Winter in Portland isn't exactly "cabana weather."
At Eem, though, it's easy to pretend. In response to state-mandated restrictions on indoor service, and the coming rainy season, the lauded Thai restaurant installed individualized dining pods last fall at the intersection of North Williams Avenue and Failing Street—plywood and corrugated plastic structures co-owner Eric Nelson refers to as "nuggets of paradise."
Built and designed by Sitthisak "Nuii" Phoonkwan, the contractor behind each of Eem co-owner Earl Ninsom's joints, the Thai-inspired pods are intimate and made for single parties. The restaurant invested about $10,000 in the infrastructure with longevity in mind.
"We didn't put [the pods] out there as a lifeline for fall." Nelson says. "We put them out as a lifeline for January."
Nelson says this time of year is usually the slowest, even pre-pandemic. Swing by on any night this month, though, and you wouldn't know it. Eem still doesn't take reservations, and it can take two hours to get a seat.
It's worth the wait, for both the food and the experience. Eem crafted it to feel special, while keeping safety in mind—each pod is aired out for five to 10 minutes between parties, and fumigated with a disinfectant fogger at night. And having proven that it is possible to dine outdoors year-round, Eem plans to leave the pods up for good.
"We'll paint them and make them permanent structures here," Nelson says. "We're gonna keep them around forever."
➊ The Skeleton
The pod is a rectangular prism as deep as the picnic table within it, and wide enough for diners to stand behind the benches on either side. Two of the four plywood sides are covered in corrugated plastic, including the crucial south-facing wall, to keep out rain. The roof is made of the same material, presumably percussive if eating during a drizzle.
➋ The "Sneeze Guard"
The width of the table is flanked by a perpendicular plastic panel with a 10-inch slit for service. "We put this on here to protect our people from handing food to customers, so we're not, like, breathing on people," Nelson says. Orders arrive on a red tray, slid through the window.
➌ The Doors
Each pod has two plywood doors, and stepping through feels like entering a child's playhouse–the fit is tight.
➍ The Fire
Each pod is outfitted with a rectangle of fire placed atop the table—pebbles inside a glass rim with flames running across. The fire is costly–Eem is losing money each day on these heaters, but according to Nelson, "it's not about us trying to budget these things in, it's about us making a comfortable place for people to eat."
➎ The Airstreams
Eem followed federal ventilation guidelines when it first built the pods in September 2020. When restaurants were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining Dec. 3, the Oregon Health Authority mandated that outdoor dining structures have at least 75% of the square footage of its sides open for airflow. Accordingly, Eem has punched out panels and ensured flow at the roof seams.
EAT: Eem, 3808 N Williams Ave., Suite 127, 971-295-1645, eempdx.com. 11 am-9 pm daily.