March Madness – Portland Dining Month

As our own gastronomical take on March Madness 2015, a four person team from Northwest Food & Wine Guide decided to spend two days a week dining at restaurants that were participating in the Portland Dining Month $29 3-course menus across the city. Choosing nine restaurants from a list of 115 was not easy.  Our final choices were made using the following criteria; trying an assortment of cuisines of interest to us, a mix of well-known restaurants plus some that may not receive accolades they deserve, and the restaurants’ Dining Month menus related to choices, creativity and value.  Our final picks for 2015 were Cocotte, Departure, Tabla, Heathman, Lincoln, Nel Centro, Little Bird Bistro, Ringside Steakhouse and Meriwether’s. As wine aficionados with wine cellars, we also took our own wines to pair with each meal, allowing us  to assess the differing corkage policies and charges, not an insignificant part of dining out for those who want to drink aged wines or cannot afford restaurants’ 2X-4X markup from retail.

None of our choices had any major disappointments; however, there were some surprises  when we actually applied scores to the categories of hospitality, atmosphere, food quality, quantity and presentation, service, corkage policy, management presence and Dining Month menu. Some of the lesser-known restaurants shone like hidden gems.

Every dining establishment had something that made it stand out from the rest, whether it was the service, atmosphere, or maybe the best entrée or dessert we’ve had in a long time. Our table always chose a mix of the Dining Month menu, plus other items on the regular menu that the restaurant is either known for or should excel in making.  Here are some of our finds.

 Cocotte – Tucked into a busy restaurant corner in the NE area of town, this French inspired bistro is in good company with the likes of Beast, DOC and Authentica next door. Cocotte stands out for its intimacy, hospitality and delicious food.  The food is well-prepared and represents some of France’s well known dishes. Do not, I repeat, do not miss the Chocolate Tart with Caramel Sauce!  Great for a romantic evening or friends just getting together.


Departure – Who couldn’t love the view from the top of the Nines? Dining on beautifully presented Asian inspired dishes with mountain and city views doesn’t get much better. The restaurant focuses on small plates, so be aware that the Dining Month menu offerings could have left some customers walking away hungry. You will want to order additional dishes. Great for business meetings, diners wanting a great view of the city and the “lets meet after work” crowd.


Tabla – This hidden gem serving Mediterranean inspired cuisine on 28th Avenue had the most complete Dining Month menu of all with a wide range of choices in each of the three categories from the regular menu.  It was a great way to try several menu items. This place doesn’t get enough press, but maybe it’s better to keep the secret for “those in the know”. The food was delicious and well-presented. Great for couples and friends who love good food.


 Heathman – Dining at the Heathman is always a treat; it is one of Portland’s elegant and sophisticated, but not pompous, dining environments.  Service is always professional and friendly and the food is superb and beautifully presented.  The Dining Menu did not disappoint. This restaurant even threw in an Amuse Bouche of Cauliflower Vichyssoise with Oregon Shrimp that was delish! Great for that special dinner, business, romance and friends who love good food and wine.


Lincoln – This is the only restaurant where we were met personally by the Owner-Chef, the delightful Jenn Louis. She spent time at our table, answering questions about her menu items and telling us about her new book “Pasta by Hand”, the forward which was written by Mario Batali! My, our Portland Chefs do get around!  Lincoln’s menu is always fresh and innovative, leading the diner to try unique cuts of meat and foods. The Dining Month menu was pulled off the regular menu and was spot on.  Corkage here runs high, so wine cellar owners, ask before opening so there aren’t any surprises. Great for friends getting together and foodies looking to try all of our famous chefs’ restaurants.


Nel Centro – Mama Mia!  This Italian inspired restaurant Nel Centro (in the center) of downtown is a rocking place.  They have the hospitality, service, food that is delicious and well-presented, and one of the hottest Happy Hours in town. The atmosphere is modern and elegant with large windows overlooking the streets and patio. The Dining Month menu had good choices and the food was fabulous. Great for couples, friends and Italian cuisine aficionados.


Little Bird Bistro – The little brother of Le Pigeon, this restaurant always stands out with their French inspired cuisine, quality and artistic presentations. Little Bird offered one of the best Portland Dining Month deals and every serving looked like a piece of artwork. The Dining Month choices were not their least expensive off the menu and gave diners a rare opportunity to taste some of Portland’s finest fare for a mere pittance.  The entire staff is attentive, friendly and competent. The food was some of the best we had during the Dining Month. Great for romance (choose the balcony for a quieter, more intimate setting), couples, and friends who love food.


Ringside Steakhouse – The classic steakhouse still lives and thrives in Portland! This dinner club setting with waiters in tuxedos is a flashback to a time when steak and potatoes were the epitome of fine dining.  The prices are what you would expect at a great steakhouse, but where else can you get dry-aged steaks so exquisitely prepared. The Dining Month menu offered a beautifully prepared and luscious piece of fresh fish or a piece of tender beef. One in our party had the creme brule’ and deemed it the best they had ever had. The Dining Month menu here was a real deal, but for early diners or those ravished with hunger after work, the same choices are available on the regular menu for only $39 when ordered before 6pm.  The dark wood and clubby atmosphere reminds us how much décor can influence guests, so if you like a more well lit environment, you may want to ask to sit in the wine cave room. Sitting among wine storage units in a cave environment is not what you would expect in Portland, so take advantage of it.  Great for important business meals, romantic or special dinners, and game nights.


 Meriwether’s – This place that is just beyond the Northwest & Pearl District restaurant areas would be very easy to overlook, but diners would be missing an opportunity to not search it out. Supplied by their own farms 20 miles west of the restaurant, one of the features on the menu is a description of which produce is currently being harvested for the restaurant. When they say fresh, they mean fresh! The atmosphere is warm and inviting, like being in someone’s large home dining room. The service was outstanding and the food was superb.  The Dining Menu was dynamite.  If you want a starter for your table of four or more, do what we did and ask the server or Chef to provide you with a selection from their Pantry Board. You will not be disappointed! I would have loved to have white tablecloths on the tables for a less rustic atmosphere, but with the bare tables, it’s great for casual dinners as couples or with friends.


We’re already looking forward to Portland Dining Month in 2016 and developing an attack plan.   I’m afraid we’re going to have to dine more than two nights a week to get them all in!

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