okra, red beans and Carolina gold rice; $19), a Sunday-gravy joint (rigatoni with baby back ribs ragu, $22) or a Turkish pizza place (lahmajoun with beef and lamb, spicy red pepper and harissa yogurt sauce; $13). An extensive bourbon list is organized by distillery, which makes it that much easier to ignore the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year ($35) and go for the Weller at half the price ($17). JASON COHEN.
Best for: A long list of top-shelf tapas that'll keep you coming back to try them all.
Before Tasty n Daughters, Tasty n Alder, Mediterranean Exploration Company, Shalom Y'All and Bless Your Heart Burgers, restaurateur John Gorham got the city hooked on tasty bites with the small plates at Toro Bravo. A dozen years ago, it was WW's Restaurant of the Year, and it still delivers on the concept of Spanish-inspired tapas. Though known for its hulking Josper oven, as well as the succulent meats cooked in it, Toro Bravo can still stun with vegetables and dishes in which proteins play a supporting role. Classics include the Toro Kiss ($3), a bacon-wrapped date with an almond center and potatoes bravas ($5, $9), which come in a fresh, bright tomato sauce drenched with creamy aioli—think of this as an elevated version of ketchup and mayo on fries. The butter lettuce salad ($12) has a herbaceous green goddess dressing accented by red onions and a hidden dessert of candied walnuts. Perhaps the best thing on the menu on a recent night was the braised heirloom beans ($10) with tomato sauce, jamon and decadent crème fraîche butter. RACHEL MONAHAN.
Best for: Authentic Spanish tapas and one of the best wine lists on Alberta.
It's fair for someone who's never spent a night bar-hopping in San Sebastián to assume the word "tapas" is just Spanish for "small and overpriced." Urdaneta peels back decades of chichi American eateries referring to anything fried, dippable and undersized as such by presenting a full display of timeless tapas in their purest form, which is to say they taste great with a snifter of sherry and are gone before you know it. A sober assessment of the menu reveals timeless delights like grilled octopus pulpo ($8) and razor-thin Iberico ham ($15, $30). Down a couple glasses of Hidalgo Napoleon Amontillado ($12) or Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximenez ($16) and you're more likely to heed the call of fired eggplant with maple syrup and house ranch ($12) or pork spare ribs with a garnish of pickled peaches and arrope-sherry caramel ($17), which are best served with, well, even more sherry. PETE COTTELL.