Few places in Portland can brag they look better now than they did before the pandemic began. Cartopia is an exception.
On a brisk winter’s evening, the cart pod on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard has a chic vibe best described as “Zooey Deschanel’s wedding reception.” Twinkling lights are strung above planters of bamboo. The smells of rotisserie chicken, fish-sauce tater tots and wood-fired pizza waft from once-mobile kitchens now sheltered in shiplap. Groups share piles of poutine around covered fire pits.
The place doesn’t feel like a cart pod—it’s an upscale food hall that happens to be outdoors.
Perhaps more than most cities, Portland was ready to pivot to al fresco dining. More than 1,050 businesses, mostly restaurants and bars, participated in the city’s “Street Seats” program, which moved dining rooms onto parking spaces and sidewalks. Sure, some of these are little more than sheds. But when I compare notes with friends in other burgs, they’re shocked by how elaborate the setups are at places like Northwest Portland’s Cafe Nell—which moved its entire dining room outdoors, complete with a cocktail bar in what was once a parking lot—or the Woodlawn neighborhood’s Tamale Boy, where the wooden deck is twice the size of the indoor seating area.
The effect, if you’re in a good mood or at least had a Manhattan before dinner, is that Portland’s restaurant scene took a Hawaiian vacation, and we’re all at the poolside bar. Please let the pandemic end, but the patios can stay.
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