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As restaurants around town come and go, savvy eaters want an experience, not just a meal; chef Vitaly Paley shares his views

COURTESY: LOCAL HAVEN - Vitaly Paley, one of Portland's most lauded chefs, ruminates on the challenges of being creative yet accessible for diners in the city's ever-changing food scene. From vegan pies to greasy pepperoni, deep dish to wood-fired (with an egg on top), hole-in-the-walls to gourmet takeout, there's no shortage of incredible pizza in P-town.

Why would anyone open another pizza place? Is there room for one? Are people hungry for it?

Vitaly Paley thinks so. Last June he opened The Crown, a New York-style pizza restaurant that caters to the downtown lunch crowd as well as the late-night cocktail crowd.

Compared to decades ago, before Portland's restaurant boom, people are a lot more savvy, says the chef/owner of Imperial, Headwaters and Paley's Place, which turns 25 in a couple of years. "They know a good pizza from a bad pizza."

COURTESY: LOCAL HAVEN - The Crown, Vitaly Paley's newest venture, serves up New York-style pizza. Paley opened The Crown in the high-profile downtown location of one of his other restaurants, Portland Penny Diner, which he'd shuttered just months before, after a five-year run.

He's not the only Portland chef lately to close one restaurant and launch another in the same space — with mixed results:

• Chef/owner Jenn Louis shuttered Sunshine Tavern, then she opened the Black Dog Lounge in the same spot, but it closed six months later. She also closed Lincoln on North Williams and opened Ray in its place.

• Chef/owners Jose Chesa and Cristina Baez closed Chesa on Northeast Broadway after a slow winter, and now use the space for pop-up paella dinners and a private event space.

• Chef/owner Gabe Rosen's Biwa closed to make room for his Parasol Bar, but then was reincarnated as Biwa once more.

• Ox chef/owners Greg Denton and Gabby Quinonez closed their quirky Superbite downtown, opening the elegant Bistro Agnes in its place.

And so, the year 2017 was a wild year in Portland food.

Some eaters are still mourning the loss of some of the city's beloved icons, like The Original Taco House, Embers, Ringside Grill and Der Rheinlander, which closed after several decades.

Other eateries closed after just a few short months or years, such as Omerta, Muscadine, The Commons, Hamlet, Mi Mero Mole in Southeast Portland and dozens others.

Still, however, Portland's restaurant tally continues to grow each year, despite the closures.

Multnomah County had a total of 3,359 restaurant licenses in 2017, up 40 net licenses from the prior year and a steady, continued rise from the 2,652 in 2005.

If it doesn't work, move on

If you ask Paley, change is good, even though the heartbreak of closing a restaurant is something no one wants to experience.

If a chef is able to repurpose their own space with a fresh concept, "it's not inexpensive, but sometimes the investment is worth it," he says. "It's a solid business decision to change and to do something that's going to be more viable and sustainable.

In Paley's own situation, he opened Imperial and Portland Penny Diner within months and blocks of each other in 2012. With high-quality, accessible breakfast and lunch menus, Portland Penny Diner was meant as an indoor option to compete with the food carts nearby.

But the model had its flaw: "We tried to stay open throughout the evening, but the atmosphere wasn't as enticing to the evening-goers," he says. Paley bolstered the bar and happy hour offerings to draw more evening exposure, but "it was time to move on," he says. "Everyone was talking about how that corner is perfect for a bar, and what goes best with drinks? Everybody loves pizza."

So he kept the same footprint but changed some of the kitchen equipment, the furniture and the decor. "We put in some cool, sexy prints, made it darker looking, and all of a sudden crowds came," Paley says. The new concept draws lunchtime crowds as well as dinner and drink crowds, and is 100-percent authentic.

The pizza chef is a third-generation pizza maker from Naples, a former sous chef at Headwaters, who's "been carrying in his back pocket his grandmother's starter (dough)," Paley says. "Every little pizza we make has a little of his starter."

Yet it's not without Paley's personal stamp as well. "I was raised in New York City, eaten (New York-style pizza) all my life," he says. "I like to think our pizza is a little bit of of New York City, a little bit of soul from Naples, and a little bit of Portland funk."

There's good reason for so many pizza joints in Portland — it's classic comfort food. And that, Paley says, is definitely in high demand right now.

"Even though we might be in a mild state of anxiety, we don't want to be challenged at the dinner table," he says. "Comfort foods are king. Pizza, barbecue, burgers, dumplings — those are the things we can associate with, if we make it tasty and delicious."

@jenmomanderson

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