Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Perils of Blogging: A Cautionary Tale

All bloggers have opinions. Usually strong ones. That's what makes them bloggers. The drive to make unilateral declarations of "facts" (if you're a truly pompous blogger) or "opinions" (if you're marginally less pompous) is what pushes people to write into the anonymous shit-slinging universe of the internets.

But at the end of the day, a blogger's job is a blogger. That's it. He or she has a little space on blogspot or livejournal or whatever social networking or shared interest community group he or she belongs to where the blogger can rant and rave and comment and share.

Most bloggers, particularly those who deal with more controversial form or content, take deliberate steps to separate themselves from their 9-5 employment through disclaimers, pseudonyms, careful withholding of information, or whatever else.

But what happens when you combine a chef-owner's blog, an official website, marginal literacy, and an indescribably enormous ego? You get Pizzaiolo chef-owner Charlie Hallowell's poorly thought-out and even more poorly executed blog "Charlie's Rants" on the website.

As a side note, pizzaiolooakland is really freakin' hard to type correctly the first time. Try it.

You can read all of Charlie's Rants here.

A highlight from his most recent posting (these have been transferred verbatim from the website, so let's just slap a giant "sic" on the whole damn thing):

"Today I recieved a letter of complaint from a disgruntled girlfriend of a disgruntled customer who had a less than wonderful experience at Pizzaiolo. This customer however seemed to think that the negative experience somehow manifested because her boyfriend was an African American, not because we where crazy busy on a weekend night and he asked us to do something for him that would have made our lives a little harder, and we said no, sorry, we can't do that now."

Already we're seeing a general breakdown of one's internal censor by even sharing this story. But surely we can expect a successful entrepreneur like Mr. Hallowell to tactfully address the delicate subject of race?

"So... I would be a total asshole to deny being a racist, I'm white, I'm privilaged, I have benefited from a system whose entire foundation, and whose functional metaphores are so firmly rooted in captivity, slavery, and opression, that for me to claim any kind of trancendant stance in relationship to it would be total bullshit. However, I would never make a desision about weather or not I cut someone's pizza based on what they fucking look like.!!!!!"

No. Though apparently Charlie did take a cultural anthropology course that he only halfway slept through.

Also--why didn't you cut the fucking pizza? How do you make that decision? I've eaten at Pizzaiolo a few times and don't recall having any difficulty eating my pizza, so I'm pretty sure it came to my table cut.... Weird. Also, would you have cut the pizza on a slow night but not on a busy night? That's not fair, now is it?

But surely we can resolve this issue cleanly, right? Charlie's a Berkeley kid, been working and raising a family here for a while. He's sensitive to the cultural dynamics of his tense, gentrifying neighborhood, I'm sure. Let's see:

"Listen, I want you to feel taken care of, I mean I want you, hard working, middle class, hopefully with a kid, trying to make a life in this crazy town work, you. You are why I, a thirty year old cook with two kids who never made more than sixteen bucks an hour in his life, openned a place like Pizzaiolo. A place where for five bucks you can get a bowl of the best god damn beans you ever ate and a plate of rapini that will make your mouth water for days, and it will all be organic, and it will all be local, and it will all be cooked with love, and no, I can't and won't compete with MacDonald's prices, and if people in the hood want to keep throwin away their hard earned money on shit food thats killin them and taking that same money right out of the neighborhood and into some fucking franchise owners pocket in the burbs, so be it."

Wait, did he really use the word "hood?" What is "mouth water" and how does Charlie make mine? Did anyone tell Charlie that rapini is peasant food? To paraphrase a chef acquaintance of mine: "Charlie needs to realize he's just running a fucking pizza parlor."

Not to say it's a bad pizza parlor, but my experiences there have been entirely unremarkable, as any regular reader will know. Pizzaiolo serves an entire menu of the fresh, boring Chez Panisse-style pizzas that Charlie spent his formative years spinning for Herr Waters. Unrelatedly, I've enjoyed the two pizzas I've had at Chez Panisse Cafe in the time since he's left more than I've enjoyed my pizzas at Pizzaiolo (though the clam pie was pretty damn good). It's pizza. It's easy. Get over it.

