The Portland food pro on his new Hotel Eastlund eateries, beer, and why hotels love chefs.
By Kelly Clarke
For three decades now, David Machado has been building and running large-scale food operations that strike a balance between serving as a home away from home for travelers and a destination for locals.
He’s best known as the man behind Hotel Modera’s successful pre-theater haunt Nel Centro; others trade memories of drinks at his Southpark wine bar or Italian grub at Pazzo, the venerable downtown fine diner he built and ran for Hotel Vintage Plaza in the 1990s (just one of six Kimpton properties he launched). And longtimers still get positively weepy reminiscing over the chef’s independent project, Lauro Mediterranean Kitchen, the neighborhood bistro that made SE Division Street a destination before Pok Pok charcoal-fired its first game hen.
His latest salvo is the sky-high beer-centric restaurant Altabira City Tavern and smaller Citizen Baker cafe, a double-barreled blast for the Modera team’s new Hotel Eastlund, located right across the street the Oregon Convention Center. The two eateries may help transform the rapidly changing Lloyd District from a fast food wasteland to a chic dining go-to. On the eve of Altabira’s debut, we asked the food insider about beer, bread, and why a chef can be a hotel’s best friend.
1. YOU’VE BEEN IN THE HOTEL FOOD GAME FOR YEARS. WHAT DO ALTABIRA AND CITIZEN BAKER BRING TO THE TABLE?
With Altabira, I wanted to move out of the euro-centric, wine-based Mediterranean thing I’ve been doing for years. Every time there’s beer, for the most part, it’s in a brewpub or sports bar setting—very burly or clubby. What about a real restaurant that does dinner and a nice job with the menu, creative and fresh, but that aligns with beer? We’re working with dishes from some traditional beer cultures—England, Belgium, Germany—you can’t not do that. Pork schnitzel, a rabbit pot pie, smoked brisket…homey stuff that goes with beer and has connection with beer culture. Also, charcuterie—pate and rilletes, duck liver mousse. I’ve had to caution the kitchen about sugar and salt. It’s easy to start salting and curing and brining everything and soon enough everything becomes a ham! I’m trying to strike a balance.
We’ve gone as micro as we could on our 16 taps: Commons, Coalition, Breakside….We didn’t do any national brands, didn’t even do the regional brands that made Portland famous. We tried to choose producers in NE and SE Portland; operations that are around [the hotel]. There’s some people doing incredible work in beer right now—the balance and quality of the beers, making old recipes contemporary. My model customer knows some things about food, about beer and wine, and is traveled and educated. But when it comes to these young people making beer in Portland that I have on tap, they’ll be, “I just didn’t know.”
2. WHAT ABOUT CITIZEN BAKER?
I hadn’t opened a cafe since Pazzoria in 1994 or ’95. And I felt that if we were gonna do a café, we might as well do everything from the ground up—baguette, levain, beer bread, focaccia… It’s a tight program, we’re doing five or six things really well and we’ll leave it at that. Our pastry chef Natalie Harkness’ work is incredible—the apple strudel; her strawberry rhubarb hand pie. It’s tough to kick off an artisan baking program, but we got the starters right and figured the ovens out already. A bakery is very much a live operation; it’s a whole different world.
3. WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OPENING A NEIGHBORHOOD AND A HOTEL RESTAURANT?
They are completely different experiences—the lifestyle, who comes in and eats there. At Lauro, we came in as fundamentalists: we cooked what we wanted, said hi to everybody, and then went home. When you get in these bigger situations, you have to think of travelers, business people, people going to shows and sporting events…it’s a different model.
When the Modera owners came to me in 2008 to open Nel Centro, they had some criteria: they wanted a local chef that could come in and operate as a draw from the community. They wanted more than a service for guests, they wanted to create a destination for the city. That’s becoming more and more common. It’s often said that a hotel is a very profitable capitalist model except for food and beverage. But we’re in a cycle where savvy hoteliers are looking for independents [chef-operators] to lure in because a hotel is enhanced by the chef. That’s a big shift.
4. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF YOUR NEW NEIGHBORHOOD?
Hotel Eastlund is in a neighborhood that’s never had any fresh or real food—just formulaic chains. Having to eat here for the last two months while overseeing restaurant construction has been brutal—it’s just Red Robin and Denny’s; remnants from the Portland’s old Highway 99 of 30 years ago. But now, the whole neighborhood is in this massive state of flux. There was no master plan, it just happened that we got in right before all this major development. I hope it all works out; that we did the right thing. That saying is true: opening a restaurant is like birthing a baby, you say you’ll never do it again. And then you do.