When Colin Howard chose to open his first restaurant last fall in Portland’s Central Eastside industrial district, he knew he was taking a risk. Located across the Willamette River from downtown Portland, this edgy area just off the I-5 is better known as a place to buy linoleum than to linger over a glass of wine. But the neighbourhood is changing, and Howard and his wife, Holly, hope the momentum will benefit Oso Market + Bar, their stylish tapas spot and bottle shop located on the major artery of SE Grand Avenue. “People are always going through here,” Howard tells the Georgia Straight over a plate of anchovy-draped Peruvian potatoes as traffic outside swirls towards the Morrison Bridge. “But now they are starting to stop.”
While other Portland neighbourhoods across the river, such as Southeast Division, are well established as culinary hubs, the Central Eastside is just starting to make a name for itself. But since a new extension of the Portland Streetcar line opened in September 2012, linking downtown to the Central Eastside, and big-name Portland chefs such as Ken Forkish have set up shop, there are more reasons than ever for visitors to cross the water—and not just for the food.
“It’s still early days for this neighbourhood, but it’s definitely up-and-coming,” says Julia Parsley, who cofounded Wildfang, a clothing store that’s located a few blocks south of Oso Market. Parsley opened Wildfang, which specializes in tomboy-inspired clothing for women, last August. She chose the area as an affordable base from which to build her mostly online business. But now that she has a storefront, “customers have come like pilgrims.”
“This is one of those neighbourhoods that didn’t have an identity,” she says of the Central Eastside, explaining that it’s a thoroughfare rather than a residential area. But around 2002, people working in creative industries started moving their studios into vacant warehouses. Over the past five years, a number of cafés have sprung up to cater to them, as well as fashionable eateries such as Bunk Bar, famous for its hearty sandwiches.
A block down from Wildfang, Coava Coffee Roasters opened in 2010. It shares a light-filled space with Bamboo Revolution, a company that manufactures high-quality bamboo flooring. In Coava’s corner, customers lounging at tables made from antique drill presses seem more interested in browsing their iPads than the showroom. But the cooperative space gives the coffee shop a cool, industrial-chic vibe, and the wafting scent of roasted beans softens any hard edges.
Nearby, on the corner of Grand and Taylor, the shiny “lighting and house parts” store Rejuvenation occupies two floors of the terra-cotta coloured, early-1900s Neustadter Building. The gleaming store is a pleasure to browse, with its modern reproductions of Victorian and early-20th-century fixtures as well as lust-worthy kitchenware like oversized cherry-wood rolling pins. Kitty-corner to Rejuvenation, the Grand Marketplace is like catnip for those addicted to one-of-a-kind items. The 18,000-square-foot space that formerly housed Arvey Paper & Supplies opened last September, bringing together 25 vendors selling items as diverse as antique meat grinders, salvaged claw-foot tubs, and plant stands made from polished Oregon juniper stumps.
Away from the storefronts on the neighbourhood’s main drag, a person might never guess that some of the stark, industrial-looking warehouses contain offices, high-end shops, and restaurants. Just east of the river lies the hulking Olympic Mills Commerce Center on SE Washington Street. Built in the 1920s as a cereal mill with an eight-storey concrete grain elevator, the sunny-yellow building occupies a full city block. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was renovated in 2005 and now houses over 80 businesses, including design firms and talent and literary agencies.
At street level, converted warehouses like the Water Avenue Commerce Center and Eastbank Commerce Center bustle at noon with hungry office workers. For those exploring the area, there are plenty of tempting options to choose from. Chefs tend the wood-fired oven in the open kitchen at the elegant clarklewis, which specializes in Italian-inspired farm-to-table fare. Diners at communal tables slurp bowls of ramen elbow to elbow in the cheery orange Boke Bowl. At Olympic Provisions, the atmosphere is smart casual as companions share plates of artisan salami and as many glasses of sherry as the workday requires.
In the evening, the area also attracts diners. With all manner of Champagne and sparkling wines, the jewel-box-sized Ambonnay bar is a lovely place to sip a glass of bubbly under a crystal chandelier. Produce Row Café offers a folksier atmosphere with its covered, heated courtyard. And since this is Portland, there’s always craft beer nearby: the Hair of the Dog Brewing Company operates a welcoming tasting room and restaurant in the shadow of the Morrison Bridge on SE Yamhill Street.
Further east, Sasha Davies runs Cyril’s restaurant at Clay Pigeon Winery on SE Oak Street. She and her winemaker partner Michael Claypool set up the urban winery in 2008 and added the restaurant in late 2012. “The neighbourhood reminded us of the industrial areas in Brooklyn,” she said, noting that it’s one of the few left in the city zoned for manufacturing. “It’s a neighbourhood where people make stuff.” While Davies has seen many creative businesses pop up, she doesn’t think the area will turn residential—however, it is becoming more of a dining destination.
A few blocks to the southwest, Trifecta Tavern + Bakery is one of the hottest culinary draws. Artisan baker Ken Forkish opened the place in late 2013, turning a 5,000-square-foot auto upholstery shop into an upscale restaurant. On the night I visit, every seat at the marble bar is taken and every red booth is packed with people tucking into Brussels sprouts roasted in a ragingly hot oven, oysters baked with fennel and hollandaise sauce, and Forkish’s famous bread. His kale salad alone—with pumpkin seeds, avocado, a harissa vinaigrette, and shaved Grana Padano cheese—is reason enough to cross the bridge. And while the Southeast Division neighbourhood keeps tempting diners with new restaurants, places like Trifecta are putting the Central Eastside on the culinary map.
If you stop there once, you’ll likely be back.
Access: The Central Eastside is bounded by Powell Boulevard, the Willamette River, SE 12th Street, and Interstate 84. To get there from downtown by Portland Streetcar, take the blue Central Loop Line towards OMSI and get off at SE Grand and Belmont or Taylor; the trip takes about 25 minutes. You can also reach the area by car or by cycling across the Steel Bridge and along the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade to the Morrison Bridge area.
Portland Dining Month takes place in March this year instead of June. Over 100 of the city’s restaurants—including the Central Eastside’s Oso Market, Olympic Provisions, and clarklewis—are offering $29 three-course set menus. The writer toured as a guest of Travel Portland and Amtrak Cascades, which runs daily eight-and-a-half-hour direct trips between Vancouver, B.C. and Portland. (Here's a glimpse of the scenery.)