You don’t need to spend much time in Eugene to start noticing the hidden threads tying the food scene together. Start with a stroll through the Lane County Farmers Market’s just-opened downtown pavilion, built to resemble a greenhouse and serve as the cornerstone of the city’s new “town square.” In one corner, a stand selling the same vibrant greens used in a side salad at the chic nearby brunch spot, where your amiable server happens to be the same person who brought your hand rolls the night before at the manga-obsessed attic bar above the city’s best sushi spot.
It’s tempting to think of Eugene as a miniature Portland, or perhaps a Portland from a decade ago, when restaurants still name-checked farms on their menus and cultural appropriation battles had yet to be waged. But that would diminish the long food history of Oregon’s second largest city. The first farmer’s market was held at this same corner in 1915. The adjacent Saturday Market, with its international food court, was the inspiration for Portland’s own. (And for millennia before, the Kalapuya and other tribes fished Lane County’s rivers and streams, hunted for deer and elk and harvested camas and other bulbs, grains and roots from the fertile surrounding grasslands.)
The farm-to-table bona fides run especially deep here. Stephanie Kimmel, the city’s most influential restaurateur, opened the Excelsior Cafe in 1971 (the same year as Berkeley’s acclaimed Chez Panisse), where she highlighted local produce and poured some of Oregon’s first pinot noirs. After selling the cafe, she went on to open a half dozen local standouts, including Marché, a French-inspired bistro at the 5th Street Public Market, and Provisions Market Hall, a European-style specialty foods emporium next door.
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Yes, some of the Eugene stereotypes are true. Restaurants still have Jerry Garcia in heavy rotation on the soundtrack. If there’s merchandise, chances are it’s tie-dyed.
But the city continues to grow in new and interesting ways. Though old-school spots Beppe & Gianni’s and Cafe Soriah continue to resonate with fans, newer spots Party Bar and Lion and Owl find creative inspiration in the bounty of the seasons. Much of the city’s recent excitement is centered on food carts, and the Portland-style pods circling hi, wineries or tap rooms. Carts such as Pizzeria DOP and Yardy aren’t just good for mobile eateries, they’re two of the city’s best restaurants, period.
[A perfect 36-hour Eugene eating itinerary]
Over the past month, we visited Eugene several times in anticipation of Oregon22, also known as the World Athletics Championships, which will bring hordes of athletes, media and fans to the stunning new Hayward Field from July 15-24. Along the way, we ate our way through the top newcomers, checked in on some old favorites, and did our best to burn a few calories on a gorgeous hike up a local butte.
Whether you’re here for the big event, or just happen to be passing through town, here’s everything you need to know about one of Oregon’s most exciting restaurant scenes.
EUGENE’S ESSENTIAL RESTAURANTS
The first time I heard about this Japanese restaurant and bar, it was from Michelle Zauner, the author of the bestselling memoir “Crying in H Mart” and lead singer of the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast. Akira is the latest home for Taro Kobayashi, formerly chef at Mame, where Zauner broke down crying shortly after losing her mother — Kobayashi gave her a gift certificate for a free dinner with the words “cancer sucks” written on it. At Akira, reservations for the omakase dinners downstairs cost $100 per person, and often sell out quickly, though you can usually find a seat in the upstairs bar for sushi hand rolls and cocktails with house hazelnut orgeat. Find the menu slipped inside an old manga, then scan the room filled with tchotchkes, including Rescue Rangers figurines and a portrait of the samurai film legend Toshiro Mifune. 359 Mill St.
This adorable French restaurant south of downtown puts a more contemporary spin on French cuisine — you can eat nicely shucked oysters with sparkling wine, or try some escargot swimming in parsley butter alongside a Cuba libre old fashioned (the syrup is a cola reduction). The kitchen had a few misfires on our visit, including an unevenly cooked chunk of bone-in lamb and a mushroom tart gone soggy under its blanket of mushroom gravy, but the scallops were perfectly seared, and the shellfish Catalan (or any dish accompanied by the restaurant’s madeira cream sauce really) should be considered a must-order. 1530 Willamette St.
