Busy Corner closed Fall 2007.
It’s an easy place to pass right by. The exterior is unprepossessing, and at first look could easily be taken for a holdover from the age of the neighborhood grocery, which is what it once was. Set in the midst of Woodstock’s residential area, it is not the first place you’d expect an eatery. So, curious, you step in and instantly feel you are in someplace special, and yet you can’t help asking yourself, “What is this?
The small building is vintage, like a bistro you might find around 1980 tucked behind the train station some place deep into old France or Spain. An industrial fridge holds the milk, beer and wine the family owners sell to neighbors, unmatched hutches are lined with staples of Mediterranean cooking (canned tomatoes, Spanish tuna, chick peas and pasta) and the furniture looks picked out at garage sales for their plain utility. The lighting is functional, and on a cold day you might think the heat was not. Mid-morning or afternoon when it is nearly empty, it can feel forlorn.
Imagine a French pensioner in a corner sipping Pernod, a couple of Italian men analyzing the stats from a Gazzetta dello Sport, or the crumbs, butts, and crumpled napkins that litter the floor below a Spanish café’s counter, and you get the vibe.
It evokes places that used to be, where the value lay in the fact that there were few surprises, where you could depend on the noble consistency of simple fare, and where only fools rushed through. An unpretentious and insouciant approach to service had the effect of making you feel at ease, at home. The daily menu in loopy French script would list a few standards, such as a crisply fresh salad, a seasonal stew, something sautéed or stirred up in the skillet, served with a mellow house wine and crusty baguette, and cheese, tarte or flan for dessert. A menu such as this could hardly be called meager, but no one would argue it wasn’t a deliberately limited one. Nevertheless, it usually was more than enough. What the restaurant offered in abundance was the vitality of the experience as a whole. And this is what you will find at the Busy Corner.
It has a loyal following, but it is not for everyone. The key is understanding its limits and seeing them as a benefit, not a detraction. The Busy Corner suggests an antidote to just about every popular place to eat in Portland. There is no line to get in, and no effort has been expended in making the place trendy. Inside, the pace is unhurried.
The spare kitchen is one reason for the limited menu. For breakfast, you can get eggs but only poached, served with greens and baguette, for a reasonable $4.00. There are no hash browns or bacon sides. One habitué mentioned that to his mind the coffee, served in bowls as café au lait or in glasses as Americano or espresso, is the best in Portland (It is from Zoka, in Seattle.)
For $6.00 there is a substantial plate of Spanish and Italian cheeses – Asiago and Manchego usually – or of salami and Manchego, as well as a savory crepe of tomato and cheese for $4.00. Four choices of Bocadillos, Spanish-style sandwiches are made, Spanish tuna and tomato, salami and Manchego, pear and avocado, or apple and goat cheese at $5.00. Two choices of arugula salad, one with smoked trout and another of cranberries and Asiago run $5.00 as well. Using the Cecco pasta on hand and some of the fresh vegetables for sale on a table in the corner, they can cook up a wholesome dish for you alone, and while at it may ask if anyone else present would like the same. Usually, there is a pasta and canned seafood dish for $9.00. For sweets, there is a crepe with nutella for $4.00, an affogato, ice cream doused with espresso for $2.50, or the light, spongy gateau a l’orange.
During the week, dinner is whatever the staff has cooked up that day for the main course. One recent evening, it was a mixed bean and tomato soup, which I enjoyed with a green salad, the cheese plate and a glass of wine. The staffer then treated us to the previous day’s dessert, an assortment of slightly sweet, moist cookies made with olive oil as are found in southern Europe.
The Busy Corner dresses up for the $30 a person Friday dinners. Long candles are set around the room, vases are stuffed with fresh flowers, and an excellent guitarist squeezes himself in-between tables to serenade diners. Seating is at the counter or at one of the three tables for up to 10 people. Friends meet for a meal and conversation, and to enjoy the intimacy and pleasant din of others doing the same, while the hosts bustle a few feet away to put a fine dinner on the table.
But a recent dinner was somewhat disappointing. The two thin slices of baguette with a spoonful of luscious Spanish tuna, topped with a half green olive, was such a small serving that I was surprised later to realize it was an actual appetizer course, not an amuse-bouche. It was followed by a tangy beet and greens salad, with a mild citrus dressing, topped with creamy goat cheese and pomegranate seeds. Next, a huge platter piled with whole, young carrots lightly dressed was set on the table with a serving spoon for all to partake from. They were super sweet and cooked to the point where they were slightly crunchy, and very good. The hearty chick pea, tomato and buffalo meat soup, spiced with rosemary and cumin, would have made any Spanish home cook proud, but I’d have taken up the offer of seconds if I had realized it was the main course. (There was a long wait between each course and by the time the soup arrived, I was hungry again.) The dessert was a light, subtle lemon and olive oil cake with berry jam topping. Wine flowed throughout the meal from the unlabeled bottles preset on the tables (the wine was from France), and later coffee in glasses was served, its top layer of brown foam hinting at its perfection. All in all, a nice meal but just a little lacking in substance.
