OG on Williams: Jenn Louis of Lincoln Talks Risk and Reinventing the Neighborhood

By Alisa Sloan, Foodable Contributor

Fun fact about me? I lived in the Williams Corridor for eight years. That’s not a lot in “Portland years,” but a lot for a neighborhood that (at the time) was considered “still dangerous” and geographically undesirable. Yet I found it friendly and super convenient, and it felt different than other parts of Portland. It was exciting. Plus, it was getting hipper and more fun every year. Between Williams, Mississippi and Alberta, the options were pretty darn good. 

I was privy to some major changes, and we heard a lot about Portland’s most polarizing word: gentrification. While some businesses quietly closed up shop or relocated, new businesses attracted a distinctly non-local clientele. Of course, Williams is now happily home to some of the city’s most lauded spots, including Tasty n Sons, Lardo and Lincoln, but it took a while to get there.

So I thought who better to talk to than Jenn Louis, the plucky and engaging chef behind Lincoln (she co-owns it with her husband, David Welch), owner of Sunshine Tavern and Culinary Artistry, and two-time James Beard Best Chef: Northwest finalist. Thanks to Jenn, Lincoln was the first to bring a finer dining experience to the ’hood with elevated, elegant dishes, and a few super-foodie ingredients that require a dictionary to decipher. So we talked over way-too-strong coffee while sitting at a window seat looking out on Williams, complete with a timer on the table to check on her Frangipane Tart (which smelled amazing, just so you know). 

 
 

AS: Why did you choose this location?

JL: We opened Lincoln in July of 2008, but we signed our lease a year prior. We thought about the Pearl, but that’s not my vibe. We looked downtown, we looked at Alberta and found a space that we loved, but somebody else snagged it. And then… there was this building, and it was cool. Old, renovated, and everything here was independently owned. We liked the intensity, we liked the grit, we liked the diversity. 

AS: You took a risk, though. North Williams was kind of a void. 

JL: When we signed our lease, this building wasn’t finished and the neighborhood didn’t have a lot going on. There was a lot of vacant land on this street. A lot of it had plans drawn and had funding, but then the [recession] hammer fell. From a business perspective, it was really hard because we had also moved our catering business over. I had two kitchens to build out, and then the economy fell apart and the funding was pulled from all the projects in the neighborhood. We certainly felt it. 

AS: Typical with change, some of the neighbors have been fighting the new businesses. Did you feel any resistance? 

JL: We had a very little bit about parking, and I totally understand that. If I lived in a neighborhood that changed and I had to park my car two blocks away [from my house], I’d be bummed, too. 

AS: What do you think has changed here since Lincoln opened?

JL: When Alberta was developed, it was done piece by piece, and you can see that. Mississippi’s development definitely had more planning behind it. When you look at North Williams, you can see how well it’s being planned. Portland is known for being pretty DIY, and I can attest to that from my own experience. I started Culinary Artistry out of my apartment. I didn’t have investors. If I needed a pot, I’d go by the restaurant supply and pick it up on the way to the event. And now look at Chef’s Table—they’re providing infrastructure for chefs who are at that place. The new businesses going in down the street are opening with infrastructure.

AS: How do you think those restaurants will affect your business?

JL: We are a small city that’s saturated with good restaurants. Our urban density doesn’t match. When you open your doors, you open yourself to competition. I think it’s important to work together and to learn from your colleagues because you’re going to be that much stronger. I want to see everyone busy. 

AS: I remember when this stretch of Williams was just boarded-up houses and a few lawnmower repair shops that maybe weren’t lawnmower repair shops. Now we have access to all these amazing places.

JL: Five and a half years later, we have New Seasons! …I believe in this neighborhood. When I come here, I feel at home.

AS: Do you think Williams has reached its tipping point with restaurants?

JL: Nah! Bring it!