Black Wolf Supper Club
This street-level restaurant has long been home to one of Eugene’s hippest places to eat and drink. Before it was the Southern-fried Black Wolf Supper Club, it was Belly Taqueria, the taco-focused spin-off to Belly, one of the foundational restaurants of Eugene’s contemporary dining scene. Despite a recent ownership change, longtime local chef Mikey Lawrence remains in charge of the kitchen, meaning Black Wolf will remain an essential Eugene eatery for fluffy crab beignets, tasty shrimp and grits and cocktails that follow the unobtrusive New Orleans theme. One note: The dining room tends to fill up fast, and service can be hit or miss. If you’re just here for a quick cocktail and a snack, consider heading upstairs to the bar. 454 Willamette St.
Hey, Neighbor Pizza House
Whether you grew up here or just spent four years at the U of O, you probably have a favorite local pizzeria. For our money, the best in Eugene right now are traditional Neapolitan pizzas at Pizzeria DOP, the sourdough pies The Wheel Apizza Pub and the comforting 12-inch rounds at this converted blue bungalow. Found just across from Beppe & Gianni’s, conveniently close to Hayward Stadium, this is the place to come for big arugula salads with plenty of thick prosciutto and Parm, simple pies with good mozzarella, retro Ezzo pepperoni cups or even creamy clams. Ordering is done entirely on your phone, and the patio is a pleasant place to while away an afternoon. 1621 E. 19th Ave.
Local chains to know: High-strung gourmands might scoff, but when I think Eugene, one of the first things I think of are the healthful Jazzy Bowls at Cafe Yumm, a locally grown restaurant with 15 locations throughout the Northwest. (Wherever you go in the world, you’ll know you’ve met a Eugenean when you spot a jug of that tangy Yumm Sauce in their pantry.) Other local chains of note include Tacovore, a family-friendly taco spot with a Portland location, and Off the Waffle, which is temporarily only serving its Belgian waffles downtown thanks to the pandemic. Several well-known Portland restaurants with Eugene vibes have snagged a foothold down south, including burrito and bowl spot Laughing Planet, pizzeria Sizzle Pie and small burger joint Little Big Burger. Meanwhile, Voodoo Doughnut feels more at home these days next to Eugene’s Kesey Square than it does in downtown Portland.
Izakaya Meiji Company
Though it’s been open for 12 years, this restaurant focused on Japanese drinking snacks in Eugene’s hip Whiteaker neighborhood still feels modern, with an international whiskey selection, well-crafted cocktails and dishes that dip into itameshi, or Japanese-Italian fusion. Pull up a chair at one of the restaurant’s two bars and enjoy a Japanese whiskey flight with some basic skewers or tonkatsu sliced and served on a bed of purple cabbage, or try a bowl of spaghetti tossed in a shiso pesto and topped with sea urchin. Everyone orders bourbon and gingerade cocktails for good reasons (they’re delicious). 345 Van Buren St.
Lane County Farmers Market
Time it right, and you can find some of the Eugene area’s best bakeries, farms and food stalls setting up shop at the new Lane County Farmers Market pavilion each Tuesday or Saturday, part of what civic leaders hope becomes the city’s new “town square.” (That long line you see inside is for Creswell Bakery, the fantastic bakery found 15 minutes south of town). If you happen to visit on a Saturday, you’ll be just across from the Saturday Market, home to its own international food court, where you can usually find tasty jerk chicken and beef patties from Irie Jamaican Kitchen. Corner of Oak Street and East Eighth Avenue.
Lion and Owl
The first thing you notice at Lion and Owl, a buzzy brunch spot with sparkling wine by the glass or bottle and a subtle Great Gatsby vibe, is the shiny silver Airstream trailer, converted into a bar cart and parked in the dining room. As you might imagine, this is a place to — as the kids say — go big, with large-format dishes such as steak and eggs and herb-smothered salmon weighing in above $40. Smaller groups will eat well with a lofty breakfast sandwich with house sausage, egg and cheese or elegant egg dishes paired with fiddlehead ferns and other seasonal delights, as well as excellent pour-over coffees made to order. Whether you’re planning a bridal shower or a post-race celebration, Lion and Owl should be at the top of your list. Reservations strongly recommended at 60 E. 11th Ave.