Will I return? Soon. The two Friday dinners have been memorable occasions combining good food and company and there are few places in Portland where dinner is at its essence such a convivial social experience.
There are bottles of wine from France, Italy and Spain to choose from for an extra fee, and beer is also available.
Phone: (503) 777-5101
Address: 4927 SE 41st Ave, Portland, OR. 97202
Hours: 7am-7pm daily, closed 2-4pm for siesta.
Friday dinner by reservation only, at 7:30pm. Menus are available the day before or later.
24 Responses to “The Busy Corner”
- Posted by: Dave Pagni:
Great review! The Busy Corner isn’t for everybody, but if you have nostalgia for old timey places and like good food without the frou-frou..and especially enjoy eating and conversing with friends, this is a perfect place. Bring friends and share some banter with the smart and attentive, but not cloying staff!
- Posted by: LoLo:
I have been here on four occasions shortly after it opened. Loved it. Wanted to return. But, as a dog owner and frequent flier to all dog friendly places, couldn’t get past the gorgeous golden retrievers who were at the bar each time I was there. I ended up with dog hair in my food and was put off by it. I love the dog friendly, but now understand why animals aren’t allowed actually inside other dog friendly establishments. Other than this little drawback (obviously just my issue), it is a cute place, really nice owner and staff, with excellent coffee and Italian beer on tap. Lovely.
- Posted by: Ellie:
I have a huge soft spot for the BC. You nailed it when comparing it to a European corner cafe. We’re kind of careful when recommending the place, as not everyone will appreciate the laid-back atmosphere.
Also, they’ve just started “winter hours,” so they don’t open until 9am, and close a bit earlier than 7pm on the weeknights (5 or 6?)
Susan used to be a partner in Navarre, and the food reminds me of the simplicity and quality of that restaurant when it first opened.
- Posted by: dyspeptic:
Thanks so much for this review. Have wondered about this place but never stopped. Many people wouldn’t have reviewed it because places that make no concesions to the fashions of the day are held in so low regard. They are gems to be approached with reverence, in fact.
- Posted by: Well Seasoned:
A review this beautifully written is truly a gift – thank you, KM! I can’t wait try both the breakfast and the lunch.
- Posted by: mfkfisher:
dog hair? there are dogs in the restaurant? where is the health department?
- Posted by: Ellie:
As mentioned, this place will not be understood or appreciated by all… the dogs aren’t cooking, for god’s sake. I’ve been there at least 50 times, and have never had dog hair in my food (as opposed to the numerous times I’ve encountered human hair in my food at other restaurants.) And as a dog owner, I have to say that my dog is far cleaner than either of my kids – and kids are allowed in restaurants without question. In Europe, animals are commonly allowed in bakeries, bars, restaurants, etc. I’ve never understood why it’s such a big deal in the US.
- Posted by: Well Seasoned:
So right, Ellie! The only time I went to a 3-Michelin-star restaurant in Paris, there was a party of five nearby, and it took me about half an hour to realize that there was a small dog at their feet. He was sitting very quietly and being very good (the staff had provided a silver water bowl for him, of course!). The only time he violated his “down, stay” position was when the cheese cart was wheeled over to the table; he just couldn’t help standing up to get a better sniff.
- Posted by: lennon:
Darn you, Food Dude — some of us like the Busy Corner being so easy to miss that it’s not always full of foodies from across town.
In all seriousness, though, I’ve been a huge fan of this place since it opened. I’ve lived and worked in the Woodstock neighborhood on and off for almost ten years now, and it’s been nice seeing this place, along with Otto’s (and to a lesser extend, First Cup) help introduce a little “foodie culture” into the area.
- Posted by: foodrebel:
People can be worked up about dogs! If the dog is well behaved, I don’t see no problems having it in the restaurant.
- Posted by: foodieprincess:
i absolutely love every second that i spend at The Busy Corner. the coffee is amazing, the people (both owners and customers) are friendly and i feel just like i stepped back into my life in spain. the dogs only add to my complete awe and reverence for this wonderful european cafe and store. Busy Corner makes this neighborhood ten times richer.
- Posted by: sloppyseconds:
Dogs in restaurants…..hmmm… the problem is that owners cant filter out the behaved ones from the non-behaved ones. Kinda like their human customers; except that dogs bite.
By the way, great review. I want to give this place a try. Might be a nice lunch change from the millions of gastrofood pub joints around town.
