Downtown Bend Restaurants Thriving Despite Economy, High-Profile Closures


Jody Denton, who owned Merenda Restaurant and Wine Bar, served loyal customers at downtown Bend’s most visible corner, Wall and Minnesota, for almost seven years before filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in February, leaving dozens of local businesses, many that were small, family-owned suppliers, with thousands of dollars worth of unpaid bills.

Merenda opened during a pleasantly warm summer in 2002 just as the local economy, spurred on by real estate and development, started heating up. It closed during a particularly cold and icy winter in 2009 when the local economy, especially the real estate and development sectors, was freezing due to the ongoing recession.

Six months ago, it seemed like the sky was falling on local restaurants, and no other restaurant depicted the situation better than Merenda, arguably one of the most popular establishments in downtown Bend (so much so the New York Times this month mentioned its closing in an article on Bend’s economic woes) has had since its rise to prominence in the middle part of this decade. Since last fall, no less than six popular restaurants – Merenda, Deep, Bluefish Bistro, Bistro Corlise, Volo, Fireside Red, located on the edge of downtown Bend – shut their doors for good, and with the exception of Fireside Red, each has been replaced with a new venture as the downtown restaurant scene once again warms up, despite the ongoing recession.

Taking over Merenda’s location is 900 Wall, a casual Northwest dining spot, with many choices on the menu available for less than $20, opened by Mike Milette, a former manager at Merenda, and featuring several of the high-profile restaurant’s staff, including Executive Chef Cliff Eslinger, Dining Room Manager Katie Black and Wine/Bar Manager Marcus Egge.

Down the street is Zydeco Kitchen and Cocktails, which moved from its location at the corner of Reed Market Road and Third Street in southeast Bend, replacing Volo downtown, which closed just weeks after being opened last summer by out-of-town entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on Bend’s burgeoning cuisine scene, albeit a little too late. The owners of Volo completely renovated the space, adding the best and newest restaurant equipment available, and Zydeco gets to reap the benefits.
Moving into the former Bistro Corlise, next door to 900 Wall, is Joolz, which bills itself as a Middle Eastern restaurant with Central Oregon influences (where the Meza meets the Mesa). Joolz is owned by Ramsey Hamdan and Julie Stonelake Hamdan, who also operate a catering business called The Barking Squirrel.

Filling out the downtown roster of high-profile restaurant spaces is the Bend Burger Company, taking over the spot formerly occupied by the Bluefish Bistro.

The “nightclub” Seven moved into the space formerly known as the Village Grill, and most recently the former Speedshop Deli, next door to Deep, has been replaced by a bar called Velvet.

Chuck Arnold, executive director of Bend’s Downtown Business Association, said city leaders who 20 years ago worked to remake Bend’s economy, especially downtown, did a brilliant job creating a sense of place and excitement – a community gathering place where people want to be – that helped new restaurants quickly move into locations vacated by abandoned eateries.

“You’re going to have regular turnover, but overall our vacancy rate is still lower than downtowns around the country,” Arnold said.      

Restaurant owners taking over available, empty spaces shows that downtown Bend, which has 325 total businesses, including the small firms occupying office space on the second-floor of many buildings, remains vibrant despite people’s perception, Arnold said.

“I think it comes down to people wanting to be a part of something,” he said. “Downtown is a lot more dynamic than people give it credit. There is a lot more to do down here, bargains and unique products and merchandise available than people realize.”

Many restaurant owners work together to help each other out when it’s needed, adding a sense of camaraderie to the scene; Arnold says he is aware of cross promotions happening all the time from business to business.

“The Astro Lounge, Marz Bistro and ourselves work together,” said 900 Wall’s Black. “If we run out of things we have each other’s back; we try to help each other out. The same goes for Joolz. Everyone wants to see everyone succeed.”

Only slightly away from the Wall and Bond Street restaurants are Staccato at the end of Minnesota and Tyfoon and Bo’s located in the Franklin Crossing Building near corner of Franklin and Bond.  Though not as busy as they once were, the pending opening of the new Oxford Boutique Hotel (Staccato is directly across the street) should greatly increase their business and add to the ambiance on the side streets of downtown.

Some, however, wonder if the economy will allow all of these restaurants to succeed, especially as the summer season winds down.

