Portland, Oregon is known for passionate chefs who deliver innovative menus. Yet I’ve felt something lacking lately in the Portland restaurant scene: an attention to dining as a whole experience. From the moment I click on your website to the moment I walk up to your front door to the second I am seated, a restaurant, in my opinion, should court its potential diners with a proper, consistent story from start to finish: tempt me with mouthwatering photos and full-bodied descriptions of what it is like to dine there, draw me closer with an inviting location and entrance, make me feel special with warm greetings and smiles, speak to my senses subtly with thoughtful decor and space planning, and then seal the deal of my love with your incredible food and drink.
There’s a whole lot of magic that I feel like restaurants are missing out on these days. You can’t just slap on a hot new chef’s name, throw together a menu with crazy ingredients, and plop me into a nondescript beige & black, wood-filled, loft-like space and expect me to fall madly, passionately in love with you. There are several clones expecting the same, and quite frankly, you’re all starting to look alike.
Yet on a recent visit I unexpectedly found a space that was a little different, a space that didn’t try to be like the rest, a space that effectively weaves a delightful dining experience for you from beginning to end… and I did fall in love. It’s a lovely newish hotspot in Northeast Portland: Smallwares (4605 NE Fremont Street).
And I only ate two bites of food. Because of the care lovingly poured into the details of the space, you bet I will be back again and again for more.
Chef and owner Johanna Wares and her labor of love are celebrating their one-year anniversary — and what a year it has been. Within the past year, Smallwares has garnered countless accolades: from Bon Appetit to Portland Monthly to Willamette Week. Johanna Wares is often in the kitchen preparing meals herself, and while I could write about her culinary background, how absolutely amazing those two bites of the scallop sashimi I tried were, or how I’ve heard nothing but praise for her inventive menu of chicken lollipops, oysters, oxtail, and octopus… I feel compelled to tell you about the design of the space itself.
Before we can fall in love with food, we must fall in love with the space, the atmosphere in which it is presented. As soon as you step into Smallwares, you are greeted with a slim red glass partition which welcomes you to the open dining space. Red, black, and white furniture helps tie the Smallwares space (main dining area) and its extended Barwares space (the lounge in the back).
Wares says she enjoys knick knacks so you will see quite a few knick knacks on painted red wall shelves. Personally, I am not a fan of knick knacks, but here they add richness to the dining experience. All of the items spill stories about the food & drink you are about to enjoy: fun, slightly quirky, adventurous, and relevant.
My favorite piece:
From the knick knacks (above) to light fixtures carried playfully by soccer nets (below)…
…there is a consistent tone of joy and spirit of tasteful adventure. Sitting in Smallwares, I can’t help but smile. I want to have fun here — no, I know I will have fun here. The space makes me want to be adventurous with my food, which is suitable because the Asian-inspired menu could be considered daring and different to many.
Designed by Kelly Ogden-Gregg of ELK Collective and Peter Bro (Broder, Savoy Tavern), the 40-seater Smallwares is a tale of restaurant space done right. With Wares, they have designed a story that unfolds with consistency from start to finish, a restaurant that feeds all five of your senses. It stands out in a what feels to me lately like a sea of similarity.
Congratulations to Wares on the one-year anniversary of Smallwares. I thank her for giving Portlanders a space where their imaginations can flourish thanks to her inventiveness, both on and off the plate. I look forward to returning again and again for more.