If there is a single thread that weaves through North Coast dining in the last year it is, alas, an unfortunate one:
Three of the region’s very best restaurants shut their doors in 2017.
The dinner service of Street 14 Cafe, in Astoria, ended in April. (Street 14’s breakfast and coffee shop remain in business — and scrumptious!) After decades as a culinary beacon in Ocean Park, the curtain call for Nanci & Jimella’s Cafe & Cocktails came in May. Manzanita’s Blackbird went dark in October.
Each was counted among the top ten restaurants in the region, if not the top five.
These restaurants found inspiration in our local bounty. Beyond being delicious, gratifying and distinguished, their dishes honored the place we live in. They tasted like home. Each, too, nourished community. Customers, purveyors and staff became family as much as friends.
It’s what happens when restaurants get it right. Such synergy is rare. And for three of them to close in short succession is a significant blow.
I’m thankful that this story isn’t a symptom of a grander trend. It isn’t about economic slowdown, or a decline in eating out. The closings were unrelated.
Street 14, the youngest and most reaching of the bunch, was an innovative, high-wire experiment from the start. Beginning with a crowd-funded kitchen expansion, there was never excess slack.
Each week chef Andy Catalano gathered what he could from local purveyors and wrote the menu to match. His creations reflected the season with up-to-the-minute precision.
But this ever-evolving menu required an absurd amount of work, and as Street 14 co-owner Jennifer Cameron-Lattek said, “There was only one Andy.” Because there was only one Andy, dinner service was limited to three nights a week. I wager that constraint inhibited Street 14’s dinner service from catching on.
And though always rewarding, approaching dinner at Street 14’s could be daunting. As a server told me, “Every week I’m learning new words.” Each week the new menu’s diverse ingredients and worldly recipes featured nomenclature and techniques rarely found in our coastal community. Street 14 may have been ahead of its time.
(Andy Catalano, however, presses forward, running Alimento, a meal-kit service à la Blue Apron that sources from local farms. If you miss, say, his scratch-made pasta, you might find something similar here.)
Blackbird, too, had a modern feel, as least through the lens of the North Coast. Like Street 14, Blackbird would feel natural in today’s foodie-centric Portland, where values like purity and locavorism rule.
Like Catalano, who trained in Italy, Blackbird’s chef and owner Lee Vance found a footing in Italian traditions and melded them with Northwest ingredients. Taking advantage of the superb farms and purveyors just down the road in the Nehalem River Valley, Vance’s menu married consistency and seasonality.
Her dishes ran the gamut from refined to hearty. A Green Garlic Spaetzle was a pillowy, meat-free orgy of umami. The locally abundant yet under-appreciated rockfish was seared exquisitely. The bone marrow — a criss-cross of hulking bones on ornate glassware — was a multi-sensory delight.
Blackbird’s aesthetic was all-encompassing. From the tree-trunk bar to the stemware to the astounding fine-art photography on the walls, every detail was carefully curated to inform a greater whole. The Manzanita restaurant was at once sleek, warm and without pretension, one of the most romantic spots around.
Over the pleas of reverent customers, Vance closed the often-bustling Blackbird, in part, because she was burning out, and because she longed for a new challenge.
The desire to start a new chapter was behind Nanci Main’s shuttering of Nanci & Jimella’s, too. Unlike Street 14 and Blackbird, Nanci & Jimella’s was not an up-and-comer, but a titanic institution in North Coast dining.
Beginning at the Shelburne Inn as The Ark restaurant in the early 1980s before moving to Nanci & Jimella’s, the duo were among the first to recognize the culinary possibilities of our sea and soil.
In a forward to “The Ark Restaurant Cookbook,” the legendary gourmand (and sometime Gearhart resident) James Beard wrote that before Nanci & Jimella, local bounty had been “to a great extent … grossly neglected.”
“During this first meal there I felt — and hoped — that this was something that we had all waited for many years,” Beard exclaimed of The Ark.
Main and Lucas (who passed in 2013) were regional pioneers, not only in elevating local ingredients, but as female chefs and restaurateurs.
Through those lenses, Street 14 and Blackbird may be thought of as heirs of Nanci & Jimella’s. And while Main’s retirement to “pursue her joy” after decades of hard-earned success was not exactly unexpected, the sudden departures of Street 14’s dinner and Blackbird were jolting. They should’ve been among the next generation to carry forward the flag planted by Main and Lucas.
Indeed, losing just one of these restaurants would be notable. The loss of all three is heartbreaking.
While they are gone, they will not be forgotten. And in their absence some room opens at the top.
And so, dear readers, not to despair in totality: Next week I’ll share my favorite new restaurants of 2017.