My Mom visited over the weekend, and as is typical, Sally and I began bookmarking a few restaurants in advance of her arrival. High on the list was Luce, four blocks from our house, which we'd heretofore (and inexcusably) failed to check out. Then over the weekend Bon Appétit did this to us:
We persevered and visited on Saturday anyway, finding the madhouse we expected. There's more to that tale, but this isn't actually a post about Luce* (you might read this if you're hungering for more). Rather, the whole experience got me thinking about the ways breweries are and are not like restaurants. At least, not at the high end. There, restaurants are anchored by a chef and his/her personality, and they ride waves of novelty and trends. A chef like Luce's John Taboada has a certain vision which manifests itself in a place like Navarre, his first award-winning restaurant. After awhile, he gets an idea for another kind of culinary expression and creates a place like Luce.
Restaurants have a limited shelf life. Eventually, the creative vein taps out and the chef tries something new. Cuisine is more like fashion in how trend-sensitive it is, and over the course of a decade, the type of restaurants that open will shift three or four times. (Of course, there are always exceptions. Greg Higgins has created a beachhead on Broadway that has been running for nearly two decades.)
Breweries, on the other hand, are anchored by brands and attempt to establish continuity. After toiling for years to build up a loyal following, they can't very well dump their line and start from scratch. Brewers may be mobile, but breweries don't wink in and out of existence at their whim. I guess it's both the lead-time--it takes years to reach full capacity--and sunk costs (breweries are expensive). But there's also something essential about beer brands that differs from restaurant menus.
While I was sitting in Luce, I wondered briefly why we don't see more brewpubs adopting the restaurant model. Beer has superficial similarities: beer styles are many and fluid, brewpubs are eateries, with all the attendant virtues of ambiance and vibe--not to mention food--that restaurants have. Maybe it's even possible. But it is unorthodox, and it would be a leap from one cultural model to another. If such a thing could work anywhere, it would be Portland--but I'm not sure it could work anywhere.
Perhaps one day we'll see someone try the experiment.
*I'm not qualified to comment on the food because of twin layers of ignorance--food in general is beyond my ken, and Italian food in particular. I started with a fantastic fresh-greens salad enlivened by mint and large sea-salt crystals, and followed it up by mussels in broth, the way the Belgians make them. Because we visited the day the Oregonian reported the news that it was Bon Appetit's fourth best new American restaurant, they had nowhere near enough food on hand. By the time we were seated, most of the pasta dishes were gone, and we could hear the haughty harumphs of neighboring foodies who clearly found this outrageous. The staff--including owners John Taboada and Giovanna Parolari who waited on us--handled everything with enormous aplomb and grace. We concluded with an insane desert called Luce cake--sponge cake filled with cream and pistachios.
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