The door to Woodsman’s Tavern reads: “Opened 2011. Closed 2018. Reopened 2021.”
Who do we ask why?
The Woodsman helped define Portland’s dining scene at a time when we were reaching the top of national food destination lists – think dark wood interiors, menus filled with Oregon ham, and bourbon and beards. alot.
But the revival is a far cry from its glory days.
Originally owned by Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson, the Woodsman was a hit from the start, having been named one of QG‘s Ten Best New Restaurants in America and The Oregonian2012 Rising Star. Diners went crazy for signature dishes like whole trout served in “crazy water” and deviled deviled eggs.
The quality of the food deteriorated in the late 2010s, but the kitchen took on a new lease of life with the entry of Excellent chef runner-up Doug Adams, who made a stint at The Woodsman while waiting to open Bullard at the downtown Woodlark Hotel.
Sorenson eventually sold the tavern to John Gorham’s Toro Bravo restaurant group, which turned the Southeast Division Street location into Tasty n Daughters. That company collapsed in 2020 amid a combination of Gorham’s personal issues and the financial fallout from the state-mandated pandemic shutdowns.
Now the Woodsman is under the umbrella of Submarine Hospitality (Ava Gene’s, Tusk), a company that has also faced challenges after being accused of fostering a toxic work culture.
That’s a lot for a tavern. As Woodsman once again, Submarine slapped a fashionable smiley face on the neon sign out front and restored much of the aesthetic and menu you may remember – from Mount Hood paintings on the walls, oysters prominently on the menu (now $38 a dozen).
This total resurrection would be nice, except the food just isn’t good. And not in some kind of “we swung for the fences and failed” kind of, but in a “we’re drizzling” effort.
Take the Butcher Burger. At $24, it’s one of the most expensive in town. The burger is made with beef aged 30 days, imparting a strong funk, then topped with onions and a slice of gouda that has remained mostly unmelted on the charcoal-grilled patty. The burger, which was dry, was served without condiments, but accompanied by a pitcher full of Dijonnaise. We’re all for menu item pricing to reflect the reality of what it costs to find and craft them, but at this price, we should be hungry for more.
The same goes for a $24 cauliflower steak, which, while tasty, was simply two huge slices of grilled cauliflower dressed in mornay sauce. It’s the only vegetarian dish, and it looks like someone thought, “Oh, are you plant-based? Here is a whole plant. Solo, it would be hard work; if you share, it’s fine.
A New York steak ($32) arrived cooked to perfection rather than the requested rare, again with a pitcher of sauce, this time Bearnaise. It’s a classic combo, but somehow here it felt jarring.
The bone-in pork chop ($32), served with a pitcher (why all the pitchers?!) of blueberry juice, was actually quite good, with the sauce adding a nice acidic punch to cut the richness of the pork. The Brussels sprouts we set aside, however, were too crunchy for prime time.
We want to pause here and recognize that there are human beings who run this restaurant – very pleasant and attentive waiters, bartenders who make a wicked boulevardier and someone who has a great eye for beer and wine from Oregon to put together a stellar drink menu.
But Submarine Hospitality should know and do better. He’s been responsible for some of the most successful and inspiring openings over the years, and that’s set the bar pretty high for Woodsman.
We’ll end on a positive note though: Baked Alaska. Oh, honey, how awesome it is to receive a flaming orb of meringue, containing inside a scoop of coffee bean ice cream covered in a magical almond shell. There’s plenty of time to shoot a video while the booze is burning, and it’s hard to beat the combination of toasting and cold ice cream. So, if nothing else, opt for dessert and a cocktail. Don’t expect the chemistry of Woodsman’s past; it’s long gone.
TO EAT: The Woodsman Tavern, 4537 SE Division St., 503-342-1122, thewoodsmantavern.com. 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.