Is West Linn's food scene on the rise?
On a warm late summer evening, family and friends laugh, eat and drink outside La Fiesta Mexican Kitchen, Nineteen33 Taproom, Lil Cooperstown Bar and Grill and J. Willys. A little further along the street, more people enjoy cold beer and cider in the spacious indoor/outdoor patio of Willamette Ale & Cider House. Just across the street, people enjoy the new food carts of Willamette Garage, and around the corner, diners indulge in grilled king salmon and hand-crafted cocktails at Avanti. Up on the hill, people eat fresh-caught sushi and sip expensive whiskey at Sushi Kuni. Down on Highway 43, families pack into Backyard Burger to enjoy fries, burgers and shakes for a local school's dine out night.
These scenes took place at just a few of the eateries that are part of West Linn's rising food scene. Some have been local staples for years, while others have excited residents with their new offerings after opening just in the past few months.
Mark Carruth, owner of Avanti, said the upward trajectory of the restaurant scene in places like West Linn correlates with the fact that many people aren't inclined to travel to downtown Portland to eat.
He said things are going well at Avanti after opening in early June.
"It's a great location, in my opinion," Carruth said. "This is the spot I wanted and this is the spot I ended up getting into."
After Avanti's Tualatin location closed in 2020, Carruth put over $100,000 in remodel work and other costs into reopening the restaurant in West Linn.
In recent months, others have also invested significant time, money and resources in opening a new eatery in town.
The owners of Sushi Kuni spent more than two years working to open the upscale Japanese restaurant on Salamo Road. They brought chefs, bartenders, traditional decor, drinks and fresh fish across the Pacific to bring their restaurant to life.
Doing so required both perseverance and patience as they waited for pandemic restrictions to subside and the paperwork necessary for personnel and products to make the journey from Japan.
The owners of the newly opened Willamette Garage food cart pod showed similar dedication and persistence in their efforts to transform the dilapidated Russ Auto Care site.
When the three friends — Mary Brennock, Kris Tuor and John Stromquist — bought the property in 2021, the city didn't have rules for food carts in place and the site contained environmental hazards. They worked for months with the city and Department of Environmental Quality to establish food cart regulations and take care of the environmental concerns.
What inclined the owners of these three restaurants to spend so much time, money and effort on opening new eateries here?
For one thing, they saw an opportunity to fill a gap in restaurant services in the area. Brandon Leong, one of the owners of Sushi Kuni, said there were no late night options in West Linn, so they wanted Sushi Kuni to fill that role. Carruth said there weren't any restaurants quite like Avanti in town.
West Linn Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Shatrine Krake also mentioned geography as one factor that could lead people to eat in West Linn. Thoroughfares like Highway 43 and I-205 make it easy for people from surrounding communities to come to West Linn for dinner, Krake said.
Other than location, Krake said community support is another boon for restaurants in town. Particularly during the pandemic, West Linn residents rallied to support local restaurants burdened by shutdowns, closed dining rooms and limited seating capacity.
"That has allowed more people to see the vibrancy in the area," Krake said.
Brennock, one of the Willamette Garage co-owners, said in the first few weeks of opening, customers thanked her and the food cart pod's other owners.
"People tell me, 'thank you so much for doing this. This is great for our community,'" Brennock said.
Steve Schwartz, a Gladstone man, opened Backyard Burger Company in the Robinwood neighborhood with his family last summer. He said he chose the location because he'd worked at the restaurants that previously occupied the space and grew to enjoy the neighborhood and its people.
Just as the West Linn community supports the local restaurants, Krake said the restaurants are equally eager to interact with the community.
"They are very focused on giving back to and involving themselves in the community," Krake said. "That connection has helped their business skyrocket and given roots to it as well."
Krake believes that the success of restaurants that have been around for several years, like San Blas, La Fiesta, Nineteen33 and the Willamette Ale & Cider House, has helped spur the more recent restaurant openings. These mainstays have attracted people to the area but also served as an encouraging indication to other restaurateurs that they could find success in West Linn.
Carruth is hopeful West Linn can become a destination for people to come and eat, with multiple options just a few minutes from each other.
Krake is similarly optimistic, particularly with the city of West Linn working on development plans for Highway 43 and the Willamette River waterfront area.
"I think growth is just gonna skyrocket and it'll be such a wonderful thing to enhance the city," she said.
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