Beer & Food in Portland, Oregon

(A quick gander at today’s stats page showed a significant number of visitors arriving from this story at CNN. So for them, I’ll delay my discourse on gin for still one more day and present instead a story I wrote a few years back for Nation’s Restaurant News on a great beer city, Portland, Oregon.)

You hear a lot about beer and food pairing these days, usually in the context of a brewery-sponsored tasting or perhaps the occasional beer dinner. But the question which remains is: Is anyone doing anything about it?

Well, no, not really.

As any frequent diner who is fond of grain as well as grape will attest, there is an unquestionable tendency among restaurateurs to offer measly beer selections as almost second thought “add-ons” to exhaustive wine cellars. Ask for the wine list at your favorite restaurant and you’ll be handed a page, a pamphlet or a book. Ask for the beer list and your request will all-too-often be met by blank stares, or a poorly recited list of a half-dozen or fewer choices.

Exceptions do exist, of course – the Belgian-oriented Monk’s Café in Philadelphia, Francophile destination Fourquet Fourchette in Montreal, San Francisco’s beer-and-tapas brewpub, The Thirsty Bear, and Toronto’s beerbistro, the beer cuisine restaurant in which I serve as junior partner and beer consultant, all spring to mind – but in general, beer gets short shrift at the North American dinner table.

Except in Portland, Oregon.

An unabashed beer town, Portland supports more breweries than does any other urban area in North America, both per capita and in total, with 34 operating within the metro limits at last count. Equally, the Rose City is a foodie paradise, boasting no end of smart restaurants serving up the regional bounty in innovative form, from local heirloom tomatoes in a Calabrese salad to tapas of fresh northwest seafood. And if the customer so desires, most of it may be accompanied by beer.

Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant is a pioneer in both the promotion of local produce and the partnering of food and beer, offering at his twelve year old restaurant both a stellar wine list thick with Pacific Northwest possibilities and a beer selection ranging from eight taps (plus one British-style handpump) to an impressive array of local and international beers. In the latter, beer steward Warren Steenson affords special consideration to Belgian ales, they being among the most food-friendly of beers.

Noting that there are some foods that simple go better with beer, Higgins singles out cheese as just one example, casting his gaze upon the humble white cheddar. “I can’t think of any wine that complements a piece of cheddar as well as ale does,” he notes, adding that he doesn’t understand why people would want to limit themselves to strictly wine or beer at the table, when you can have so much fun with both.

Troll the restaurants of Portland and you will find, time and again, that such limitations are rarely necessary in this food-obsessed city. No matter if you dine at the four diamond London Grill in Portland’s grande dame hotel, The Benson, the funky Le Bistro Montage, known for its late hours and macaroni and cheese variations, or the venerable Jake’s Famous Crawfish, over a century old and still going strong, you can rest assured that beer as well as wine will be available to complement your food.

Even downtown’s Stumptown Coffee, arguably the best of the city’s ubiquitous caffeination stations, offers a quartet of imported drafts and sundry bottled beers from German, British and Belgian brewers for those who prefer their brew cold and quenching to hot and steaming.

So whether it’s a grilled Black Angus rib eye accompanied by a glass of rich and roasty porter, macaroni spiked with jalapenos and served alongside a pint of fruity, hoppy India pale ale or local summer squash fritters complemented by a bottle of spiced Belgian ale, Portland has the beer and food pairing that everyone else is still just talking about.

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