In the cursed summer of 2020, Portland restaurants are doing what they can to survive.
In some cases, that means spinning off outdoor patio spaces into bold, original new concepts, rewriting the menu playbook and taking chances on risky new forms of self-expression. Others are simply trying to perform a best version of their ideal selves under considerable strain, to offer plague-era restaurant realness in real time.
And then there's Piggins.
Piggins is the parkside pop-up patio reimagining of Higgins, a Portland dining landmark since 1994. Chef Greg Higgins and co-owners Greg and Paul Mallory helped set the stage for the kind of cuisine that came to define Portland in the early 21st century: fiercely seasonal, unabashedly meaty farm-to-table cooking before the term was cool. In 2018, I called Higgins "a testament to the city's sophistication as a restaurant town," a statement I stand by now, even in these strange days.
Remove the paper plates, plastic forks, considerable care taken with social distancing, and the mask-clad staff and this would double as a passing fancy—a fun summer pop-up idea from any other normal year. Of course, Piggins should take over the patio at the Oregon History Museum! A patio version of Higgins—what a lark! Aside from all this pandemic business necessitating its existence, it's just a great idea.
Journeying to Piggins thus becomes a kind of act of cognitive dissonance. Yes, we're clad in masks and socially distanced. Yes, the world is forever changed. But check in with your maitre d' and soon you'll be seated parkside at one of Piggins' quaint, cozy tables, available in two-tops with a view of the park, or four-tops nestled towards the entryway of the museum. There, you can order a proper lunch martini, cool and dry and made with high-quality gin of your choosing, or enjoy a Diet Coke on ice served tall. You can even peruse Higgins' famed bottled-beer list, or select a wine from its well-curated cellar. A nice riesling lunch? Hey, you've earned it!
From there, enjoy a greatest-hits package of some of the restaurant's most beloved dishes packed into a food cart kitchen—decked out in wood paneling and ivy green, to evoke the Higgins' restaurant interior—with no big chances taken, no vast departures accorded. It is the perfect luncheon here in our new shared reality where things feel the same but everything is different.
The Higgins Salad with Oregon blue cheese and Oregon walnuts ($12) is still on the menu, and thank goodness. You can also enjoy what has been, for the past 20 years, our city's best charcuterie plate ($24, serves two). There's a range of burgers and sandwiches ($12 to $18) like turkey schnitzel with Walla Walla onions and pickle relish, or a salmon burger on brioche.
Things are different, and yet the same. Higgins, as well as Piggins, remains the city's premier downtown lunch establishment, even under considerable societal duress. The service is amiable and friendly, regardless of masks. The drinks are perfect and sophisticated, from the Argyle brut ($15) to the little bottle of Chimay White ($8) served cool in imported Belgian glassware.
But the most important menu item on the bill of fare at Piggins is the one it can't very well charge you for. It's the dignity of a restaurant lunch even in the worst of times, as society seems to be crumbling around us. A bistro salad, a nice sandwich, perhaps a glass of wine—these are the little things that make city life worth living. And this year in particular? They're priceless.
Number of tables: 10, a mixture of two-tops and four tops, most protected from the sun by a network of green and tan umbrellas.
Space between tables: 6-10 feet, with ample space for egress afforded.
Additional safety measures: Plastic-wrapped silverware and paper plates; masked server staff; careful wipe-downs and cleaning between each table turn.
Peak hours: Both lunch and dinner get busy. Make a booking online before you go.
EAT: Piggins by Higgins, 1239 SW Broadway, 503-222-9070, higginsportland.com. 11:30 am-8 pm daily.