Where to refuel with brunch: The perennial pick for “best hangover breakfast,” Brails is home to Sang Joo “Joy” Knudtson’s lengthy greasy spoon menu of breakfast dishes, simple sandwiches and rice bowls with Korean marinated meats and house kimchi. Vegans should make a bee line for Cornbread Cafe, a plant-based Southern-style breakfast joint blessed by none other than Guy Fieri himself. Tucked behind the 50-year-old Mazzi’s, the aptly named Hideaway Bakery bakes up rustic breads and pastries while its attached Farm Cart makes chilaquiles and breakfast burritos before 11:30 a.m. Founded as a food cart, adorable dessert bar The Vintage has been the place for sweet and savory crepes and craft cocktails since it moved into its current home in 2006.
With roots in one of the West Coast’s oldest farm-to-table restaurants, Marché feels like Eugene’s answer to Portland’s Higgins, an old-school institution with a popular bar and a kitchen focused on presenting the fresh and seasonal Willamette Valley produce. Our recent meal included a pair of large salads, one with a big handful of asparagus, a nicely poached egg and tender lardons, the other with petite carrots and a slightly overdressed arugula salad. Mains, including a simple French-style lamb stew, won’t exactly overwhelm you with flavor, but unless you’re willing to drive out to the restaurant King Estate winery 30 minutes southwest of town, there’s no better destination restaurant to ink that shoe deal. 296 E. Fifth Ave.
Noisette Pastry Kitchen
Locals love Sweet Life and Hideaway bakeries, but for my money, the city’s finest pastries come from this corner cafe just west of downtown Eugene. Named for the French word for hazelnut — Oregon’s official state nut, and a signature crop round these parts — Noisette specializes in an array of baked goods both savory and sweet from former Marché and King Estate pastry chef Tobi Sovak. Those include excellent croissants, pain au chocolat, macarons, delicate passion fruit and lemon meringue tarts and sinfully soft brioche buns stuffed with blueberries and whipped cream cheese. Opened in 2012, Noisette remains one of my 10 favorite Oregon bakeries, and a must visit during any trip to Eugene. 200 W. Broadway
Fresh-shucked Hama Hama oysters, well-crafted cocktails and the most creative menu in Eugene await you at Party Bar, the latest incarnation of the cart-turned-restaurant formerly known as (among other names) Party Downtown. A great place to graze, especially late, Party Bar serves up creative bar snacks aplenty, including hard boiled eggs both deviled and deep fried, fried chicken sliders and “gnocchi tots,” aka potato dumplings deep fried like tots for dipping in apple ketchup and white barbecue sauce. The simple burger, made with local beef cooked mid rare, lettuce, bread-and-butter pickles and that same white sauce on a house brioche bun, was my favorite of the half dozen we tried for this trip. 55 W. Broadway
On a recent visit, I found Pizzeria DOP owner Rocky Maselli and his dark green food truck parked next to Civic Winery, where he would soon be ferrying wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas into a room filled with international sommeliers in town for an Oregon Wine Board event Masselli, who trained in Naples while running the pizza ovens at A16 in the San Francisco Bay Area (and who happens to be Marché owner Stephanie Kimmel’s son-in-law), makes some of the finest Neapolitan-style pizzas in the Northwest. He is currently at work on Osteria DOP, a new Italian restaurant focused on the same traditional montanara (fried, then baked) pizzas served at the truck, plus fresh pastas and Italian cocktails in a space under construction behind a garage door at the back of this same small parking lot. (Varies, check website and social media for current locations and hours.)
Provisions Market Hall
If you don’t watch out, visiting foodies could spend their entire trip in and around this food lover’s market, which packs in a fragrant flower shop, cheese and charcuterie counters, interesting wines and arguably Eugene’s best cookbook selection. At the back, a counter-service bakery and restaurant offers everything from vanilla eclairs to breakfast sandwiches to grab-and-go sandwiches and salads for anyone planning an impromptu picnic (Eater PDX editor Brooke Jackson-Glidden, who stops by whenever she returns home, recommends the chili oil-soaked labneh). At lunch, drop by for soups, salads, pizza and a half dozen sandwiches, including a hot Italian, a Reuben or a griddled albacore tuna melt served with a simply dressed salad. Inside 5th Street Public Market, 296 E. Fifth Ave., with a South Eugene spin-off at 747 E. 32nd Ave. Suite C.
