Portland Tribune interviews David Machado — Patios and more

“When it comes to location scouting, some say Machado has a crystal ball for establishing the next hot spot — on Southeast Division, in the Lloyd District and in Nel Centro’s part of downtown before they all saw their Renaissance.

He’s constantly reflecting on the past and looking ahead.”

Bread & Brew: Enjoy the views, brews from Altabira’s patio

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June 8, 2016
by Jennifer Anderson

Nel Centro, David Machado’s other restaurant, also has an outdoor vibe
Nel Centro patio, photo — John Valls

The inviting patios at downtown’s Nel Centro (above) and Lloyd District’s Altabira City Tavern have been part of the success formula for owner David Machado.

It’s patio season for restaurants, and Altabira City Tavern boasts one of the city’s best.

Smack dab in the middle of the busy Lloyd District with views of the city skyline from six stories up, the covered space outside the main restaurant at the Hotel Eastlund — with heaters, sofas and a swanky urban vibe — has grown into a hotspot for Rose Quarter crowds, business people and happy hour groupies alike.

But David Machado never expected the patio to be a “scene,” as he puts it.

As owner of Altabira — which marks its first birthday this month — he built the patio simply as an extension of the dining room, which serves 16 local beers on tap and a beer-forward, locally sourced, seasonal menu.

However, “when that patio unveiled itself last summer, it kind of shocked us,” the 61-year-old restaurateur says. “People would sit on the couch with their martinis, tapping at their social media. (We thought) what if it flips into a drinking scene and the food part goes away? It got a little concerning.”

In other words, the crowds came out — en masse — for Portland’s newest patio, as we are prone to do.

And it got rowdy. But then it calmed down.

photo: David Machado, owner of Nel Centro and Altabira

It’s going to be nice weather for awhile, meaning David Machado, owner of Nel Centro and Altabira, will be hosting patrons on patios.

And now as it heats up again, Machado is bracing for patio season at Altabira and his other restaurant, Nel Centro, located downtown at the Hotel Modera.

Both are large restaurants, close to 300 seats apiece, serving a specific niche of tourists and locals alike, which Machado is keenly aware of.

“We’re an enigma; we’re not a hotel restaurant,” he says. “We just happen to lease space in a hotel, which is a nice safety net.”

At Nel Centro — which just celebrated its seventh birthday — the patio is warm, inviting and feels like someone’s backyard party.

A major part of the demographic are arts patrons coming downtown for a show; in fact they often run cocktails based on an opera or ballet title, like a “Magic Flute” procecco and “Sweeney Todd” bourbon drink.

With a relaxed vibe and wine-forward, Euro-centric menu, it turns into a different beast in the summertime when everyone’s hankering for that perfect happy hour experience.

“People are the most aggressive and dogged about access into the patio,” Machado says. “They want sunshine; they want to feel nice; they want their food and beverages at a discounted price. It pushes us at both places.”

In fact Nel Centro first opened without a happy hour, but started one six months later due customer demands.

Luckily, Machado takes the patio as a serious challenge. “We’re trying to provide real service all the way through,” he says. “The patios — they’re a gift and a curse.”

With deep roots in Portland’s restaurant world, Machado has seen what works, and what doesn’t.

In addition to Altabira and Nel Centro, he owns Citizen Baker, the street-level bakery and cafe next to the Hotel Eastlund that also turns one this month.

But this isn’t his first rodeo. With roots in San Francisco’s food community in the 1980s, Machado moved to Portland in the early 1990s and opened several beloved restaurants that have since closed, including Pazzo Ristorante, Lauro Kitchen, Vindahlo, and recently The Heathman Restaurant.

He also opened Southpark Seafood Grill, which just reopened after a major renovation.

In 2009, he was the Oregon Restaurant Association’s Restaurateur of the Year, and he’s been a past board member of the Portland Farmers Market, International Pinot Noir Celebration, Share Our Strength, Travel Portland and the Portland Jazz Festival, as well as being active in numerous other organizations.

As he looks toward retirement, he has a lot of dreams.

As a guitarist and huge music fan, “I want to be the first person who does food and music successfully,” he says. “Nobody’s done that. That’s always simmering.”

Also, he’s a heavy traveler, visiting Europe every six months with different friends and family members, including Julie, his wife and restaurant partner of 31 years.

Not surprisingly, the food is a huge part of his travels: “Everything has to be scripted. I can’t go anywhere without knowing where I’m having lunch and dinner.”

So what does it take to run a successful restaurant in Portland?

Machado says humility is key: “I could make a deal next week, open a restaurant and go out of business in the next six months. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is a damn fool.”

When it comes to location scouting, some say Machado has a crystal ball for establishing the next hot spot — on Southeast Division, in the Lloyd District and in Nel Centro’s part of downtown before they all saw their Renaissance.

He’s constantly reflecting on the past and looking ahead.

As Baby Boomers age, Millennials globetrot and social media levels the playing field about food knowledge, Machado has seen the rise of food trucks, local artisans, pop-up dinners and what he calls the “rebel restaurants,” with their farm-dug beets and half-hogs broken down in the kitchen that morning.

As he looks to the future, Machado hopes that Portland’s gentrifying inner city doesn’t lead to such a rent increase that young chef/owners are priced out.

The low barrier to entry “has made us a great food city over the last 20 years,” he says.

Michelle Glass, who’s worked as Nel Centro’s general manager since it opened, says she appreciates how Machado is “never needing to be part of the cool kids, just focusing on good food and drinks, on what people are looking for without chasing the latest trend.”

Now that new hotels, restaurants and businesses will soon pop up all around Altabira in the Lloyd District, Machado couldn’t be happier. But he’s not resting on his laurels.

“We have to execute,” he says. “I’m not driven by money, fame or power. I can care less. If the restaurant’s full, I’m happy.”

Check it out:

• Altabira, 1021 N.E. Grand Ave., www.altabira.com

• Nel Centro, 1408 S.W. Sixth Ave., www.nelcentro.com

@jenmomanderson

Read the article on the Portland Tribune.

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