Recent “Restaurant of the Year” Debate Sheds Light on a More Important Issue

By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor

Kaitlin Ohlinger for Foodable WebTV Network

Kaitlin Ohlinger for Foodable WebTV Network

On June 17th, 2015, a collective “WHUT!” was heard in Portland when The Oregonian declared Renata its “2015 Restaurant of the Year.” Having only been open six weeks at the time of the announcement (although even this is contested in some circles), grumbling commenced. 

The Oregonian’s Michael Russell’s credibility was “at an all-time low,” according to some commenters. Others insisted he needed to resign. Chatter continued to swirl, saying this was “the beginning of the end” for The Oregonian, that Renata “bullied” its way to the top, and that this accolade was a direct insult to other Portland restaurants that had quietly been churning out a similar style of cuisine for a decade. 

To his credit, Michael Russell adequately and firmly defended his decision in a professional manner. He reminded us that the “Restaurant of the Year” pool is actually a lot smaller than people might think. He rebuffed any insinuation that he was paid to name Renata “Restaurant of the Year” (a somewhat juvenile accusation at best). 

We were also reminded that “Restaurant of the Year” is more a declaration of newness, or influence on the Portland food scene. With location, design and style alone, many might agree that Renata is a bold, if acceptable choice. Perhaps Portland needed this atom bomb of an announcement, if not just to keep it on its toes. Is that what Russell was going for? 

Seeded in Hype

Subsequently, any criticism that followed The Oregonian’s announcement faced a rock and a hard place, forced into a “does it live up to the title?” narrative. Whatever was said, and whoever said it, seemed to be greeted by a permanently divided audience. The Portland Mercury waited until mid-August, after two visits, to reveal that writer Andrea Damewood was not “adequately convinced” that Renata was more noteworthy than Nostrana or Ava Gene’s, two establishments that dance to the farm-to-table Italian genre. But did she like it? The easy answer was yes. Despite a criticism here and there (small portions, general malaise over the pizzas), the answer was yes. Yet still, the final question came back to, Is it the “Restaurant of the Year?”

Crispy Trotters with pepper salad at Renata | Kaitlin Ohlinger for Foodable WebTV Network

Crispy Trotters with pepper salad at Renata | Kaitlin Ohlinger for Foodable WebTV Network

Defining the New

If it isn’t the “Restaurant of the Year,” what is Renata? Husband-and-wife team Nick and Sandra Arnerich met while working at The French Laundry. After years of working in celebrated Bay Area restaurants, the all-too-familiar itch to work for themselves compelled them to relocate to Nick’s hometown of Portland. Portland greeted them the way it greets many California transplants, with closed doors and complications… initially. They stuck it out and started small by running a popup series called Project Grace in early 2014. Eventually, their now-location was secured at 626 SE 7th Ave, a large industrial building that was once a creamery. 

The expansive space has been transformed to feel airy, warm and vibrant, but has maintained its industrial roots. Partial communal seating in the center breaks up the room in an interesting way. A large red neon sign reading “Mi Piace” (“I like it”) adorns the wall over the restaurant’s open kitchen. Some apparently take issue with said sign; I felt it reinforced the mostly casual vibe. 

The menu isn’t large and encompasses a spectrum of regional Italian cuisine with a Pacific Northwest slant. The wine list is superb: Italian focused with a dash of New California and plenty of homage to Pacific Northwest favorites. Even more refreshing, it does not fall victim to the “big house” Italian stagnation, instead offering fascinating picks from Sicily’s Mount Etna and a 1985 Cahors Malbec. Wine nerd heaven. The cocktail menu is equally inspired: I fell for the Silence of the Lambrusco for name alone. 

Formaggio board at Renata | Kaitlin Ohlinger for Foodable WebTV Network

Formaggio board at Renata Kaitlin Ohlinger for Foodable WebTV Network

Bringing More to the Metaphorical Table

So even if we find middle ground and accept that there is equally good, if not better, Italian cuisine to be had in Portland, what does Renata exceed at? What makes it different? 

Russell indicated that Renata offered a “complete” experience, and this statement really can’t be ignored. This is a restaurant owned by two people who worked for Thomas Keller. The level of service is what puts Renata into a different category. 

Portland may not like to admit that there is a level of listlessness and apathy that runs rampant in its service industry. But when confronted with a server who has been trained to be engaging, educated on the menu, and an entire staff that works together as a unit to ensure that nothing is left undone, they stand out. This is just the kind of bar setting that could silence the “Restaurant of the Year” naysayers.