But that's not really my point. My point is--why the fuck is a the chef-owner of a restaurant putting this incoherent, strangely racist rant on his COMPANY'S WEBSITE?!?! I could forgive him if he was blogging independent of his business, but this? Fuck, I could forgive his weird sociopolitical opinions if he bothered to proofread. These rants don't just suffer from the usual collection of a few typos and dropped articles. It's written by someone who has a very limited grasp of how the English language, or at the very least a computer keypad, works. This is your public fucking business persona, man! I'm just a foulmouthed over-opinionated little douche bag and that's what my business (this blog) is! But you're a successful restaurateur with an image to uphold to your business, your investors, and (hopefully) yourself!

Honestly, I wouldn't've even brought this whole thing up, but your "Charlie's Rants" just make you sound like a seriously self-important, self-absorbed, and utterly clueless dick. And not in a whimsically ironic way.

Like me.=^)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tipping: What You Need To Know

The application of gratuity is obviously a very American institution. In no other country is tipping expected to such a degree from so many different professions. It draws the ire of those customers who feel put upon to have to pay a premium on top of their meal. It draws the ire of servers who depend not upon their employers but upon the vicissitudes of strangers for their livelihood. And it draws the ire, in some cases, of kitchen staff who see servers making significantly more money for what is often viewed as less work.

But the fact remains that tipping is not optional. It is a de facto standard for dining out at all levels in the United States of America. If you can't afford to leave a gratuity then you can't afford to eat out. Sorry. Stay at home, get takeout, or go to McDonald's.

Where does your tip go? It really depends on the restaurant. Many restaurants operate on the traditional model where the server receives his tips in cash at the end of each night and he distributes that money at his discretion to his support staff. Typically that means 20% to the bussers, 5% to the bartender, 5% to the hostess, 3% to the kitchen and maybe 5% to a food runner or other support staff. Other restaurants will tip out each of their servers individually but will mandate the tip-out amounts to the support staff. While this eliminates the problem of the stingy server, it exacerbates the problem of the lazy busser. I'm a believer in this case of letting the market correct itself. If the server is stingy, the bussers won't help him out and his tips will go down.

An increasingly common trend in restaurants is "tip pooling." All gratuities go into one tip pool for that shift and then each server, busser, runner, host, kitchen, etc. gets a fixed percentage of the total gratuities. This works well in a busy, high-turnover restaurant where roles and sections blur. It eliminates competitiveness between servers and, assuming everyone works well together, encourages teamwork and cooperation. In this situation, stiffing a server is less of an issue since your cheapness is spread out over the hundreds of covers served that evening, and not the dozens that the one server has handled.

A third variation is one used by many fine-dining restaurants. A set service charge (usually about 18%) is added onto the bill or included in the prix-fixe price of the meal. Often in this case the server is paid a significantly higher base wage that partially is offset by that included service charge and then the server retains any additional tips given on top of that base service charge. This model is ideal for restaurants that can afford to pay their servers higher wages and maintain direct accountability for the quality of their servers' service to their customers. This is the standard operating procedure for restaurants in the upper price echelon, where a server will often only take a handful tables in an entire evening and stiffing a server is not an issue, since any server who does stuff worthy of being stiffed for will be promptly fired (and chances are doesn't work their in the first place).

So why should you tip? Let's debunk some common tipping complaints:

1. "My meal was already so expensive, why should I expect to shell out even more?" If you thought your meal was expensive before, you should see how much it would be if a restaurant had to pay a wage to their servers that was actually commensurate with their skills and experience. By turning over a small but significant portion of the payroll to the customers, a restaurant relieves some stress on their razor-thin profit margins.

2. "Here's a tip, get a real job!" It is a real job folks. A restaurant doesn't run without that layer between the customer and the kitchen. Good restaurant service is good customer service. It's a mix of acting, psychology, and good old-fashioned knowledge that can help make an unhappy customer happy and an unsure customer confident. Good servers also know the best way to streamline any problems so that by the time the problem reaches the kitchen they can deal with it with minimal difficulty. Imagine being a client-relations manager for four dozen different people every night. Oh yeah, and you walk (run) the equivalent of five miles in the course of doing your job. Are there bad, talentless servers? Absolutely. That's a product of too many restaurants and too many job openings. It's also a product of an increasingly "corporate" restaurant culture that emphasizes rules over intuition, protocol over talent.