Before Japanese ramen chains started making inroads on the West Coast, ramen fans would travel 100 miles or more to eat Toshi’s Japanese noodle soups. Guess what? They’re still great, as is the restaurant itself, a place where families are greeted with a friendly, “What’s up, bro?!” and calls of “gyoza 1″ or accompany most orders. Owner Toshi Ishibashi has been here since 1999, and you’ll still spot him in the kitchen making ramen in a choice of shoyu (soy sauce), miso (vegetarian available) or shio (salty/clear) bases, plus hiyashi chuka (cold ramen) in the summer, with bouncy noodles slicked in soy, vinegar and sesame seeds, corn, sliced tomato and cucumber threads. I doubt there’s better ramen between Sacramento and Portland, or better no-frills — literally — gyoza in Oregon. 1520 Pearl St.
Classics with charm to spare: Local standout Beppe & Gianni’s, found inside a converted home near Hayward Stadium, fills up each night with the smell of roasted garlic and big plates of ravioli, lasagna and other house pasta specialties (and sits just across from two other longtime staples, Agate Alley Bistro and Prince Pückler’s Ice Cream). First opened at 5th Street Public Market in 1993, Cafe Soriah is the longtime home of Ibrahim Hamide, the man who introduced many Eugeneans to hummus, baba ghanooj and other Mediterranean standards. With roots in a late-1800s horse-drawn fish delivery service, Newman’s Fish Company continues to serve breaded and fried fish from two Eugene locations, the original just across from local landmark the Bier Stein.
As you might expect from its campus-adjacent location, Uniquely Chengdu’s menu is affordably priced, reasonably fast and consistently spicy. Hungry students head here for popcorn chicken, or a bag of barbecue pork buns for $10 or less per dish. Also known as Wheat Bay, the restaurant offers dozen noodle options, including BBQ pork, spicy hot pot and sauerkraut beef broths. Each arrive with either silky wontons or a choice of thick wheat- or rice-based noodles. In a town where most mapo tofu comes vegan by default, Uniquely Chengdu knows its way around ma and la, the hot and numbing pillars of Sichuan cuisine — here, that tofu arrives more traditionally, swimming in a slick and fragrant red gravy tossed with ground pork. 830 E. 13th Ave.
Isaiah Martinez, who followed Pizzeria DOP’s Maselli from San Francisco to Eugene, branched out on his own during the pandemic, launching a food cart devoted to the Caribbean dishes of his mixed Puerto Rican and Grenadan heritage. To put it simply, Yardy makes the best skillet-fried chicken I’ve tried in the Northwest, with marvelously tender free-range Mary’s birds soaked in buttermilk, tossed in a gluten-free flour blend and deep fried to order in a cast iron cauldron. Arrive at 4 p.m. to beat the rush, and order a big red-and-white box of chicken alongside a market plate of whatever fruit or veggies are currently in season, plus some Trinidadian-style doubles (fried turmeric crepes filled with chickpeas and a rainbow of spicy sauces). If Yardy is a glimpse of the future of Eugene food, that future looks bright. At Coldfire Brewing, 263 Mill St.
Extra fantastic food carts: Eugene food lovers mourning the loss of Tam’s Place Vietnamese Kitchen should head over to the Oregon Wine Lab, where Da Nang serves nicely grilled chicken, steak or tofu in salads, pickled-stuffed banh mi or noodle or rice bowls. There’s no shortage of carts serving Oaxacan flavors in Eugene, but El Buen Sabor is our go-to for tlayudas and other masa-based treats, and sits conveniently down the road from Nelson’s Taqueria and Tacovore, perfect for an easy four-block taco crawl. South Eugene newcomers Uumami make a mean donair sandwich, a gyro-like Halifax specialty with seasoned lamb, tomato, cucumber and tzatziki on cart-made pita at the pleasant Friendly Garden pod.