by Mattie John Bamman | Photo © Langbaan
Since the rise of the pop-up restaurant, even newer and more out-of-the-box dining experiences have popped up (sorry, really), and in Portland, nothing has received more obsessive fanfare than the hidden restaurant. Despite the fact that hidden restaurants are, well, hidden, they’ve attracted huge followings. They tend to be small (all the better for hiding from you, my dear), and they’re often hidden inside of other establishments, whether restaurants or gourmet grocers.
Case in point is Roe, a restaurant tucked away in a semi-private dining room at the back of B + T Oyster Bar. When Trent Pierce and Patrick Schultz opened Roe (roepdx.rest) in 2012, they’d never heard of a hidden restaurant. “I wanted to give people something they’d never seen before,” says Pierce.
Separated from the main dining room by a 10-foot hallway, Roe gave Pierce and Schultz the chance to create an entirely new restaurant concept. They apply the technical cooking techniques of France and Japan to Northwest seafood—dishes with geometrical presentations like butterfish sashimi in truffle ponzu with shiso and shaved, frozen foie gras. Dinner at Roe involves suave, attentive service, not to mention an extensive list of French cognacs and Japanese whiskeys. Choose between prix fixe and chef’s tasting menus. Call for reservations.
Another hidden restaurant, Langbaan (langbaanpdx.com) opened because some chefs wanted to throw a party. Originally from Thailand, owner Akkapong Earl Ninsom opened the Thai restaurant PaaDee in Portland in 2011. When fellow chefs requested a special meal with some of Thailand’s rarer regional dishes, Ninsom couldn’t refuse. Packed with exotic flavors, these dishes often take days to prepare, sometimes using ancient cooking techniques from the kitchens of Thailand’s 20th-century royalty.
The meal was so successful that Ninsom opened Langbaan, in a spare dining room at the rear of PaaDee, in 2014. To get in, diners must locate a meat grinder and pull the handle (and have a reservation, of course). Ninsom says he took inspiration from both Manhattan’s famous hidden bar PDT and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Ultimately, he wanted to create a restaurant that felt “more like home,” to give guests a more complete understanding of Thai food. For instance, a Southern Thai curry might turn your tongue into a bonfire, but when paired with the right, cooling dish, you can keep the heat in check. Through prix fixe meals, Langbaan orchestrates all of this for you.
Another sensation is Nodoguro (nodoguropdx.com), which started as a “virtual restaurant,” according to owner and chef Ryan Roadhouse. In late 2014, he moved into a space inside of the gourmet grocery store Pastaworks, and he has since prepared elaborate meals for such celebrities as film director David Lynch and musician Questlove. At Nodoguro, expect technical wizardry, “hardcore” sushi nights, seafood shipped from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and elaborate, regularly changing dining atmospheres: over the holidays, the restaurant was decked out with Nightmare Before Christmas decor, replete with a 7-foot Jack Skellington, king of Halloween Town.
Roadhouse’s wife Elena originally came up with the idea to add more elaborate decor, and his father-in-law usually paints an original painting for each dinner series. Remarking on the whole-experience aspect of his restaurant, Roadhouse confidently, and rather boldly, adds, “Anyone who does this concept—it will make you a better chef.”
Portland’s hidden restaurants are rare, special and welcoming. In most cases, hidden restaurants let chefs do what they do best: make the food they love. Before your next trip to Portland, contact the restaurants for reservations, and don’t forget to inquire about last-minute cancellations.