3. "In Europe we never had to tip." So what, you want a fucking trophy? Go back to Europe, dipshit. No matter what, you're tipping. All that is eliminated in places where tipping isn't discretionary is the "sticker shock" at the end. The employees' wage is factored into the pricing of the menu (and many sit-down restaurants in Europe do add on a 10% service charge anyway). And what do you gain from this? Distracted, dispassionate servers and incongruous prices. On a recent trip to London, for example, a coworker of mine spent about $70 a person for mid-level Indian food and beer.

4. "The cooks do all the work and they don't get tipped." In most cases the kitchen does get a small share of the tips. Kitchen staff also makes significantly more hourly than servers do. Kitchen staff also work more hours than servers and are typically offered health insurance, some degree of vacation, and opportunities for advancement. Does a typical line cook still makes less than a typical server working at the same restaurant? Sure, but that's a product of the way the business works. The income that one can make as a server if one is good at it is often the only thing that keeps people with actual talent around. Think how bad your service would be if your server was making $12 an hour. Oh right, go to Europe and see. A Cote is a restaurant I know of that tips out a larger percentage to their kitchen and the servers make less overall. Service there is about as neglectful and unhelpful as you can find for that price.

Is amuses me when people talk about bad service as a reason not to tip in general. No, that's a reason not to tip your server that night. It's all the more reason to tip well the servers who are truly good at their jobs. I don't tip the stripper who performs a disinterested lap dance and tries to upsell me on the full-nude option as much as I do the stripper who holds a conversation, compliments me, and doesn't try to scam me.

Let's get down to business then. How much should you tip?

If she's good, $5-$10 extra per song.

If your service is competent and reasonably attentive you should tip NO LESS THAN 15%. Anything else, anything at all, will make you seem like a cheapskate. What do I mean by reasonably attentive service? You got everything you needed and if any problems arose they were promptly addressed. Service was professional, questions were answered reasonably effectively, and direction was given when requested.

If you had the service mentioned above with maybe a little bit extra "oomph" or helpfulness thrown in there, e.g. a server was able to get the kitchen to make a special substitution or something along those lines, you should tip NO LESS THAN 18%.

If your server made recommendations that you truly enjoyed, offered helpful direction on the wine list that enhanced your dining experience, navigated a particularly sticky situation at your table, was able to handle many special requests, or just in general left you feeling well taken care of you should tip NO LESS THAN 20%.

Same holds truth if the server was way hot and flirty.

So what's the least you should tip? That's a tough question. It really depends where the failings were. If the server was inattentive, distracted, forgot things, fucked up an order, and made no effort to correct those matters I would say that you should tip no less than 10% if you plan to tip at all. Anything less will be taken as a severe personal affront. If you do choose to take such an action (and some servers do deserve it), you should leave no tip at all and plan never to return to that restaurant.

I do encourage you to closely examine the situation. For instance, if a server is hard to find but is otherwise very helpful when he's at your table, take a look around and see how busy the restaurant is and how busy the server is. Chances are your server is doing the best he can and is simply very busy. Should you tip less than you would if you had prompt service? I wouldn't but usually a server won't take it as a slight, provided you're still tipping at or above the 15% point. A server knows that sometimes service quality suffers at the expense of volume, and that's not something he can adequately control. Also, take a look at what the problems were--did food take too long? Not necessarily the server's fault, though he should be in communication with you on the topic. Was an order messed up? Once again, not necessarily the server's fault--but did he try to correct the error promptly?

Remember that at a popular restaurant on a busy night, your server is going to be busy. Restaurants don't overstaff. Ever.

On the other hand, is your server neglectful, slow, and inattentive but you can see him chatting with the cute hostess, sitting in the back reading, or standing around drinking wine? Well then by all means get pissed the fuck off. That's the difference between a neglectful server and a busy server.

Here are a few other guidelines when it comes to tipping:

DON'T tip some arcane decimal amount to make your total bill round out to a whole number. I give you a slide if you only make whole dollar purchases on your credit cards across the board: at gas stations, grocery stores, wherever. I wouldn't care so much about this topic if people rounded up on their decimal amounts to give a marginally more generous tip, but inevitably the customer has given a 13.9% tip for the sake of having a whole number on their bill. If your total lunch is $12.36 sense, why tip $2.64? That makes you look like a cheap asshole whereas a $3 tip makes you look generous. Isn't it worth 36 cents not to be an asshole?

DON'T tip exactly 15%. This makes you look not only cheap, but amateurish. You view tipping as a rote obligation and not something discretionary. This type of customer will generally also tip 15% across the board regardless of the quality of service. Round up folks. Round up.

