Photo by John Valls
For many years in Portland beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s and beyond, Genoa Restaurant was not just a premiere destination for sophisticated, authentic Italian cuisine - it was the place. In a nation of Chef Boyardees, Genoa was Marcella Hazan, the grand dame.
But the restaurant at 2832 Southeast Belmont Street closed in 2008 and, by that time, despite its exquisite food, the restaurant felt like an anachronism, all worn carpet and seven-course meals.
Now, it's a pleasure to report that Genoa is not only back, but the restaurant's original location has been updated to include an adjacent cafe one is likely to frequent on a much more regular basis.
Photos by Brian Libby
Architecturally speaking, I'd argue the renovated restaurant (pictured above) is vastly better than the old Genoa ever was. Much as we foodies may have swooned at the arancini (fried risotto balls), the homemade pastas and all the other exquisite food at the old Genoa courtesy of great chefs like Kathy Whims and Jerry Huisinga, I never loved the interiors or layout. The kitchen was so small that a lot of wait staff duties like gathering silverware and pouring drinks were out with the diners. The curtains were closed so natural light was practically nonexistent, meaning you had either fluorescent light or near darkness. I can appreciate a fine dining restaurant trying to carve out an intimate space, but even when the food was great I'd have preferred the inside to upgrade from the textures and approach of the Carter administration.
By contrast, Genoa's new dining room (pictured immediately above and below) is beautifully rendered with wood floors, curtains and a fireplace, even as familiar bits of the old restaurant like a beautiful armoire remain. Curtains still assure the space does not have a fishbowl effect, but storefront glass allows more natural light to come through. A wall now separates the dining room from the kitchen, with the small wall that was there now removed.
Photo by John Valls
Yet if diners want to experience an open kitchen and a more casual atmosphere with a coule of courses instead of seven, the adjacent cafe, known as Accanto, has a more open feel, both figuratively and literally speaking. The kitchen area is completely with a row of barstools surrounding the cooks.
Overall, Accanto (pictured below) is much more in keeping with casual and more affordable restaurants of recent years that still have great food, neighborhood spots like Savoy, Cafe Castagna or Bar Mingo. You can stop there for a wild boar ragut sandwich at lunch, like I did, or even a late-morning espresso, like a few locals seem to do. There are also entrees of the same quality you'll find next door in the dining room, only available a la carte.
Photos by Brian Libby
The team behind Genoa's rebirth included architecture firm Works Partnership and the design-build company Siteworks as well as Fix, an interdisciplinary design studio. I liked the simple layout of the restaurant, although what may have stood out most, at least to my eyes, was the richness of the materials, some of which were older salvaged materials and others that were newer and polished. [Note: I originally did not include Fix in my list of design credit along with Works and Siteworks - apologies for that. There are also several subcontractors whom I may not have mentioned.]
The bar at Accanto, for example, is made with live-edge walnut (pictured below), meaning it undulates with the tree's remaining knots and crevices. But Jean-Pierre Veillet, owner of Siteworks, also combined the walnut with steel, part of a series of subtle contrasts throughout the space such as the black and white tiles on the kitchen's back wall, the steel mirror and the kumaru wood floors, and the open and secluded halves of the restaurant itself.
Wood makes a lot of different appearances. Another favorite material I saw was a salvaged set of double doors (pictured above) in the Genoa dining room that originally were part of a church. Accanto also has a wall in back clad in wood with built-in bookshelves, and the ceiling is festooned with slats of wood that partially but not entirely cover the ceiling rafters behind it.
Veillet, a native Portlander, has an interesting history. Trained as an artist at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, he later taught sculpture there for eight years and now funds a scholarship at the school. You can see the ongoing artistic love in some of the first-rate artworks Veillet has lent to Accanto, such as a portrait called "Same Ol' Same Ol'" by legendary local painter Arvie Smith at the front of the restaurant and an original Chuck Close artwork on the way to the bathroom. Veillet's portfolio also includes design-build services for retail clients like the Lizard Lounge clothing store in the Pearl District.
A "Design Statement" Viellet emailed explains, "With his firm, Siteworks, Veillet has taken his background in site-specific art and mixed it with a serious shot of writing, poetry, and experience to produce spaces that communicate with people through objects, design, and elegance."
Another of his projects, a temporary store for the clothing company Nau, was featured last month in the New York Times. In that piece, Eric Wilson wrote:
"The green movement in fashion, in which designers do go on about hugging the planet with their biodynamic cotton henleys, would appear to be at odds with the 'pop up' shop movement in fashion, in which the very same designers open temporary stores, lavishly redecorate them and then, when they close a few weeks later, toss all the fixtures, lights and displays to the curb."
Mr. Veillet said his idea was to create a space using materials that were almost entirely rooted in New York City’s waste stream — fallen tree limbs found on the street, timber and metal pipes from derelict Brooklyn factories and piles of discarded cardboard boxes — so that when the store closes, at least the garbage won’t be new."
Veillet and Works Partnership also have another project in the works, a series of what they're calling "eco flats", or low-cost, high-density, multifamily housing units, on Williams Avenue.