Since it was first built by Bruce Carey Restaurants, the 23Hoyt space has gone through multiple incarnations. The first was a short-lived Italian restaurant named Balvo, the second, 23Hoyt, managed by the well known chef Chris Israel. Chris has now moved on to open his own restaurant. Now, a third version has emerged, billed as a “New American Tavern.” With the down-slide in the economy, changes were made, and the focus and menu changed considerably. The current chef is Chad Church.
The space is intimate, walls painted dark, with a modern, comfortable feel. The lighting is subdued, though bright enough to read the menu. In the downstairs dining room, the very high ceiling brings in plenty of light during the day; I like the effect of the white lights in the trees at night. Candelabra stand on the bar, coated with years of wax. The music is kept at a low level; however, noise from conversations around you can be high, especially downstairs, when the bar is busy. A few large tables are available for groups.
I prefer dining in the upstairs area. It has changed slightly over the years, with the translucent panel running along the back wall now replaced and the walls darkened, resulting in a more cozy space. The balcony looks down over the bar area below, and the view of NW 23rd is quite nice. One warning; heat rises. On cold nights the upstairs area can get unbearably hot.
Service is good, with efficient and knowledgeable waitstaff. Front of the house employees seem very well versed in the various offerings, and when quizzed, always seem to have the right answers. However, the pacing from the kitchen is uneven, with some courses coming out right away, but then appetizers or entrées taking a very long time. This happens even when the crowds have died down.
The wine list has shrunk considerably over the years, though there are a few good choices ranging from domestic to French and Italian. About 13 are available by the glass, though I’m not sure how they preserve them from night to night. I’ve had a few clunkers. Bottle markup is average for Portland restaurants. For example, a half-bottle of Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley ‘04 which retails for $14 is sold here for $33. Sixteen beers are available by the bottle, and four drafts. None of them grabbed my attention; a big flaw in the Portland market ($4-$7). Cocktails lack finesse, with focus seemingly paid to cranking them out quickly. I’ve tried both specialty drinks and old standards, and have been disappointed every time. I’ve had drinks that were too sweet, and out of balance. They need to step up their game if they want to attract a more upscale Portland crowd. Prices are $7-$8, with a selection of happy hour specials for $5.
A new focus since the downturn of the economy, the term “New American Tavern” is now being thrown about. This seems to mean most food is cheaper, but unfortunately quality has declined along with the prices. From my experience, one can still have a decent meal here, but stick to the low budget items, and stay away from the more expensive entrées.
Salads are generally good, the Caesar salad being a standout, though not as good as the one they used to serve. Croutons are tiny, and the dressing could use some anchovy – I couldn’t taste any. A single portion is easily big enough to split, and the kitchen is happy to do so ($10). The same can be said of the simple garden greens with preserved lemon vinaigrette. The lemon flavor is interesting and bright, making the salad a good choice for a warm afternoon ($7). I also liked the salad of roasted beets and goat cheese. This classic combination was fine, the beets sweetly contrasting with the goat cheese. A bit of oil and vinegar melded it all together ($8).
Butternut squash soup was average. The portion is large, the consistency silky smooth, with a bit of bacon and mushrooms thrown in, and a drizzle of olive oil over the top. It was fine and satisfying, but lacked anything interesting to raise it above the crowd. I didn’t particularly care for the bacon pieces, as they were somewhat chewy. It seems to me, they could put the bacon in as the soup is made, and then strain it out before serving, so one would get the flavor, but not the gummy mouth feel ($7).
While onion rings seem popular with the happy hour crowd, I found them just average and a bit greasy. Interestingly, they got better as they cooled. An accompanying caper and red onion aioli was nothing special. The portion is large enough for three persons ($5).
Ravioli with brown butter and sage is a simple dish, easy to make, but equally easy to mess up. The 23Hoyt appetizer was large, but disappointing, with gluey ravioli, a heavy taste of uncooked flour, and sage in dire need of crisping. The flavors just weren’t there, and I couldn’t finish the dish ($9). Mac and cheese with Parmesan, Gruyère and bacon disappointed, lacking creaminess and not thoroughly heated ($9).
The lamb shank with green onions and oregano is large, prompting Fred Flintstone references from the table next to us. Unfortunately, it was poor, a greasy mouth-coating version that left a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the evening. I couldn’t finish it. Accompanying roasted potatoes were starchy and under-seasoned ($16).
Halibut looked beautiful, a large, nicely seared fillet, topped with a melange of corn. It was slightly overcooked and dry, and though the flavor from the late summer corn was pretty good, it was nothing special, especially for $24.00.
I decided to move to simpler fare, and tried one of my favorite sandwiches, a B.L.T. Once again, I was disappointed. The bacon was dry, and looked like it had been cooked earlier in the day. One small tomato was a far cry from what was available in the farmers markets, and there was sad looking arugula in the place of lettuce. The overall effect was a dry sandwich, which did nothing to satisfy my craving ($9). On to the “23Hoyt Burger”; another unimpressive sandwich. I wasn’t asked how I wanted it cooked, and it came out medium. The meat had no grilled taste or char, it was just boring. That’s what I would say about the burger overall: it was nothing special, especially for $11. Both the hamburger and the B.L.T. came with fries, but they were thin, limp, and slightly burnt. I love fries, but only managed a handful of them.
The desserts are fairly standard fare; blueberry tart, cherry crisp, etc. The best was the peach cobbler, which was barely lukewarm. However, the peaches had great flavor. There is nothing special to recommend them, except the lower than average price ($6). The cheese menu is not up to what I’d expect from Bruce Carey restaurants. 23 Hoyt offers four at $8 each, or a sampler for 16, all matched with a little something to accompanying them. The last time I checked, they consisted of Fontina and pear, Boucheron and apple, Fontal and Hazelnuts, or Manchego and spiced almonds. Cheese sources are not listed on the menu.
I haven’t been very happy with my most recent meals at 23Hoyt. Though the prices are much lower than they used to be, so is the quality of the food. Salads or happy hour is the best option, when a variety of small dishes are available at prices ranging from one to five dollars. However, based on my experiences, I don’t recommend having the more upscale dishes.
- Food: C-
- Service: B+
- Ambiance: A
- Phone: 503-445-7400.
- Address: 529 NW 23rd, (at Hoyt), Portland, OR. 97210. Google Map
- Hours: Tues – Sat 5pm – close.
- Happy Hour: Tues-Fri 3pm-7pm, Fri-Sat 3pm-6:30pm
- Website: 23hoyt.com