DON'T show your math your check. If you really need to carry a one or do a percentage calculation in longform on your check, I really question your ability to get dressed in the morning and wipe your ass without assistance. Folks, it's simple: take the total, move the decimal point over, and double it. That's 20%. Feel free to adjust it up or down accordingly.

DON'T expressly compliment your server on the quality of his service or write a nice "Thank you great service [smiley face]" and then tip anything less than 18%. Nothing is more frustrating to a server.

DON'T get huffy about the "additional gratuity" line when you're paying a bill to which an automatic gratuity has been added. Remember two things: that gratuity has been added pre-tax so it's not a full 15% or 18% or 20% and that believe it or not a lot of people DO leave extra gratuity. That automatic gratuity is included to factor in the additional labor and service complications that larger parties entail. Relatedly, don't get all huffy about a gratuity line appearing on your check for a to go order. The computer doesn't know that it's a to go order, it just knows it's a credit card receipt.

DO tip in whole number quantities. This is what professional diners do. Even if you want to leave a 15% tip for whatever reason, do that quick math in your head and round up to the nearest dollar. Always round up folks, rounding down makes you look cheap. It looks like you'd rather keep that 36 cents than give the server an extra 64. The same rule of rounding up applies with cash payment too. When in doubt, throw in that extra dollar. What's it to you? Also don't do the "double tax" thing. While tax can be a useful guide for math purposes, actually doubling the tax us amateurish and odd--it can also get you in inadvertent trouble in states with lower tax rates.

DO tip fully on wine and drinks. Tipping $1 for drinks is something you do at a bar, not a restaurant. Make no deductions for wine or drinks in your consideration of a tip percentage. There's a grey area here: if you get multiple pricey bottles of wine, or an ultra-premium spirit at the end of your meal and you want to tip a few bucks less, fine. But if it looks like you deliberately factored out the wine you purchased in your tip, you'll look amateurish. This looks particularly bad if you asked for a server's direction on a bottle of wine and he gave you a recommendation that you greatly enjoyed. How much is tip on a $50 bottle of wine anyway? $10 out of your total meal, tops? Big fucking deal. If the server recommended it, opened it and poured it well, and you enjoyed it, then by all means tip the same as if it was your food. He had as much to do with that production of that as he did the wine.

DO calculate your tip after tax. The tip pre or post-tax debate is one of the all-time great pointless debates. If that difference of LESS THAN TWO CENTS ON THE DOLLAR (in California) is so important to you, then please stay at home. Servers only look at their tips in terms of percentage of the final bill. Sorry.

DO consider tipping on top of an automatically added service charge. As I said, the service charge is factored in pre-tax and, just because the policy has provided for a gratuity to be included, that doesn't mean the server might not've earned a higher tip. If you got 20% service, tip that extra cash. It looks good, I promise.

I tip a lot and I tip well. I tip 20% pretty much across the board, unless the service was particularly bad. I do this no matter where I am, unless local custom dictates otherwise. It's not a matter of taking care of people I know or making sure I maintain a reputation within the community where I work. I believe in the gratuity system and I believe in the rigors of customer service. Tips allow servers to earn what their labor is actually worth.

Beyond that, if you frequent a world in which gratuity is expected (you eat out a lot, take cabs a lot, stay at hotels a lot), over time you'll start to see things coming back around. If you tip that bellhop $10 when he takes your bags up or you tip the hotel valet $5 the first time you meet him and say "hello" and "thank you" and engage him like a human being, see how quick a response you get the next time you need something. If you tip a stripper an extra $40, see how well you're treated next time you're in.

Here's the truth. I get good tips. Most nights I average 18% on my gross (after tax) sales. I'm also really on top of my game. I know when I'm not being as attentive as I should. It's stressful. Sometimes I get too busy to give the service I demand of myself. But you know what? Customer see that I'm busy. I communicate with my tables and usually still get good tips. What all of that adds up to is, if you tip me poorly, I'm 99% certain that the problem is with you, not me. Is that arrogant? Maybe. But it seems to work.

Most people give bad tips because they are bad tippers. Most people give good tips because they're good tippers. The key is managing the good tippers to make them great tippers and making sure that the "undecided" tippers are pushed toward the good tipper side. What does that mean for bad tippers? You get ignored. I know it's a chicken and egg thing, but I'm pretty sure that bad tippers came first.

