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Chef Vitaly Paley Has Watched the Pandemic Ravage Downtown, Including His Own Restaurants

The acclaimed restaurateur says the economic fallout of the pandemic is hitting downtown Portland differently than other parts of the city.

WW presents “Distant Voices,” a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they’re doing during quarantine.

Portland didn't necessarily need another restaurant to close to know how badly the pandemic is wrecking the city's dining scene.

But when not even Vitaly Paley can survive unscathed, then you know it's really, really bad.

Last week, the James Beard Award-winning chef announced the closure of two of his restaurants: his pizzeria the Crown, and Imperial, a former WW Restaurant of the Year, both of which are located in downtown's Hotel Lucia.

Related: Imperial, a Cornerstone of Chef Vitaly Paley's Hotel Restaurant Empire, Has Permanently Closed.

The announcement came with no notice or fanfare—just a message in small font at the top of Imperial's website thanking customers for the support.

But the implications reverberated through Portland's food culture.

"The economics of restaurants are mostly a mystery to me," Blazers reporter Casey Holdahl wrote on Twitter, "but if Paley is closing places down…"

Imperial—acclaimed for its wood-fired, Pacific Northwest-inspired cuisine—restarted dine-in service under the state's COVID-19 safety guidelines in July. But with downtown office buildings empty, and no tourists in its host hotel, Paley says the restaurant was doing 20% of the business it was before the shutdown.

"As we're projecting into the future and all the barometers are pointing to the fact that downtown isn't coming back anytime soon," Paley says, "it became apparent a restaurant of our size would need quite a bit of juice to continue to roll. It just became quickly untenable as a business model."

That leaves Paley with three restaurants. Two of them—Headwaters and Rosa Rosa—are also located in downtown hotels, and both remain closed for the foreseeable future.

But his original restaurant, Paley's Place in Nob Hill, is thriving, through a combination of indoor and outdoor dining, takeout and a CSA program.

It's led Paley to believe that, while the economic fallout of the pandemic is being felt in every corner of the city, it's hitting downtown in a different, particularly hard way.

So, should the city do to help? He's not totally sure. But he knows something needs to be done.

"I think the longer we wait for something to happen," Paley says, "the further away we are from the goal of getting our city to an energetic place it needs to be."

See more Distant Voices interviews here.