In advance of the opening of his next restaurant, Tanner Creek Tavern, the renowned Portland chef talks Pazzo, Nel Centro and how the affordability issue is starting to shape the local food industry.
A few years ago, David Machado took his wife and three kids on a trip to San Francisco, a sort of revisiting of the chef’s former stomping grounds. During that trip, the Portland restauranteur’s kids went and saw a few rock shows at a club called Bottom of the Hill, which sits at the base of Potrero Hill.
It was a name and place that Machado knew well: In 1986,, he and his wife, Julie, opened their first restaurant in the same building. It’s name? Bottom of the Hill.
“We were like, ‘Look, kids — That’s the place where Mom and Dad had their first restaurant,’” Machado said.
That Machado’s imprint on San Francisco is still visible, albeit in an altered form, mirrors some of the impact he’s had here in Portland, as well. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Machado made his way west in the mid 1970s seeking “freedom and self-expression” — “The usual suspects, the usual activities,” he said — before attending the California Culinary Academy. He came to Portland in the early 1990s to open Pazzo Ristorante for Kimpton Hotels, and later made big marks with Lauro Kitchen on Southeast Division, the business lunch go-to Nel Centro and, most recently, Altabira City Tavern atop the Eastlund Hotel.
In advance of his latest endeavor, Tanner Creek Tavern, which is set to open in the Pearl District at Northwest 9th and Everett on Sept. 12, Machado talked with the Business Journal Portland’s renowned culinary scene.
Lauro was a pretty big jump for you when it opened on Division in 2002, when there wasn’t much to that street. I honestly leased that space because of the cheap rent. I was looking for a warehousey, high-ceilinged corner space and that’s where I found it. We were the first on the street. Lauro’s idea was to take the food values and the service points of a downtown restaurant and put it in a neighborhood setting. It turned out to be very, very successful.
What about Nel Centro? How did that become such a popular spot? I was terrified, because (2008 and 2009, when Nel Centro opened) were the two worst years of the Recession. I had run big downtown restaurants, so I knew the upside but I also knew the downside. We were at the bottom of the Recession, and my reasoning at the time was that we couldn’t go any lower. We could only go up. I’ve also learned to analyze these deals as to who the potential customers are. A lot of restaurants, they have great food, a great name, great ideas. Those are all important, but I need to know who eventually is going to come and dine there. And what happened at Nel Centro was that the businesspeople came for lunch, then after work, office people came and then arts patrons with tickets to shows came. They all filled it in and made a tremendous business model.
You’ve never had a restaurant in the Pearl District. Why now? I have always been a little bit apprehensive and cautious about the Pearl. I know it’s gone through some starts and stops. I always saw it as a neighborhood that was being laid out and developed before my eyes. I didn’t think it had the cachet of Alberta or Mississippi or Division or an organic, existing neighborhood that’s been retrofitted for re-use. But I don’t feel that way anymore. There’s activity on the street, people coming and going, low crime. It has that as its basis, and we will participate in that.
You opened your first restaurant for Kimpton in Portland more than 30 years ago and have opened several others along the way. What’s different now? I think back then, there were more chains, and now we are very anti-chain. I always look with amusement at large developers who recruit them. It’s like, do yourself a favor and don’t make that deal. Footprints are a lot smaller now, and I think the dining public has really increased its knowledge. Social media has also really changed the landscape dramatically.
Have you seen the affordability issue impact the restaurant business here? We are looking at the contraction of the labor force while we are seeing an expansion of the industry. We are looking at a complete non-sequitur in that restaurants continue to open and leases continue to be signed and people continue to dine, but we are at a low ebb of labor. I don’t think we are where San Francisco is yet, where you have to live out in East Bay or South Bay and take the train or BART to your job because you can’t live close-in. Here, we are still in a roommate situation, but I think we are in the last vestiges of that. We have not definitively moved over to, ‘I have to live in Hillsboro or Gresham in order to work in downtown Portland,’ but we’ll be there soon.
What do you think has been your impact on the Portland food scene? A hell of a lot of cooks have come through the kitchens that I’ve run at places like Red Star, Pazzo, South Park, who are still out there working in the profession. I’ve never been an innovator or, in all humility, a highly creative person. I look more to historical recipes and a faithful duplication of those recipes as they were intended. I think Lauro came at a time of change, with that size dining room and the open kitchen and bar. That is something I think I was instrumental in establishing.
How long has it been since you’ve been a head chef? Today. I’m going over to Altabira to sit down and look at the menu. I’ll never stop. I’m more like editor in chief now, but I’ll never stop. Anybody who says they’re in a kitchen actively in their sixties, as I am, is either a liar or a fool, cause it’s not true. It’s hard work. It’s a construction job with knives and fire.
Title: Chef and restaurant owner
Current restaurants: Nel Centro, Altabira, Citizen Baker
Next restaurant: Tanner Creek Tavern inside the Pearl District Hampton Inn & Suites.
Board member: PDX Jazz
President: Third Angle New Music