Be generous and friendly to service staff, it's a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Le Pigeon - Portland, OR

"Just trust me."

It's something we love to hear in movies, from an admired boss, or when accompanied by the strong grip of a swarthy lover as he takes you, bosom heaving, aboard his trimaran ready for a weekend of adventure, romance, and sport-fucking off the coast of Sint Maarten.

But most diners are utterly unwilling to turn that same level of trust over to an able chef. The number of true prix fixe restaurants in the Bay Area are very very few. Sure places will offer a tasting menu in addition to an a la carte menu or will offer a selection of choices for each course, but how many places offer a fixed menu, no substitutions, sorry?

Close to none.

I've worked at restaurants that bend over backwards for even the most asinine customer substitutions. A classic exchange:

"Could I get those clams just steamed with butter, garlic, and white wine instead of with this stuff?" (Stuff is inevitably said with a confused disdain, a sense of "why would ANYONE possibly want to eat this dish THIS way. How WEIRD."

"We'll do what we can."

And then, after dining:

"That was the worst meal I've ever had."

Yeah, well don't blame the chef. You cooked the fucking food, asshole.

We won't go to the Symphony and tell Tilson-Thomas how to conduct (well, I would if I could), we won't go to Stephen King and tell him how to write formulaic horror, and we won't go up to Ralph Lauren and tell him how to design slightly dated menswear, but we will go up to men and women, many of whom have spent longer honing their skills and reaped far fewer rewards (and at a more advanced age) then any of those aforementioned gentlemen, and tell them how to do their jobs.

Oh, but we can cook at home, so it's okay to criticize.

Well, I can write, draw pictures of sportcoats, and wave a stick vaguely in time with music, but that doesn't necessarily mean I know how to do it as well as King, Lauren, or Tilson-Thomas.

So what's the point? Trust our chefs! Nothing's more exhilarating then being exposed to new flavor sensations, flawless preparation, capable direction. It's fun. It's enlightening. It's sexy. Roll with it. "Trust me, you'll like it. It's food."

And trust your wine people too. Chances are they know more about it then you do, particularly because they know enough not to care as much as you do.

Along those lines, Le Pigeon in Portland was one of the best meals of my life.

Just looking at the menu you know you're in for something special. New menu every week. Six appetizers, six entrees (and a burger). That's it. At the bottom of the menu: "substitutions politely declined, no more than 2 methods of payment per party." Also: "we don't take reservations between 6:30 and 7:30." How great is that? Here are the rules, play by them.

Are people offended? Doesn't seem like it. Le Pigeon is packed and the accolades keep piling on.

The space is tiny: three large communal tables and ten-seat counter around the kitchen. High ceiling. Tiny open kitchen. A mysterious back room. Desserts written on a large chalkboard. That's it.

Girlfriend Charlie and I were ushered to two seats at the chef's counter where we watched three tattooed hipsters cooking and cooking and cooking. They were friendly, engaging, and seemed to be having a lot of fun (compared to the dour glowers one often sees on young white cooks in open kitchens).

Wine list is nice and fairly expansive. Good selection of a dozen or so wines by the glass/half-liter/full-liter, 20-ish half bottles, 10 dessert wines, and about 60 full bottles. While the list offers a selection of Northwest wines, it doesn't pander to them (and given the French-tinged menu, that's a good thing). Already a little buzzed from our enormous cocktails at the Doug Fir just down the road, we opted for a half-liter of a nice aromatic Cairanne.

First course. Charlie had the chestnut gnocchi, poussin, and parsnip. I have a love-hate relationship with gnocchi having had my first experiences with terrible gummy Olive Garden-type shit. Le Pigeon's gnocchi were dense in flavor but impossibly light in texture. The parsnips imparted a deep earthy sweetness enhanced by the fresh chestnuts. Bits of meaty young chicken broke up the monochromaticity of the dish.

Since I can't resist when I see it, I had the foie gras appetizer. Generous slice of torchon, seared and served on top of a slice of buttery brioche toast. The toast seemed to be cut to the exact same size and shape as the foie gras. The ensemble was then perched on fresh roasted beets surrounded with a beet puree. The meaty richness of the liver was echoed in the buttery crispness of the toast, which was complimented by the earthy sweetness (yes I know I just used that phrase a few sentences ago, I'll cop to it), each layer adding another flavor or texture dimension.