- Posted by: Christopher:
Why are dogs in a restaurant a big deal you might ask…….well, for starters it is illegal! The only dogs that are legally allowed inside a restaurant in the US are service dogs. Some restaurants choose to allow dogs at outside tables, but inside it is a no-no.
- Posted by: Kristi:
Living in France I saw many dogs in restaurants, and I never once saw one of these dogs cause a problem. On the other hand, I’ve seen many poorly behaved children cause lots of problems. Some nights I would much rather take one of my dogs out to eat rather than one of my children. I just don’t get that worked up over having a dog in a restaurant.
- Posted by: mon chien escoffier:
My dog’s the offender. He’s a Caniche, and comes with a French gene, which makes him feel something is wrong if he’s not part of the family. He sits under the table. Twitches when the cheese trolley goes by and loves to have his water served in a silver dish. He’s not a biter, but if he was, it would probably happen outside, and the victim would be an imposter. If dogs offend, please keep it to yourself. Note that they are among us and, following Nancy Regan’s advice, ‘just say no’ to places where you know they are welcome. I promise I’d never want to take him to a place that didn’t want him.
That said, and off my soapbox, the BC is an authentic place. You always talk to people you’ve never met. There is no pretension anywhere. A lot of hard work is put into the common effort of the people who work there, as well as from the people who come, to create conviviality. You leave with the feeling that you are being cared for and realize how conspicuous that is by it’s absence most places (where you might note dogs can’t go).
The piece was lovingly written.
- Posted by: sloppyseconds:
If dogs were allowed, I could just imagine if eveyone in a resteraunt happen to bring their dog with them. There would be like 50 dogs in the place. Man that would be a mad house. A place like Le Pigeon. hahahaha No way.
- Posted by: fuyuk:
i wonder if i can bring my boa constricter?????
- Posted by: Papaki:
Let’s face it: Americans are just way more uptight than Europeans about a lot of harmless things: Sex, religious beliefs, nudity at beaches, serving wine to children, on and on. Not allowing dogs to join us in restaurants is just one more of those. Must be our Puritan background or something.
- Posted by: Food Dude:
I am a dog lover. Heck, part of the reason I haven’t done any reviews lately is because my dog has been really sick, and I don’t want to leave him alone. Still, even though he’s a service dog and goes just about everywhere with me, I don’t bring him into restaurants. People don’t like that, and I respect their wishes. Oh to live in Europe. Vive la France!
A big welcome to all the new readers this week!
- Posted by: whoa:
You people are really hung up about real life. Dog hair…the world isn’t a perfect place. What’d’ya live in a vacuum? Get over yourselves and live a little.
- Posted by: LoLo:
Why does having a preference make people hung up about life? I said nothing but good things about the place and pointed out one issue that was mine. Lots of people do that on this site, like pointing out the night a server was rude or when the decor of the place is in poor taste or whatever. I thought I would love the idea of our canine friends indoors. I just didn’t. I enjoy it in Europe, but maybe it’s just too weird here for me. IDK. I’m just not sure why anyone expressing an opinion means they are “hung up about real life.” Whatever. As I said before, it’s a lovely place and for those who don’t mind the dogs, it’s perfect and I’m glad it has received such great reviews so it stays open!!
- Posted by: Hunter:
Good point. And for what it’s worth, I live in a world where it’s literally illegal to allow an animal into a restaurant and frankly, I don’t want a dog hair, or any hair, in my food. If that’s a vacuum, then it’s Hoover city for me.
- Posted by: billz:
My wife and son and I stopped at The Busy Corner for lunch this afternoon. There were some people playing Scrabble at one end of the bar and a young couple with a toddler eating lunch. We ordered our lunch from Susan at the bar and took a table. Everything was very comfortable, very friendly. (There was also a big dog sitting quietly at the end of the bar when we arrived. He said ‘Hi’ and we patted him on the head. But that’s not the point of this site…)
I had the arugala salad with smoked trout and asiago cheese dressed with a bit of olive oil. The greens were fresh, the cheese fairly thickly planed and fish smokey and salty – Perfect! I also had a glass of spanish wine that was rich and dark, a little spicey and complimented the strong smokiness of the fish.
My son had the pasta topped with tomatoes and asiago cheese (listed on the menu only as ‘Pasta’). He offered me a few bites, and it was very simple and very wonderful! They sprinkle some spanish paprika on top – more smokiness!
My wife had the bocadillo with avacado and pear. I didn’t try it (I’m allergic to avacados), but she said it was very good. And I know the ingredients were fresh, Susan came out from behind the bar to pick the pear and avacado off the table next to us where they were stored.
This was our first time there and I’ll definitely go back – I’d like to try one of their Friday night dinners some time too. KM – Thanks for recommending this wonderful place to eat.
- Posted by: Ned Engleson:
I look forward to frequent meals, hair included. Dean woulda dug it…go Susan!