The Prescott Cafe in Northeast Portland has long been what most people would call an old-fashioned American diner: it features large, vinyl-upholstered booths, a handwritten sign announcing the day’s pie special, and endless pots of coffee.
That’s exactly how owner Rose Funk envisioned it when she bought the restaurant 15 years ago, after having worked there 10 years earlier as a waiter.
“I didn’t want to make a lot of changes in it,” Funk recalled. “I was happy with the way it was.”
That sense of the familiar is what helped Funk grow a dedicated base of regulars.
“It’s kind of like ‘Cheers;’ you come in and you know everybody,’” said Pat Southard, who would meet up with friends and family at the Prescott Cafe several times a week.
But at 69 years old, Funk recently decided it was time to move on. She announced her retirement in September and closed the cafe’s doors for good on Sept. 30.
It was heartbreaking news for regulars like Southard. She recalled a time when her air conditioner broke, so Funk showed up at her door with a box fan.
“She’s always thinking of what she could do to help people,” Southard said.
But Funk’s bond with the neighborhood won’t end with the restaurant’s closing.
“We all exchanged phone numbers and I still check on the people who live alone,” Funk said. “It’s just how I am. I try to take care of the community.”
The Prescott Cafe has been a longtime fixture of the Cully neighborhood — a historically diverse and working-class community — which is unusual in the restaurant industry. That’s been especially true in recent years, as Portland carves itself a reputation for churning out trendy, innovative eateries.
Portland was recently ranked as the top “foodie” city in the U.S. by WalletHub, a ranking based on the number of restaurants in a city and their affordability, as well as the accessibility of gourmet and specialty foods, craft beers and wines. The Prescott Cafe wasn’t a “foodie” destination; it was a place to find comfort and familiarity. Which raises the question: Is there still room for restaurants like that in Portland?
Kurt Huffman — who owns ChefStable, a Portland company that helps operate independent restaurants — said restaurants like the Prescott Cafe are likely a dying breed.
“Portland’s food scene is defined, as much as anywhere in the country, by what’s new and what’s current,” Huffman said. “To be a place that survives that long, first of all, is an enormous testament to their willpower, but is also a rare exception.”
It’s a particular feat for a restaurant to have survived through hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which more than 200 restaurants closed in Portland, according to a list compiled by Eater. Most restaurants had to close their dine-in seating areas in the early days of the pandemic, and ones that didn’t already offer takeout, online ordering, and outdoor seating had to suddenly invest in the infrastructure to do so. They saw a drop in sales and laid off much of their staff, then when it came time to hire them back, many food service workers didn’t want to return, seeking higher pay and less stressful working conditions elsewhere.
Restaurants are still having trouble with labor shortages on top of skyrocketing food prices. Hudson Riehle, vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association, said the key to survival these days is quickly adapting to the mercurial environment.
“If a restaurant operator doesn’t continually evolve to be in touch with what their consumer demographics are needing, it’s an extremely, extremely competitive space,” Riehle said.
What restaurant-goers have needed this past decade, especially during the pandemic, is more convenience. Think drive-throughs, delivery, and curbside pickup; what the restaurant industry calls “off-premises market.”
“Over the past several decades, the proportion of traffic that is convenience-driven has been gathering momentum,” Riehle said. “So the pandemic hits, and that rapidly accelerates that need for the off-premises market.”
Riehle said the biggest cohort of restaurant-goers are younger Millennials and Zoomers, and they have entirely different priorities and palates than their parents and grandparents. They seek out new flavors and cuisines, they want a photogenic atmosphere for social media, and they want fresh, local produce — all for an affordable price. If that means cutting down on some customer service elements, so be it.
Huffman, with the Portland-based ChefStable, said that’s brought a proliferation of “fast casual” restaurants, where you can order exciting meals with fresh ingredients from a counter or a food truck.
“And I think that’s something that really appeals to the younger generations, because you still have the experience of going out and dining, but you don’t have to pay for all the pomp and circumstance of table service,” Huffman said.
That doesn’t mean that younger people don’t want personal interactions — if anything, after two years of being cooped up inside, they’re eager for it. They just have a different set of priorities within those dining experiences.
So what about cash-only, dine-in restaurants like the Prescott Cafe? Both Riehle and Huffman said traditional diners are a staple of American culture and they’re not going anywhere, but they’ll likely look a little different.
“In the next five years, diners are as much of something that could come back in vogue as any other older restaurant model,” Huffman said.
Even the building housing the Prescott Cafe on the corner of Northeast Prescott Street and 62nd Avenue has gone through its own transformations since the 1940s: It’s been a steak-and-seafood restaurant, then a Chinese restaurant, then a homestyle diner.
There’s a chance could undergo another change. Owner Rose Funk says shortly after she closed the cafe’s doors for good, someone made a cash offer, seemingly with the intention of keeping it as a restaurant.
“But at least it sounds like it’s not going to get torn down and be an apartment building, so that’s all good for the neighborhood,” Funk said.
As for her near future, Funk says she looks forward to spending her retirement traveling around the country with her husband.