Bend’s Bouncing Back
By John Gottberg
As in every city, Bend restaurants have suffered during the current economic downturn. When a slew of fine-dining spots closed in late 2008 and early 2009—Merenda, Deep, Volo, Bistro Corlise, Bluefish Bistro and Fireside Red among them—Central Oregon food and wine lovers were in shock.
“I’m more than a little frightened to imagine what the landscape in Bend is going to look like a year from now,” said restaurateur Jody Denton, as he closed Merenda in January and moved his family to Australia. Other area restaurants put themselves in survival mode, laying off longtime employees and tightening their belts.
Now things appear to be changing in downtown Bend.
Zydeco, a Southern-influenced grill, has relocated after 4½ years on the Highway 97 business corridor. Joolz, which brings Lebanese cuisine together with Southwestern flavors, has achieved immediate popularity in a vacated nook. Several Merenda employees reopened their former restaurant in late May, slightly altering the rotisserie theme and renaming it 900 Wall.
“Having a vibrant restaurant community adds a lot to our business climate,” said Chuck Arnold, executive director of the Downtown Bend Business Association. “It really makes downtown feel more alive. It’s really wonderful to see new ideas come forward that inject a lot of new energy into the core.”
After achieving success with what he terms a “destination restaurant,” chef-owner Steve Helt still found Zydeco Kitchen + Cocktails lacking in street visibility and walk-by traffic. When Volo vacated the ground floor of 919 N.W. Bond St., Helt saw an opportunity “to increase our space and make it feel more comfortably organic.”
Zydeco opened April 20. The restaurant now has 130 seats, plus another 20 sidewalk spots and two exclusive tables in a rooftop garden. A menu carried from its previous location displays Southern flair in such dishes as barbecued shrimp with grits and chicken with spicy pecans… but Helt and Chef de Cuisine Mary Diehl are adding new steak and seafood dishes to the menu.
The wine list now stands at 57 selections, 10 of them Oregon vintages. Helt plans to increase the list to about 100, with a rotating selection of wines by the glass: five red, five white, priced $7 to $11. He encourages diners to bring their own Northwest wines by charging a $10 corkage fee for all wines not from wineries in Oregon, Washington or Idaho.
Helt is a big supporter of the new downtown restaurant scene. “Bend’s kind of like a canoe,” he said. “We’ve all got to make it float. The more great restaurants we’ve got here, we all benefit. It keeps everybody cutting edge.”
Like Steve Helt, Ramsey Hamdan saw an economic opportunity. Despite dire economic predictions, he opened Joolz—named for his wife and business partner, Juli Stonelake Hamdan—on May 8. “It was in our (price) range, and it enabled us to get into downtown,” he said of the Wall Street restaurant space that previously housed Bistro Corlise and, before that, Vino Mercato. “We are transforming Bend.”
Hamdan was the chief instructor at Portland’s Western Culinary Institute for 11 years, from 1990 to 2001. He couples his Lebanese heritage—although his mother is a native Oregonian, Hamdan was raised in Beirut—with his passion for wild game and Southwestern-style cuisine in what he calls “where mezze meets the mesa.”
“The Lebanese food we do is a little easier for people to afford in hard economic times,” Hamdan said. “You can come in and have a couple of small plates and a glass of wine and go home.”
A majority of wines on Joolz’s list of 42 choices are priced no higher than $26: “Our markup is 75 to 100 percent,” Hamdan said. They include a red and white from Chateau Ksara in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, as well as Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, Riesling and blends, both red and white, from several Oregon vineyards.
No event in recent years has shaken the Central Oregon restaurant industry more than the January closure of Merenda. The Mediterranean-style restaurant transformed regional dining when Denton established it on downtown Bend’s busiest corner in 2002. Economic issues forced it to close, seemingly overnight.
But a team of Denton employees, headed by General Manager Michael Millette, negotiated a new lease on the building at Wall Street and Minnesota Avenue. They renovated the spacious restaurant, added soundproofing, and reopened as 900 Wall on May 26.
“We all love the downtown restaurant scene… and we all want to be in Bend,” said Marcus Egge, bar manager and a part owner. “We’re really supportive of the other new restaurants. We want to make downtown ‘happening’ again.”
The menu offered by Chef Cliff Eslinger, another owner, ranges from steaks and seafood to pastas and pizzas, plus a couple dozen small plates and vegetable dishes. Except for steaks and fresh fish, everything is priced under $20.
The international wine list is not as long as it once was, but it establishes 900 Wall as Bend’s most popular wine bar. Four-dozen wines are available by the glass; all but two priced at $10 or less. The list includes numerous Oregon wines, not all Pinots. “We can’t carry 700 bottles any more, but we can still have a very creative—and approachable—wine list,” said Egge.
Two fine dining restaurants that have weathered the economic storm in downtown Bend are Cork and The Blacksmith.
“I’m glad to see downtown is still vital, and that these places are popping back up again,” said Cork’s owner, Carin Cameron. Cork has been a local leader in featuring Oregon and other Northwest wines. “I think it’s our job to train the tourists,” Cameron said.
Chef/Owner Gavin McMichael of The Blacksmith said the variety of menu choices now available downtown give the scene “a better mix. I like that direction. This tighter market is making people think harder about what they can offer and have some success. That means less head-to-head, and it will be better for all of us.”
But, McMichael cautioned: “There still is only so much room for restaurants. There are only so many heads to put at the tables, and I think we will continue to see restaurants get pushed out of the market. I do think the economy is turning, but some of it is no doubt seasonal.”
John Gottberg writes about restaurants and travel for The Bulletin, Bend’s daily newspaper.