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by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Liz Gross enjoys Salt & Straw's salted carmel cone, as patrons visit the various eating and drinking establishments along Southeast Division Street. The ice cream stand had 30 people waiting in line during one summer day.From the Woodsman Tavern in the east to Genies in the west, Southeast Division Street has a disproportionately high number of really good restaurants.

I think there’s something in the water that either makes the food taste better, or endows the people who prepare it with extra skill. When seemingly commonplace ventures — Thai food, say, or coffee — open on Division, they end up as nationally recognized spots like Pok Pok and Stumptown.

People who grew up in the neighborhood even swear that Dairy Queen on 56th and Division is better than other Dairy Queens.

The street has been a mix of homes and businesses since roughly the turn of the 20th century, but the quirks of history — most significantly plans to bulldoze the neighborhood for a freeway that was never built — depressed growth for decades, turning the street into an urban time capsule. Usually, the only way to figure out whether a photo of Division was taken in the 1940s or the 1990s is by the cars.

That is no longer true. Walking from 26th up to 39th, which I do often, I pass multiple new mixed-use buildings, major excavations, papered-over windows and familiar green notices, taped to windows, that say someone has applied for a liquor license.

In the past year, new restaurant openings along central Division include the Woodsman Tavern, Mi Mero Mole, Little Big Burger, Wafu, Double Dragon, Spielman Coffee, Townshend’s Tea, the Road Runner Café and Cibo, with more food and drink on the way.

Duane Sorenson of Stumptown and the Woodsman, is opening an Italian spot in the old Lauro space. Andy Ricker has a new restaurant planned for the old Kappaya sushi joint. It will be Ricker’s third restaurant on the street, all within three blocks of each other.

There’s going to be a new Mexican spot called Xico at 37th. The big paved lot at 33rd that was Ho’s Auto is empty, waiting a development that will house a third location for St. Honoré Boulangerie, and a third location for the rapidly expanding Salt and Straw ice cream empire.

For the summer, a small cart dispenses ice cream cones on the sidewalk — on a warm Friday night, the line was 30 people long.

In three years, people are going to be saying, “Five years ago, there was nothing here.”

Of course that’s not true. All the new buildings and businesses are really a second wave. The first wave started about 10 years ago, with places like Victory, the Detour Café, Little T American Baker, and Pok Pok, as well as Lauro (now closed) and Pix (closing at the end of July).

Before that, the “nothing” consisted of thrift stores, furniture repair shops and the Oregon Theater, a porn theater that remains in business.

Small-town feel

So why the sudden influx?

After a city-wide search, Marco Frattaroli chose Division for his new restaurant, Cibo, which opened on the corner of 35th Place a few weeks ago. Frattaroli, who has owned the Italian spot Basta’s on Northwest 21st Street for 20 years, says that basically, he just liked the neighborhood.

“It just felt right,” he says.

Frattaroli thinks the neighborhood demographics will work well with what he wants to do: casual, accessible Italian food, but with some leeway for experimentation.

He also had a lot of freedom with the space. The original 1920s building was being thoroughly restructured, giving Frattaroli control over the look of the interior — he designed it himself, and even built some of the furniture.

He calls the neighborhood “very close-knit, very friendly ... provincial, in a good sense.”

The small-town feeling makes the area appealing for newcomers, but it also makes change distressing for the old-timers, the people who remember Indigene and Ruthie’s and still refer to the taco cart as Tres Hermanos, even though it changed its name years ago.

You hear people saying it’s getting too “yuppified.” The demolition of the Egyptian Club, aka Weird Bar, wiped out a longtime mecca for lesbians. The site’s new building will house 82 apartments, and provide parking for about 20 cars. Parking is beginning to be an issue.

As an old-timer myself, I have mixed feelings. I want the neighborhood to prosper, and I love being able to walk to so many good restaurants.

But sometimes I get freaked out when I walk up the street and find it different than the week before. I’m afraid that the personality of the place will be eroded. At the same time, if I were going to open a restaurant in Portland, I would probably choose Division.

The Division/ Clinton Street Fair, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, July 28, http://facebook.com/DivisionClintonStreetFair


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