“I think it is great that restaurants are reopening as Bend really needs a variety and is still hurting when it comes to ethnicity,” says the writer and operator of the Bend Oregon Restaurants Blog, who chooses to remain nameless so he can continue writing reviews anonymously.

“I think with our rapid growth we attracted restaurant owner wannabes, people without any experience in running or operating a restaurant. The owner of Bungalow had an aviation-related business in Redmond before starting that place up (and) Volo … brought in a New York chef, which they ended replacing with ex Blacksmith restaurant chefs. I like that Zydeco moved to downtown, Merenda reopened as 900 Wall, Speedshop Deli is now Velvet, Blue Fish is now Bend Burger Company, but I question how this is going to affect downtown and Bend in general. Zydeco owners also own 28 and they are stones throw from each other. I don’t see 28 nearly as busy as it used to be. Merenda couldn’t make it once before but (900 Wall) seems to be doing just fine right now. But when I go in there I see tons of staff and overhead. It’s been a rough couple of months for the dining scene but I’m happy to see more restaurants opening for the summer. Hopefully they’ll be around for more than just a few months.”

Economic Development for Central Oregon Executive Director Roger Lee points out that many new restaurants have opened throughout the region over the last year, despite the economic gloom and doom, and believes that downtown Bend has more than enough room for several different restaurants to succeed.

“It’s kind of interesting when people talk about the fall out of the restaurant industry in downtown Bend, but it looks vibrant down there right now,” Lee said. “All restaurants are being affected by the recession, however those restaurants that had high-profile closings were most likely impacted by their business model being compromised, or they had other issues than the economy. The likely suspects were quality, service or price issues. Those restaurants that continue to offer a good mix of these (traits) are still doing, or will do, OK.”

Black agreed, saying Bend in general has quite a large group of foodies – people that enjoy going out to eat and trying new things, and this contributes to downtown’s success.

“Regarding the current economic trend, a lot of restaurants are having to adjust to the economy, so we are trying to make things more affordable while still keeping that overall fine dining feel. I think now more than ever people want to go out, even of they are not having a full meal, just to get out of the house for a couple of drinks, an appetizer or just to be social without putting a dent in their pocket book.”

All told we’ve counted more than thirty restaurants located in the Bend downtown core area. Among those several have been long standing icons of the dining world — especially the Pine Tavern that has quietly and with resolve withstood the ups and downs of the local economy for decades. Pine Tavern has been in the same place serving thousands of meals since 1936 and Deschutes Brewery just celebrated its 21st birthday. Way to go!

Downtown Restaurants

28 Restaurant
920 NW Bond St. # 105

900 Wall Restaurant
900 NW Wall St.

Astro Lounge
147 NW Minnesota Ave.

Crepe Place
824 NW Wall St.

Balay Espresso
961 NW Brooks St.

Bend Brewing Co.
1019 NW Brooks St.

Bend Burger Co.
718 NW Franklin Ave.

850 NW Brooks St.

211 NW Greenwood Avenue

Bo Restobar
550 NW Franklin Ave.

Ciao Mambo
915 NW Wall St.

Coreys Bar & Grill
928 NW Bond St.

150 NW Oregon Ave.

D&D Bar & Grill
927 NW Baond St.

Decoy Bar & Grill
1051 NW Bond St.

Deschutes Brewery & Public House
1044 NW Bond St.

Di Lusso Bakery Café
744 NW Bond St.

El Caporal
744 NW Bond St.

El Jimador
801 NW Wall St

Giuseppe’s Italian
932 NW Bond St,

High Tides Seafood Grill
1045 NW Bond St,

916 NW Wall St.

Marz Bistro
163 NW Minnesota Ave.

McMenamins Old St. Francis
School Brewpub
700 NW Bond St,

Pine Tavern Restaurant
967 NW Brooks St.

Pizza Mondo
811 NW Wall St.

Seven Restaurant & Nightclub
1033 NW Bond St.
Staccato at the Firehall
5 NW Minnesota St.

Super Burrito
1133 NW Wall St,

Taj Palace
917 NW Wall St.

The Downtowner
852 NW Brooks St,

Thump Coffee
25 Minnesota Ave. #2

119 NW Minnesota Ave,

805 NW Wall St.

Wall Street Grill
917 NW Wall St

Zydeco Kitchen and Cocktails
919 NW Bond St.


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