Soul Train

Sophisticated dining, smooth jazz, and the old-world charm of Union Station keep Wilfs on the right track.

It’s 4:30 on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, and the small crowd gathered around the convivial bar at Wilfs Restaurant (800 NW 6th Ave, 503-223-0070) is typical for this time of day: a few passengers waiting for the southbound Amtrak Cascades, which departs from adjoining Portland Union Station in about 90 minutes, and a mostly local mix of folks chatting, sipping, and nibbling. The relatively low-key scene will change dramatically at around 7 p.m., when this high-ceilinged space with exposed-brick walls, glittering chandeliers, maroon-leather booths, and red-velvet high-back chairs transforms into one of the Northwest’s hottest jazz clubs.

The restaurant’s charming general manager, Adele’ Nofield, is sitting out front under an umbrella at a cafe table. The red-tile-roof train station, designed in Romanesque Revival style in 1896, provides a striking backdrop.

Wilfs live jazz

“The restaurant has always been in the family,” she tells me. “It’s named for my father, Wilfred, but everybody in the city knew him as Wilf. He started with the Coliseum Thunderbird restaurant, which became the Red Lion hotel chain. When we were kids having dinner there, we’d go to windows and look out across the river toward the station tower, with its neon ‘Go By Train’ sign. We thought it was so cool.”

“We’re blessed, our entertainment is right there in front of you. It’s so up close and personal.”

Fast-forward to St. Patrick’s Day 1975, when Wilf Nofield opened his namesake restaurant at Union Station, in the shadows of the 150-foot-tall tower that still ranks among Portland’s most iconic landmarks. “The space had been empty for 20 years before dad took it over,” recounts Nofield, explaining that Wilfs began as a piano bar. “Then about 15 years ago, we morphed into a jazz club, although sometimes we feature blues.”

She adds that when certain longstanding performers are in the house, they’re given carte blanche. “If Susannah Mars wants to play, the night is hers—it could be a ballad night, or she might theme it to a specific composer. I am very flexible when great talents want to perform here.”

Live entertainment is typically offered Wednesday through Saturday evenings, from 7 until 10 or 11. Reservations are highly recommended at these times, even in the lounge, which is where performances take place. “We’re blessed,” she says. “Our entertainment is right there in front of you. It’s so up close and personal.”

Wilfs Tableside cooking

Wilfs is equally renowned for dining, and if you’d rather focus on conversation with your fellow dinner guests, simply choose a slightly quieter table toward the back of the dining room, which is grandly decorated.  “The building really dictates our interior,” explains Nofield. “I’ve stayed true to the 1896 architecture.”  Paintings by Pearl-based artist Robin Damore hang on the walls, and candles with white linens on the tables create tremendous warmth.

Wilfs Desert

She describes the cuisine as “American Continental with a Northwest twist. We’ve been sustainable since long before it was trendy. And we try to buy fresh-caught and locally raised fish and meats.”

“People come here for an evening out—to relax and take their time. We make sure they have a great experience.”

The menu features several dishes that have long been favored by Wilfs veterans, including Caesar salad, bananas Foster, and steak Diane flamed tableside in a sauce of shallots, cream, mushrooms, and demi-glace. “Those dishes have been with us for 41 years,” says Nofield, who also encourages young chef Deb Serkoian to experiment with new dishes, such as duck breast rendered slowly until tender in a Marionberry-vodka reduction, and a savory truffle bread pudding that’s semi-poached and topped with a sauté of wild mushrooms. The lunch and bar menus are more casual, featuring burgers, sandwiches, and sharable snacks like fried cauliflower and Irish cheddar stout fondue

Nofield counts plenty of locals from around the neighborhood among her regulars. Looking west from Wilfs’ patio, she reminisces: “Forty years ago it was just us, the post office, and Amtrak. It’s been wonderful to see the Pearl District develop and continue to sustain itself.”

If you’ve a train to catch or a Blazers game to attend, the efficient staff can get you quickly on your way, but Wilfs is a place to hobnob with friends or luxuriate with a date at a leisurely pace. “People come here for an evening out—to relax and take their time. We make sure they have a great experience.” – Andrew Collins | Photos by Ashley Anderson