It’s Portland Dining Month! Each March, a shit ton of restaurants offer diners a three course set meal, for $29. It is a young, fun tradition, and for the past few years I have really looked forward to it, and the opportunity to try a restaurant or two that I wouldn’t normally have, and to go back to a particular favorite of mine and see what they’re plating up this year. With over 100 restaurants participating in 2015 , it is a GREAT opportunity to check out a sampling of Portland’s nationally acclaimed, and deservedly earned, restaurant scene.
But being of a historical orientation, I began to think back to the Portland of Yore, and wondered what a Dining Month of [Enter Year Here] would look like. I am POSITIVE that August Erickson in 1895 wouldn’t have offered a cornmeal-crusted portobello mushroom with romesco sauce, goat cheese, with a sage and basil pesto, and Jake’s in 1915 wouldn’t have plated some vegan smoked beet and lentil fritters with cherry chutney. Yet I was sure that there were none the less interesting dining habits to be gleaned from a pursuing of period Portland papers. So with no other specific criterion in mind, I just grasped a number out of the air and decided to look into the Portland Restaurant Scene… 60 Years Ago.
A gem survives.
Titled “Let’s Eat Out!” (yup!) and bearing the subtitle, “Whatever The Occasion – A Restaurant Meal,” Section 4 of Monday October 24th, 1955’s Oregonian offered 24 pages of culinary information. Essentially these pages are comparable to today’s ubiquitous Dining Guides (of which our city boasts many). Nestled between advertisements for Portland restaurants were some interesting articles about our chosen era’s dining scene. But of course, being a for profit, free print publication (huh? Like… paper?) – advertisers adorned every single page. The boosterism of local restaurants was the thrust. Ads for hardly local vodka, bourbons and blended whiskeys were ever present. But make no mistake – restaurants were the main cash generators. Old Country Kitchen proudly proclaimed their 72 oz steak. The Lincoln House advertised their 55 cent char broiled hamburgers. Hillarie’s let Portlanders know of their “Special Kiddies Menu.”
In a selection that felt very much like national news wire fodder copy/pasted onto the Oregonian’s pages, Travis Elliott, a management consultant for the Texas Restaurant Association wrote, “Fine churches, schools, parks and streets are recognized as great assets to a community, but very often, indeed that first and lasting impression of a city on a stranger is made by the restaurants and hotels – the chief outlets of real hospitality.” In the seemingly department of redundancy department, Elliott continued that, “there is nothing that impresses a stranger so lastingly and so well as a delectable meal served in an atmosphere of genuine charm and friendliness.” A major marketing meme that our Travel Portland touts to this day.
In 1955, Portland had a total of 1526 restaurants. According to the city’s health and sanitation division Chief, Thomas Bain, 1171 of them were rated “Grade A,” which meant near the top in sanitation, lighting, cleanliness, etc. 354 restaurants were Bs, meaning a little shittier around the edges. Perhaps literally…
But some rather “bon-ton” affairs were settling in our city. The commentators present these developments in an almost “we can finally hold our own,” or a “we have arrived” fashion. As Jane Allen, The Oregonian’s Fashion Editor stated, “Portland has gradually been acquiring more restaurants with a more gala, ‘dressier’ air.” Or as Ann Sullivan penned, “Portland no longer need take back seat to other coastal cities in the excellence of its dining places.” But even with this apparently new found restaurant refinement – some “pop” was lacking. The daily yearned for a first class, waterfront, downtown eatery.
1955 saw several noteworthy, new restaurants on the scene. Near Portland Meadows was Chase’s Dinners. The restaurant was appointed with burgandy carpets, mahogany walls, and copper trim accentuated the charcoal steak broiler. 460 could dine at one time. The Timber Topper, of an obvious logging theme with historic tools of the trade, was in the Washington Hotel. The main dining room only afforded seating fir 140 (only!), but three banquet rooms could feed another 250 dining on steaks, salmon and barbeque. The ultra modern Hillavilla, was situated about the city and did a business of over 10,000 patrons weekly, drawn to the huge windows and the sweeping views of the city.
Just like some braggy New York Times article you shared with your friends from Ohio on Facebook, national attention of Portland restaurants was noted in the guide. Readers were informed that McCalls magazine found The Pancake House on Pacific Highway to be one of 12 “Outstanding” restaurants in the nation. Gourmet magazine lavished praise on The Twin Cedars on SW Foster (“Southern plantation theme” [yikes! – see below] and pan-fried chicken specialty), and Bart’s Charcoal Burger was acknowledged by Holiday magazine with a “award for dining distinction” – the only Oregon restaurant so honored!”
The Dining Guide of Yore provides some proof that Portlanders pallets were proving to be potentially risque… at least a pinch. “Foreign” restaurants, with their decor described as being “exotic… unusual – the design from other lands,” were offering entrees from “the old country,” and our natives were gobbling the meals up! The reporter informed that this rising trend was “partly due to a growing refinement of the local taste which has been accompanied by a desire for wider gastronomic experience.” Oriental restaurants, “sweet and sour emporiums,” were highlighted, with Chinese and Japanese establishments being the main stay (chopsticks were still somewhat of a novelty). “Shish Kebab Proving Popular Dish,” another article affirmed. The writer helpfully informed the culinary less inclined Portlander that the dish was composed of “broiled lamb on skewers, marinated with seasonings, coupled with sliced mushrooms and onions.” A higher income of the diners, and typically lower prices at the ethnic restaurants was also cited as reasons for Portlander’s culinary adventures.
But there were some indications that Portland wasn’t quite as cosmopolitan as one might assume from reading about our aged citizens’ “adventures in dining.” An etiquette section of the guide cleared up some (seemingly) common questions.
Is it correct for a gentleman to order for the woman dining with him if he knows her food preferences?
Yes, he may if he is very sure of the dishes she likes. If the restaurant is a favorite of his and he knows its specialties, he could make the selections. Otherwise, it is safer to ask for preferences before giving the waiter their orders.
Is it correct to push back the dinner plate when finished eating?
It is very poor table manners to do this. The knife and fork placed on the center of the plate indicates one is finished eating.
Is it permissible to use one’s fingers to push food on one’s fork?
No, but a piece of bread or a roll may be used to prevent food from sliding off the fork.
New cocktail lounges were spoken of. In Union Station, the Iron Horse Lounge was detailed, with the theme being the train of the same name from the 1880s. A glassed over bar with a scaled down replica of the train surely was a sight to see! The new London Bar in the Benson Hotel was considered worthy of a visit as well. But not all liquid refreshment was of the ardent spirits. In a scene somewhat foretelling of today, one of the city’s hotel dining rooms estimated that 95% of Portland restaurant patrons drank coffee with their meals.
So what might one have dined upon if a Dining Month 1955 were to have happened (it didn’t)? Portland Chefs were said to favor Lobster Newberg (with locally sourced nothing) and Caesar or Goddess Salads (with artisanal nothing). Swedish Meatballs and Beef Stroganoff (accompanied by sustainable nothing) and Stuffed Mushrooms (folded with organic fuck-all) were to be considered. And of course… Shish Kabobs! From Where The Lambs Have No Name…
One article in particular caught my attention. It was posted that the State Civil Rights Act of 1953 afforded Portlanders with the opportunity of dining out without feeling bashful or embarrassed. The article stated that the act made it unlawful for anyone to be refused service in a place of public accommodations on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin. Reassuringly, it was stated that “there have been no complaints from Negros on any of the city’s principal restaurants refusing them service.” 1955, people. Not oh so very long ago…