Bread & Brew: 20 questions for Portland's favorite mother
One year ago, the popular Mother's Bistro & Bar opened a bigger space in the Embassy Suites hotel, 319 S.W. Pine St. in downtown Portland.
Flocked wallpaper, chandeliers, and comfortable booths create a warm and elegant kitsch. And more space means shorter waits for a table. As it has for the past two decades, Mother's menu features a different M.O.M. (Mother of the Month) to spotlight homestyle dishes from around the world.
The name of the restaurant is very fitting, because the woman behind it all, owner Lisa Schroeder, has her own story of starting over at age 35 and joining the restaurant business, dealing with the tragic loss of her daughter and raising two grandsons.
As her restaurant turns 20 years old, the Tribune caught up with Schroeder for 20 questions:
Tribune: What's new at Mother's Bistro & Bar? How are you settling in to your space on Southwest Third?
Schroeder: We're now open seven days a week, 365 days a year, until 11 p.m. nightly. And we just invested in sound panels on the ceiling, which really helps keep sound levels down and makes for a better dining experience for our guests.
Though we've only been in our new space for a year, it really feels like home. Working conditions are so improved for staff that everyone is much happier. We've settled in and have a great rhythm going, but I have to pinch myself now and then because I can't believe we actually made the move.
Tribune: Down-to-earth, delicious food is the point here, but it's always been about more than the food at Mother's, hasn't it? Warmth and nurturing is at the heart of what you do. What if anything has changed since Mother's first opened 20 years ago?
Schroeder: If anything, we've refined and fine-tuned who we are. We've taste-tested and found the best butter, best grass-fed beef and other ingredients that make our food even better than before. We now offer half-size portions of our signature dishes, so people can either eat lighter or try two dishes for the price of one. We added some healthier dishes (stir fry, Mediterranean and salmon bowls), since we want to encourage a balanced diet. And with the move, we created a new and improved kid area and a bigger kid's menu.
Tribune: You started Mother's to create the kind of restaurant you wanted but couldn't find. Does that still drive the vision?
Schroeder: Absolutely! It's still hard to find a restaurant like mine that serves home cooking from mothers around the world. In addition, our service is top-notch and the ambience we've created is like a warm hug when you walk in the door. And at a time when so many Portland restaurants are moving away from table service to counter service, we're committed to providing the highest-caliber table service with an approachable, affordable menu.
Tribune: Can you be a good mom but a lousy cook?
Schroeder: Not everybody has the cooking instinct, but mothering is innate. You can definitely be a great mom who can't cook; you just have to be great at procuring good food for your family so they're well-nourished. Nowadays there is great takeout available at supermarkets. I especially love the stir-fry/salad bar at New Seasons.
Tribune: What's your home kitchen like and what's your favorite gadget?
Schroeder: It's currently torn up. We had a flood back in November and have been working on new kitchen plans ever since. My favorite gadget is my heatproof rubber spatula. Great for cooking eggs, stirring and making sure I get every last drop of something.
Tribune: What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
Schroeder: Don't try to do everything myself. Hire good people to take things off my plate.
Tribune: You worked you're butt off. Changing careers at 35 and putting yourself through cooking school; learning the restaurant business and raising your daughter. Do those hard days feel distant or recent?
Schroeder: They seemed like yesterday, because though it was hard, it was so rewarding. I was so fulfilled doing what I love. I have been working my butt off since getting into this business and things haven't slowed down for me yet. Now I'm running Mother's Bistro & Bar and helping raise my twin 7-year-old grandsons, so I'm living the same life I lived back then.
Tribune: Your beloved daughter, Stephanie, died in a hiking accident in 2016 while saving her son. What got you through that tragic time and how do you choose to commemorate her life?
Schroeder: I had no choice but to get through the tragic time because I had to be there for my grandchildren. I am supporting Stephanie's family and helping raise my twin grandsons. That's what drove me to move Mother's Bistro & Bar; I want it to be around for a long time, since I'll be supporting my grandchildren for at least another 11 years. My daughter lives on through her children, so the way I commemorate her is making sure they are well-raised and taken care of every way I can. It's the one thing I can do for my daughter every day.
Tribune: What's one of the first rules of hospitality you impart to servers and staff?
Schroeder: Smile. Always smile. It's the most important part of our uniform.
Tribune: What dishes bring you closest to your mom and memories of her special brand of cooking?
Schroeder: Two of them are on our menu at Mother's — matzoh ball soup and chopped liver.
Tribune: Portland's food scene has exploded since Mother's opened 20 years, and many new restaurants don't survive. What has been the key to Mother's longevity?
Schroeder: Some restaurateurs think they can open a restaurant with no prior restaurant experience. Before I opened Mother's Bistro & Bar, I made sure I could do every job in the restaurant, from cooking the meal, making the drink, serving the food and bussing the table. I continue to be involved in the day-to-day operation of my business. I continue to seat my guests, make their food, take their orders and clear their table. In addition, over the last 20 years we have built a team of people who are passionate about service and caring for others. We've remained consistent over the years while evolving with the tastes of our guests.
Tribune: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Schroeder: It matters to me what people think. I want to make everyone happy, as impossible a task as that might be.
Tribune: What do you like to do on your day off?
Schroeder: Sit and read The New York Times while eating an everything bagel with cream cheese.
Tribune: What bothers you about Portland today?
Schroeder: The people who complain that Portland isn't "what it used to be." Who wants things to always stay the same? Evolution is good. I'm also bothered by people complaining about the houseless. People are on the streets for many reasons. If Portlanders would develop compassion toward others instead of displeasure, perhaps together we can come to viable solutions.
Tribune: What do you still love?
Schroeder: Even with all its growth, Portland feels like a small town to me compared to New York City. Contrary to what others might say, I feel like it's easy to get around and park in downtown Portland.
Tribune: What keeps you interested in your labor of love, the restaurant business?
Schroeder: Every day is different. There's always a new challenge, project, menu or situation that requires me to open my mind, think and come up with a solution.
Tribune: What do you make when you want to make something a bit fussy and special?
Schroeder: Risotto with white alba truffles.
Tribune: Do you have any special traditions or ways that you like to spend Mother's Day?
Schroeder: Unfortunately, no. I have been committed to helping other mothers celebrate that day for the last 20 years. It's not about me.
Tribune: What flavors or foods are you enjoying most these days?
Schroeder: Indian food! I like to get food that I don't usually make.
Tribune: Do you have any guilty pleasures? Do you ever break down and order from Postmates or Instacart?
Schroeder: No. Our bread at Mother's Bistro & Bar. The bakery vents into my office and every time the bread comes out of the oven or the biscuits are baking, I simply cannot resist grabbing one. Every day I start my no-carb diet and every day I go off it.
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