Welcome to the February edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Chad Conley. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.
“It feels right.” That’s one phrase Chad Conley kept coming back to when describing some of his favorite dishes and restaurants in Portland. Whether it’s somewhere that feels “untouched by time” or “welcomes all walks of life,” the way a place makes him feel often creates a more memorable experience than the food itself.
It’s no wonder his own restaurants offer more than an excellent meal. The Palace Diner experience starts before you even walk through the door. With only fifteen seats, you’ll be waiting outside among several other eager customers. Inside, you’ll feel like you’re in an entirely different decade, but which one? Built in 1927, the original manufacturing labels and hood are still in place while the stainless steel was likely added in the sixties and the mixed tile work is reminiscent of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, depending on where you’re looking. As for the food, it’s familiar, yet surprising, and has just the right amount of grease. You can’t go wrong no matter what you order from his Instagram-famous tuna salad sandwich to buttermilk flapjacks that are so good Epicurious snagged the recipe.
Rose Foods is another time warp, outfitted with retro decor and inspired by a combination of a mid-century Jewish deli and an appetizing store. An appetizing is the lesser-known cousin to the Jewish deli. The two are distinctly different. A deli sells meat whereas an appetizing sells fish, spreads, and other foods commonly eaten with bagels. At Rose Foods, you can have both; whether it’s a pile of hot pastrami on tender rye bread or a housemade bagel with a schmear of cream cheese and smoked sable. In true appetizing fashion, you can also purchase containers of sour pickles, prepared salads, and other goodies to enjoy at home.
Both Palace Diner and Rose Foods are adored by locals and tourists alike, not just for the food, but for the memorable dining experience each provides. Whether it’s nostalgia, a glimpse into a previous era, or simply the warm and welcoming staff, there’s something about eating at Palace Diner and Rose Foods that just feels right.
AA: What is it, as a serial entrepreneur, that guides your decision-making about what makes for a good restaurant concept?
CC: It’s blend of intuition, inspiration, and experience. I’m not operating in a well-financed restaurant group that has the ability to put a lot of energy into research. The big ideas are guided mostly by moving in whatever direction seems fun and interesting at the time and doing a gut-check to see if I think that people will respond to that type of food and experience. I’ve been fortunate that my own interests have lined up well with the interests of Portland’s food scene.
AA: Where did you come up with the idea to serve a thick slice of iceberg lettuce on the tuna sandwich at Palace Diner?
CC: When I was working at Jean-Georges in New York City we did this raw fish dish with iceberg. I had to cut the head of lettuce into a cube and then sculpt perfect rectangular pieces from it and then we would drape a slice of madai on top, sort of like nigiri. So, when we started designing the tuna sandwich at Palace, we wanted to use that technique instead of shredding the lettuce or just using individual leaves. It adds a lot more crunch and height.
AA: Do you have a favorite menu item at Rose Foods?
CC: If there is one thing I eat often at Rose, it’s the whitefish salad sandwich. It’s different from most whitefish salad, which is usually really smooth and mayonnaise-y. Ours is chunky and very lightly dressed. It’s a lot more substantial.
AA: Where in Portland do you like to go out to eat with your family?
CC: Yosaku is one of our spots. We sit down and they’re pouring water and before we even look at the menu we’re like, ‘Can we please order a Kids Bento Box?’ It’s this tower of little dishes and a bowl of miso soup. The top is just the lid, but it’s also a shallow bowl. The middle has seaweed salad, edamame, and something sweet. The bottom has rice, your choice of protein, and a cooked vegetable. It’s inexpensive and fun for the kids.
AA: I heard you have a weakness for soft serve. Where do you go for it?
CC: The Dairy Queen in South Portland. It’s independently owned. They don’t participate in the national promotions you see on television. To me, it’s what soft serve ice cream should be. It’s thick, it’s runny, it’s just fake enough that it feels about right.
AA: What do you order?
CC: A small vanilla cone with chocolate dip. Occasionally, I’ll try something random just to shake it up, and everytime I’m like, ‘Oh, yea I should have gotten the usual.’
AA: Have you had Honey Paw’s soft serve?
CC: Yes, it’s really good. I go there when I want something fancier and more interesting. It’s different. It’s a little more dense. The flavors are really intense and they add fancy, crunchy toppings. There’s the classic and a seasonal one. I usually get both.
AA: Do you have a go-to restaurant?
CC: J’s Oyster Bar is a staple for me. I always get a dirty martini with extra olives. You get a full martini glass plus this mini carafe that’s basically another drink. It’s a lot of booze, but it feels like the right environment for it. It’s divey and luxurious at the same time.
AA: What do eat?
CC: I like to get a bucket of steamers, especially when I’m with people visiting Portland for the first time. You go through the ritual, like, ‘This is how you peel the clam, then you dip it in water, and then the butter.’ A lot of people have never done that before.
AA: There are a lot of places to get steamers in Portland. Is there a reason you go to J’s in particular?
CC: It has a little bit more of the soul of Portland. It’s on the waterfront. It feels sort of untouched by time and it’s also a very welcoming place. It feels nice to share space with people you might not otherwise. I like places that encourage that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Editor’s Note: Since this interview took place, Conley began working on a third restaurant. Ramona’s is a Philly-inspired breakfast and lunch hoagie shop under construction at 98 Washington Ave slated to open this spring.