Entrees. Charlie had the pork stuffed pork, a boneless pork chop stuffed with a spiced pork mixture which tasted (not at all in a bad way) like SPAM. Fresh roasted seasonal vegetables and a bright Mediterranean salsa verde. The pork was ever-so-slightly dry in parts, but the well-matched flavors made up for it. I had the skate wing, dusted in flour, pan-sauteed crisp, and perched atop creamy celery-root puree. The skate was accompanied by a "sauce" of crayfish tails, bits of chorizo, and pan "jus," or as much of a jus as can be created from cooking skate. Great.

If the meal couldn't get any better, it did with dessert. Foie gras pumpkin pie, the liver adding just a hint of savoriness to the lightly-spiced pumpkin in puff pastry. It was paired with a sweet foie gras mousse that was thicker and denser then any pastry cream I've had. Charlie's dessert similarly paired sweet and savory: cornbread with bacon and maple ice cream. Weird! Fun! Clashing and complimentary flavors! Excitement! Adventure! Trying something new! What's the worst that happens? You have an interesting culinary experience and you're out a few bucks. What's the best that happens? You eat something new and freakin' awesome.

And in the case, it was freakin' awesome.

Le Pigeon. An interesting, innovative, fun, and uncompromising restaurant. And it's being rewarded for it. Kowtowing Bay Area restaurants, take note.

Le Pigeon
738 E. Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214
Reservations: 503-546-8706

Sunday, November 11, 2007

HFF On The Road: Portland, OR

Sometimes certain things conspire to make a place "it." For a variety of reasons a city becomes the right place at the right time. Boston in the 1770's. Paris in the 1890's. San Francisco in the 1950's. London in the 1960's. The entire nation of China right now. The reasons for these municipal zeitgeist are difficult to distinguish much of the time. Why did Kerouac and Ginsberg and friends pile into North Beach? Was it really just the absinthe that brought the glitterati to Paris? Is it really just the combination of a command economy and a willingness to heavily exploit one's own citizens that has made China such a rollicking economic success?

In the last case, yes.

Portland is the "it" place right now. For a city of its size (it's tiny--29th largest metro area in the country) it has been getting a shit tonne of press, particularly for its food but also for its urban planning, its strip clubs, and its general tourist awesomeness.

All I can really say is that Portland is the first city in the US to honestly make it onto my "places I'd live other than the Bay Area" list. Everything about Portland was easy and friendly. The airport was easy to navigate. Public transit was well-integrated, simple to figure out, and cheap. The city is an orderly grid. People are very very nice and overly helpful. There's no sales tax. I'm told rent is relatively low. The only significant problem is crippling unemployment, but as a tourist we don't deal with that.

Girlfriend Charlie and I found ourselves in Portland on a mini-vacation because it just seemed right. Good food, good hospitality, and cheap airfare on Southwest.

We booked two nights at the Heathman Hotel, pretty much universally declared the "nicest hotel in downtown Portland." And even with that distinction, the Heathman cost pretty much the same as the Holiday Inn at Fisherman's Wharf. This proved to be a recurring theme in Portland--everything was cheaper than you expect. Besides being the nicest hotel in Portland, the Heathman's restaurant is also considered by most to be the ground zero restaurant for Northwest cuisine, sort of the Chez Panisse of Oregon. And yet entrees at the Heathman mostly top out in the upper twenties, laughably cheap by upper-echelon San Francisco standards.

Did I mention everyone was friendly? As an example, the service at our hotel was very attentive and hands on without being obeisant. When I commented on the friendliness and helpfulness of everybody to the concierge delivering our room service he thanked me and then hoped that it wasn't "overbearing." That's right, they wanted to make sure they weren't being too helpful.

So what did our Portland culinary journey consist of?

First day gave us breakfast at Mother's, a bistro in the waterfront district. Despite an overly-friendly server who sat down cross-legged at the table next to us, dirty cuffs and ancient white socks exposed for all to see and informed me that the salmon hash I was about to order was what many people consider "the best breakfast in the world." The food was quite good. Fresh French press coffee. Really nice creamy sockeye salmon and potato hash that, while nothing overly remarkable, was very well done. Charlie had "Mike's Special Scramble" with prosciutto, garlic, tomatoes, basil, and provolone--portions were very generous.

