Heart & Soul

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Camaraderie among employees and guests, a stellar bar program, and artful Southern-accented American fare come together seamlessly at an urbane neighborhood gem.

Step inside Irving Street Kitchen (701 NW 13th Ave, 503-343-9440, irvingstreetkitchen.com) on any given night, and you’re going to see people having a good time—couples cooing in the cloistered booths, larger parties chattering and laughing at tables in the central dining area, friends quietly conversing amid the shelves of books in the library-inspired section, spirited revelers sipping wine and cocktails at the festive bar, and even cheerful staffers working the floor and preparing exceptional food in the open kitchen. Portland has plenty of restaurants with serious culinary chops. But few of these cultivate as genuinely warm and festive a vibe as this neighborhood eatery known as much for chef Sarah Schafer’s soulful regional American fare as for its infectious personality.

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The restaurant’s genial mood and solicitous but cordial service is very much by design. Says Schafer: “While much of the world today thinks that service is the secret ingredient to restaurants, we tell our staff this isn’t true. Service represents one part of the equation; hospitality is the other.”

“I want it as local as possible, and I want it to be sustainable—and I want the best I can get for my guests.”

“We have employees who’ve been with us since we opened five and a half years ago. They’re family,” adds general manager Ryan Dixon, who points out that Irving Street Kitchen’s many regular customers—some who live within walking distance—have become good friends as well. And this upscale but approachable restaurant set amid the historic warehouses and loading docks of NW 13th Avenue is deeply committed to the surrounding community. “Since we opened, we’ve prioritized doing our part to contribute to the neighborhood that supports us,” says Schafer.

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With its soaring vaulted ceiling, salvaged barn-wood walls, and wagon-wheel and milk-bottle chandeliers, the space feels at once elegantly inspired and rustically informal. “The restaurant’s name was meant to invoke a neighborhood hangout,” says Dixon. “The interior design was also informed by that idea, with the couches, the libraries, the booths, and the bar and counter seating. There are different areas to hang out depending on your mood.”

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Born in Boston and raised by “ardent fans of Julia Child,” Schafer has trained among today’s culinary vanguard, including Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer at New York City’s legendary Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park and celebrated San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson at his former Frisson restaurant. “All my mentors have had a huge influence on me,” says Schafer. “I was very lucky to have worked with them. Tom is very calm and direct—he taught me how to love cooking. Daniel was a kind of mad scientist who still inspires me today with his crazy essential oils and how a meal can be complex to all senses. Danny taught me how to lead people and how to appreciate my staff.”

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Schafer’s roots may be East Coast, but you’ll discover plenty of Pacific Northwest touches on the regularly changing menu, from Skuna Bay salmon gravlax to chorizo–and–squid ink risotto with Salt Spring Island mussels. “I cook what I crave,” says Schafer. “I want it as local as possible, and I want it to be sustainable—and I want the best I can get for my guests.” But it’s also easy to detect her clear fondness for Southern fare—note the chicken-fried oysters, ham with buttermilk biscuits and pepper jelly, and fried chicken with collard greens and tasso bacon gravy. “Southern food is just so easily adaptable to twist and turn into what I want it to be,” she adds. “All the history and heirloom in it, I love it. Every year I grow my grandfather’s heirloom tomatoes and use them on the menu. It’s inspiring.”

The rectangular bar, above which hang 26 whimsical black-ink animal drawings, is one of the restaurant’s major focal points—a fine perch for nibbling your way through cheese and charcuterie boards and sipping craft beer, artisan cocktails, and small-batch single spirits. But it’s the novel barrel-to-bar wine program that especially stands out.

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Dixon explains that there are two key reasons for deploying this innovative tap system: “One is quality. Because the wines never see oxygen until a glass is poured, it’s like barrel tasting with every pour. You never have a bottle go bad or become oxidized. The second component is the environmental impact. There are no bottles, corks, labels, cardboard cases, and so on.” The system offers around 10 wines on tap, most from laudable Washington and Oregon producers like Andrew Rich and Chehalem.

And then there are the sweet endings, which might include blood-orange German chocolate cake or peppermint-cheesecake–ice cream sandwiches with salted-chocolate rye cookies and fudge sauce. Many regulars have become addicted to one particular Irving Street Kitchen mainstay, the butterscotch pudding. Schafer shares her inspiration behind this mildly addictive dessert: “It’s just Grandma’s pudding, plain and simple. It harks back to watching your grandmother make it on the stove, slowly stirring it in a pot as it bubbles and thickens—and then having to wait by the refrigerator while it chills.”

“That,” she adds, “and there’s a lot of actual scotch in it.”

– Andrew Collins | Photos by Ashley Anderson

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