Equally devoted to social justice and delicious cuisine, the team at Epilogue Kitchen and Cocktails in downtown Salem were experiencing some highly unpleasant backlash for their activist stances and feeling down. When they received the call in February 2022, they thought it was just a prank.
But the announcement was real: The esteemed James Beard Foundation had named chef and co-owner Jonathan Jones as a semifinalist in the “Best Chef in the Northwest Region” category, one of the most eagerly sought nominations in the culinary world. Of the 20 other chefs in the category, Jones was one of four from Oregon, and Epilogue was the only restaurant outside of Portland to receive the honor.
Having moved from North Carolina to Salem for its smaller size — as well as proximity to wine country and hiking opportunities — Jones was thrilled that the James Beard Foundation had found the restaurant in a town that usually flies under the radar. “It’s tremendously difficult for anyone who’s not in a major market to get recognition in the food world,” says Jones about his nomination and that of others in the group in 2022.
Mid-Atlantic Comfort Food Makes a Splash Downtown
The nomination comes at a great time for Jones and his wife, Epilogue co-owner Maura Ryan. Their restaurant showcases a style of food not often seen in the Willamette Valley — and one warmly welcomed by lovers of regional American cooking. The menu is mid-Atlantic comfort food, featuring dishes informed by the geographic stretch from New York City to Washington, D.C. You’ll recognize a blend of southern food and home cooking from the Northeastern states. These influences are seasoned with Jones’ African-American family recipes from Appalachia — he learned to cook from his grandmother and father in the Piedmont region in the foothills.
This translates into a mouthwatering brunch menu with appetizing blue crab and Ritz cracker cakes or fried chicken thighs with buttermilk biscuits — the latter inspired by Jones’ grandmother’s recipe. Dinners featuring dishes like cheddar and sauerkraut pierogies, buttermilk-roasted turnips atop mustard greens, and pork chops with limas, corn relish and cornbread. Craft cocktails and mocktails accompany a nicely curated, globally oriented wine list.
You’ll definitely want to save room for sweets and house-specialty baked goods, with dessert options like molasses cake, shoofly pie and “pineapple stuff.” The latter was a Thanksgiving and Christmas staple when Jones was a kid. “This is just straight-up bread, butter and pineapple — and you can’t really really go wrong with that,” he says.
Activism and Advocacy Means Jones Won’t Back Down
Jones and Ryan use their restaurant as an opportunity not only to showcase their exceptionally good food, they also lay bare their social-justice stances on its walls. “Activism is a huge part of my life and the lives of everyone who works here,” Jones says. “We use the front doors and the front windows as sort of a shield to allow for the inside to be a safe space, a meeting space, somewhere that people can go and just enjoy the dining experience.”
This means printed and handmade signs with slogans like “Black Lives Matter” hang alongside portraits of touchstones of police brutality like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Their activism extends to public health issues. Since the start of COVID-19, Epilogue has required proof of vaccination for indoor dining, with the option of takeout or outdoor dining. “We [advocate] really hard for everyone to wear masks and to be respectful of one another,” says Jones.
These stances have angered some who disagree. The restaurant has been the victim of racially motivated harassment and vandalism, including death threats to its staff.
None of this will stop Jones and team from providing great meals and an inclusive space for its diners, however. “I was raised to not back down and to stand up for myself and for others, and so every time they try to make us quiet, I think we do the opposite and we continue to occupy space in prime downtown,” pledges Jones.
Expansion and New Women’s Sports Bar
In October 2022 Jones and Ryan plan to move into a significantly larger space across the hall in the same building, where they’ll continue to serve Jones’ menu of wide-ranging and tasty mid-Atlantic fare and Ryan’s baked goods. They’ll also be turning their current venue into a sports bar with a specific and unusual aim. Like Portland’s The Sports Bra, it will be dedicated to women’s athletics, a particular passion of their partners. The new concept, Icarus, will focus on chicken wings and, of course, social justice. “We are always striving to improve accessibility and representation,” says Jones.
How to Support Other BIPOC-Owned and Activist Restaurants in Salem
To support other Salem restaurants that are BIPOC-owned and support activism, Jones recommends trying out a few excellent eateries. He recently had a “really fantastic” experience with a quail molcajete — a Oaxacan showstopper of multiple meats and beans served in a deep stone bowl — at a family-owned spot that opened in 2022 called Taqueria El Jacalito. He also sings the praises of the pork-belly tacos at West Salem’s Xicha Brewing — the brewery’s beers are the only ones Epilogue currently offers on tap. Jones also shouts out downtown vegan spot Infinity Room, a must-visit for doughnuts, comedy nights and live music.