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Fine Brew Meets Fine Dining

Brian Kimmel, Optic Nerve Productions
Brian Kimmel, Optic Nerve Productions


Higgins Restaurant

1239 SW Broadway,

Portland, OR 97205


Owners: Greg Higgins and Paul Mallory

For the past 16 years, professional reviewers (and, much more recently, bloggers and yelpers) have been enthusiastic about the food at Higgins Restaurant. Chef Greg Higgins, a James Beard Foundation award winner in 2002, is renowned for his mastery of Pacific Northwest cuisine and his use of local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients. But his place in downtown Portland, Oregon, which he owns and operates with Co-owner and Bar Manager Paul Mallory, also attracts those who are more interested in what’s on tap. Beer continues to be serious business here, so much so that the management has a suds steward on staff. According to Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster’s Table, Higgins boasts one of the best and most extensive beer lists to be found in a fine dining restaurant anywhere in the country.

Options and Expert Advice

Even in Portland, a city with so many microbreweries and brew pubs that it’s been nicknamed “Beervana,” the handpicked and constantly changing lineup of esoteric labels at Higgins is a standout. There are about 140 American craft brewed and imported selections—including a dozen on tap, a variety of Belgians, and cask-conditioned and cellared beers—that patrons can enjoy in the pub or in a separate white-tablecloth dining area. The availability of regional artisan brands echoes the kitchen’s focus on local sourcing. In combination with the chef’s inventive bistro-style, farm-driven menu, the depth and breadth of beer offerings have established the restaurant as a destination for area residents and visitors, culinary connoisseurs, and devoted hopheads.

            The list, originally created by Warren Steenson who is currently taking a health sabbatical, has grown incrementally over time. Jason Button, who functions as the equivalent of a sommelier, is tasked with managing it, a job that happily, he says, requires much sipping to keep up with what’s available. He stocks beers that practically nobody else carries on the West Coast or, for that matter, in North America. Button is out on the floor nightly helping patrons match beers with food, and he can design a pairing dinner on the spot. There are no flights, suggested pairings on the menu, or scheduled beer dinners. “These things are for amateurs,” Button explains, “and they’re not our target audience.” 

The restaurant typically attracts an adventurous and discerning clientele, including a contingent of industry workers. Mallory notes, “When we seat people in the bar or dining room, we include a beer list along with the wine list. That is the extent of our convincing.” But guest questions about beer receive expert attention. Servers and bartenders, who are all beer savvy—a result of extremely low turnover, weekly sampling sessions, and a daily shift pour—try to interest less knowledgeable patrons in new brews. “Some people are overwhelmed by the number of choices,” Button says. “We engage them in conversation about what they like and can respond with informed individualized recommendations.”

 Tastes of anything on tap are given frequently and for free. The rare request for what the chef considers “insipid American lagers” is met with a suggestion of something “similar but better.” A few cans of mainstream brands are kept on hand for the most inflexible customers.

There’s a satisfying mix of big names and boutique vintners for wine enthusiasts, and markups are lower than the industry average. Mallory views wine and beer sales as complementary, not competitive. “Beer drinkers are a separate crowd, and they come here specifically for that. From the beginning, our idea was to have a beer program that gave us access to them and their dollars.”  

Making a Statement

According to Mallory, beverages account for 35 percent of all restaurant sales, with beer credited with nine percent, about half of wine sales. “Our pouring cost for liquor is only 25 percent, but it’s not a big part of our bar business,” he offers. Beer pouring costs are about 33 percent and, Mallory explains, “Wine generates a higher dollar amount than beer, but our pouring cost is 39 to 40 percent.” The increase in the price of craft beers has led to slimmer profit margins, but this is counterbalanced by volume. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” Mallory continues, “that beer sales actually increase overall beverage sales and that as the program has matured and expanded, it’s had a positive impact on restaurant traffic.”

             As with wine, a restaurant that provides the proper glassware makes a statement. Higgins believes that it demonstrates respect for the beverage and a desire to ensure guests the best possible experience. Bar shelves are lined with glass and ceramic steins, pilsner and weizen glasses, chalices for Chimay, flutes for fruit beers, and wide-mouth tumblers with tapered “waists” meant for British ales. “If you’re paying $10 to $12 for a rare premium brew, you want it to be special. The right vessel captures aromas and enhances the flavor.” It’s also a marketing tool. “The many shapes and sizes moving through the rooms attract attention and prompt questions.”

Sudsy Challenges

Specialty beer glassware may be a plus for sales, but Higgins confesses that storage space is an ongoing issue. And that’s not the only challenge. Tap handle lines require regular and skilled servicing to ensure the excellence of every pull. Tracking what’s in the cellar and coolers isn’t just about counting. “I’m constantly trying to figure out what we need,” says Button who’s been with Higgins since 2007. “Two bottles of an obscure Belgian can last three days or three weeks. Our bottle list changes every three months, 11 of the drafts every eight weeks, and we always have a seasonal old-school, noncarbonated guest cask on tap that switches from keg to keg.”

            Maintaining the quality and variety of their offerings and overseeing the inventory require an ongoing investment of manpower and money, but Greg Higgins insists that the payback outweighs the expense. “We get a lot of PR value out of our beer program. It’s helped us build a loyal local following and a national reputation. You can’t even begin to put a price tag on that.”


Food-Beer Pairing with Greg Higgins                                                                                                                                      

Baked Virginia Oysters with Oregon Bay Shrimp, Leeks, and a Lemon Mornay Sauce with

Delirium Tremens

Rich golden malt character plays off the richness of the lemon cream. The higher alcohol level holds up to the intense flavors of the leeks, shellfish, and cheese.

Higgins Restaurant Charcuterie Plate with Housemade Pickles with

Rogue Sesquicentennial Ale

Nice hop character and medium body show well against the complex smoked and fermented flavors of the charcuterie. The ale has enough weight to balance the briny-vinegary flavors of the pickles.

Whole Pig Plate (sausage, braised belly, ribs, rillons, and crépinette) with Braised Greens, a Warm Potato salad and Diablo Sauce with Hair of the Dog  Adam—Cherry of the Woods

Massive, complex flavors of fruit and wood with bold hops on the palate balance and counter the rich fatty nature and layered flavors of the Whole Pig Plate.


 [TG1]Weve used the title "Beer Takes the High Road" in volume 11 number 4.

Laura Taxel writes about food and business for many publications. She's the author of Cleveland Ethnic Eats.

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