Side note: the French press is big in Portland. Every finer-dining restaurant we stepped into or glanced at the menu seemed to offer coffee in either individual or two-person French presses. The option of French press coffee (the best way to drink good coffee) is only just beginning to work its way into Bay Area dining and is far from ubiquitous.

Back at the hotel we snacked on fresh pears given to us as part of our welcome gift at the Heathman. We headed back out into the trendy Pearl District (think SoMa without the skank) and ended up at BridgePort brewing company for dinner. The food was surprisingly good. A couple appetizers--salad of fresh local beets with spinach was well made and my appetizer on special of trout and potato cakes was delicious. The trout had a brandade-like texture with a crisp panko-crusted exterior. For entrees, Charlie had the turkey, fig, and sage meatloaf. It was quite good, but neither the figs nor the sage was particularly prominent. I had the mac'n'cheese with butternut squash and Swiss chard. Really tasty. Excellent in fact (and an enormous portion), though the cheese was not sharp enough to balance the sweetness of the generous chunks of butternut squash.

Day two saw us eating breakfast in the Heathman dining room. The food was definitely Northwest Cuisine in the sense of being California Cuisine only with Northwest-centric ingredients. My hangtown fry was really good. Fluffy scrambled eggs folded with potatoes, onions, peppers, bacon, and Willapa Bay oysters. Charlie had the seven grain porridge with hazelnuts, brown sugar, and some of freshest tasting raisins I've had.

What is a novelty here (like French press coffee), found only at the Parkway and Cerrito, is a standard in Portland: pub theaters showing second-run movies. There are maybe a dozen in Portland. We found our way into one, the Bagdad on Hawthorne, for lunch. That's the other thing, they're also fully-operational pubs and not just theaters serving food. Charlie had decent but overcooked halibut fish and chips. My curry tofu bowl was tasty, but heavy on the salt and more like a Thai peanut sauce than a red curry.

Dinner was at Le Pigeon and was transcendently good. See the upcoming separate post for that write-up. Before dinner we dropped in at the Doug Fir, a seminal Portland music club, for a cocktail. Charlie's sage margarita was excellent, as was my gin/campari/grapefruit concoction. The Doug Fir offered excellent happy hour food deals, as did many restaurant in Portland.

Our last day in Portland found us with a serendipitous bonus. Breakfast was room service from the Heathman Restaurant--hearty ginger and pumpkin pancakes, nicely cooked scrambled eggs with bacon and toast, and housemade almond-cashew granola with a pile of fresh fruit. Nothing was sacrificed in quality, plating, or temperature despite being room carried upstairs on a tray and eaten in bed. Anybody who dismisses room service as a frivolous indulgence has never actually gotten it. Or at least they haven't gotten it in a hotel with a cushy European pillowtop bed, complimentary French press Peet's coffee, and waffle robes. Pretty much the best thing ever.

We had no real plans for lunch, we were just aimlessly shopping around town when we stumbled on an authentic conveyor-belt sushi establishment, Sushi Land. What is a way of life in Japan is barely on the radar in the U.S., many establishments opting for the gimmicky (and more expensive) sushi boat style restaurant. Real conveyor belt sushi should be a touch sleazy, dirty without being unclean, and offer the vast majority of its dining options for a dollar or so. Sushi Land fit that bill, with 90% of the dishes costing $1 or $1.50. Quality was as good as most mid-priced non-conveyor establishments. After seeing the automatic rice-ball maker, I was inspired to consider the many other business models that could be streamlined using the conveyor belt method. Lap dances being the most logical. We gorged ourselves on instant gratification sushi before wending our way back to the hotel to get our bags and head to the airport.

So why was Portland so awesome? It's difficult to say. The relatively cheap prices helped a lot, coupled with the lack of sales tax and the friendly service. But Portland was also just very low stress. Perhaps the lower rents make everyone happier. When you make rent after one busy weekend at a restaurant or after selling a dozen pair of jeans in your retail shop that makes life a helluva lot simpler. Having a younger, relatively homogeneous (77% white), educated population might play a roll in restaurants' success as well. These are people who like to waste money on frivolous stuff like dining out, sunglasses, designer suits, and fancy hotels. Ah well.

So yeah, go to Portland and eat and shop. It's pretty much the best place ever. But don't feel like you have to go to Powell's City of Books. It's just a big book store, which is cool, but come on. It's a big book store.