Well, it's not the beer.
The most common explanation for why brewery taprooms struggle to deliver roundly excellent food is that they spend more time sweating their suds—not just their raison d'etre but the fount of all meaningful profit margins.
Wayfinder upends that idea, and a few others. The shiny new Central Eastside Industrial District brewpub comes from a team that includes the affable and experienced Charlie Devereux, formerly of Double Mountain, plus Rodney Muirhead, whose Podnah's Pit rose from a humble cart to become our Restaurant of the Year back in 2011.
Wayfinder has some very good food, great cocktails and very good collaboration beers. It does not yet have its own beer—brewmaster Kevin Davey has been collaborating all over town while waiting for his own system to be installed. It has some overly ambitious entrees that don't quite deliver while doing a great job with standard pub fare.
Here's a map for the menu.
Wayfinder was scheduled to open in the spring (in April, the Portland Mercury reported it was "a few weeks from opening") but didn't actually crack its doors until October. It's nearly 2017, and we still haven't had a purebred Pilsner from Davey, whose impressive résumé includes a stop at Chuckanut, the standout lagerhaus in Bellingham, Wash. But the collabs he's done so far are impressive, especially a cloudy Bernie Bro IPA made with Zoiglhaus and a hoppy Pils made with Gigantic.
On four visits, we've had most of the menu. None of the fish dishes has quite worked. A disastrous albacore ($19) from the opening menu—ordered medium rare but served gray, without a hint of pink—was wisely scrapped. But even a recent grilled sockeye ($17) was a touch overcooked and quickly grew cold sandwiched between a heap of chilly chimichurri and pile of charred broccoli.
Seek: Beer cocktails
Working the big, woody bar, you'll find local institution Jacob Grier, who literally wrote the book on beer cocktails. Grier is one of the most reassuring sights in this city—he's always got something fun and new. Right now, the standout is a spicy-sweet-smoky beer cocktail called the Trigger Warning ($11), which combines cloudy IPA with lime, cilantro habanero syrup and barrel-aged cachaca.
Avoid: Mashed potatoes
I have a high tolerance for aggressive garlic. But the bulb-blasted mashed potatoes with an otherwise satisfyingly salty carne asada-style flank steak ($16) ruined my experience with it. Also: Why is carne asada served with mashed potatoes?
Seek: Sausage Party platter
Splitting a platter of the house sausages (three links with sauerkraut, mustard and potato salad is $17) is a great way to start your meal.
Avoid: Beer nuts
They're not so much "nuts" as almonds, and they're lightly smoked and sopped in sugar. It's a deep bowl for $4, but I'd greatly prefer some Chex-y filler.
Seek: Burger and spicy nachos
Given Muirhead's past projects, it's a little surprising that the two best things on the menu are smokeless standards you can get anywhere, executed flawlessly here. The diner burger with blue cheese ($12) might be the best brewpub burger in town. The kitchen didn't get too cute—it's a simple slab of juicy beef topped with just the right proportions of lettuce, pickles and onion.
The spicy nachos ($8) don't have any meat, and don't require it. Ultra-crisp housemade chips are lightly and evenly topped with black bean puree, pico de gallo, creamy cheese and ultra-thin slivers of jalapeño and lettuce. Nearly every bit has everything in perfect proportion with no rooting or spooning required. It's an effortless blast of flavor, and the type of dish that'll make you resent the labor-intensive nachos served elsewhere.
Wayfinder, 304 SE 2nd Ave., wayfinder.beer. 11 am-10 pm Sunday-Wednesday, 11 am-midnight Thursday-Saturday.