Portland's most exciting new food hall is…well, not in Portland.
It's also not a food hall in the traditional sense—missing is the cavernous hull that would be crammed with a carnival midway's variety of vendors grilling, griddling and frying up dishes around the perimeter, while long tables take up nearly every inch of space in the center. Eight months into a pandemic, such crowded, communal experiences now seem almost foreign.
But you can get the unfettered thrill of plate hopping in Beaverton—and, no, we're not talking about a greasy cafeteria inside of a mall. One of Portland's larger suburbs—and arguably one of the most tepid, with a dining scene dominated by Olive Garden and Outback—has been quietly amassing a collection of the Rose City's best spinoff restaurants in the heart of its Old Town.
When the COVID-19 outbreak prompted a pavilion to sprout in the main drag, it created the perfect opportunity for people to abandon the normal requirement to stick with one dining room for the duration of their dinner. You can now cavort from restaurant to restaurant, collecting an assortment of spectacular dishes never before assembled for the same feast that you'll unfurl and enjoy in the road.
"The city's got a pretty strong strategy for recruiting restaurants in particular," says Kevin Teater, executive director for the Beaverton Downtown Association. "It's been a huge boost to the district, with people realizing they don't have to go into Portland anymore. They can stay right here in their hometown."
Whatever wooing methods Beaverton has relied on, they must be downright seductive. In the past two years, Old Town has landed Ex Novo Brewing, Big's Chicken, Top Burmese and, just last month, Afuri Izakaya. Indian-inspired eatery the Sudra is set to join them in 2021. That cluster of Portland establishments have all put down new roots a pot sticker's throw away from longtime Korean favorite, Nak Won.
Placing a seating area—dubbed the 1st Street Dining Commons—in the middle of them became one of those rare, glee-filled side effects of the pandemic, for customers and businesses alike. A city of Beaverton survey about the one-block space sent to owners of establishments in the area as well as members of the community found that 95% of respondents appreciated the setup. For many, it appears to be one of the few things they have to look forward to as days grow shorter and darker.
"A rather large majority said that they would still come out and eat out there even if it's cold and rainy," Teater says, "because they need someplace to go."
For businesses, the collection of tents and tables proved to be more critical. The same questionnaire asked those operators whether the commons had been beneficial to their bottom line.
"Many of them who only even neighbor the space, some of whom are not even restaurants, said that it was a huge boost to their business because it drew people downtown," Teater explains. "Some actually said, 'Without this outdoor dining area, we wouldn't have been able to stay in business.' They just would not have been able to see a way forward."
The idea to shut off a portion of the street to vehicles in favor of foot traffic came early on during the pandemic in a video call meeting. The downtown association and local businesses took the concept to city officials, and in June, the orange barricades went up.
In late October, 1st Street looked like a concert stage that had lost its band. That was undoubtedly due to the fact that Portland Productions, which handles everything from the rigging to the risers at music events, supplied the equipment, including silver box trusses that hold up the awnings and purple DJ-style party lights. Lionheart Coffee Company, where you can order a beer or avocado toast or both, oversees the space, with employees setting up and breaking down the furniture daily, sanitizing surfaces every two hours, and taking out the trash. Afuri joined as co-partner Nov. 1. Both businesses encourage people to use the commons as a physically distanced food court.
"This summer, we would commonly see families eating together with food from two to three different restaurants," says Lauren Reese, Lionheart's owner, "something not practicable pre-COVID, and something so special to this space."
So from your outdoor table, you could begin with an appetizer of golden samosas from Top Burmese; move on to a tangle of chewy ramen noodles swimming in a hazelnut broth courtesy of Afuri; then tackle a Detroit-style pizza as thick as a Stephen King novel baked by Ex Novo. If you're not completely stuffed at that point, finish the tour with a Petunia's pastry sold at Lionheart.
If there's any time when scarfing down an entire smorgasbord from nearly a half-dozen places was not only socially acceptable, but also commendable as the restaurant industry continues to struggle, it is now. Go ahead and fulfill your civic duty.
Number of seats: 72
Distance between tables/seats: At least 6 feet
Safety measures: Staff sanitize the tables and chairs every two hours; two sanitizer stations have spray bottles filled with cleaning fluid and hand sanitizer for patrons.
Peak hours: 5-8 pm
EAT: 1st Street Dining Commons, Southwest 1st Street between Watson and Washington Avenues, downtownbeaverton.org/blog/dining-commons. 7 am-8 pm daily.