So you’re at the holiday party, and there’s an endless selection of Oregon craft beer, cider, spirits and wine to choose from. But you’ve been trying to cut back or avoid alcohol altogether — for health, fitness or other reasons — so what do you do? A growing number of high-profile chefs in Portland have become ambassadors of a national movement in the industry to embrace zero-proof beverages as a way to maintain their wellness and, in their case, keep sober.
“This Halloween I celebrated six years of sobriety,” says Gabriel Rucker, executive chef and co-owner of Le Pigeon and Canard, two of Portland’s top restaurants. Rucker organized a Zero-Proof dinner as part of Feast Portland in September 2019 for the second year in a row. It drew several dozen attendees to an intimate, multicourse meal paired with inventive nonalcoholic drinks, including one served in a hollowed-out coconut filled with a refreshing concoction of snowfield oolong, coconut water, licorice and juniper. More than just juices, these mocktails were prepared with local artisan products from The Bitter Housewife, Steven Smith Teamaker, Stumptown Coffee Roasters and others.
Fellow Portlanders Gregory Gourdet of Departure Restaurant + Lounge and Ben Jacobsen of Jacobsen Salt Co., as well as New York food personality Andrew Zimmern, took turns preparing and serving different courses. Rather than talking to guests about how they sourced their food, they shared their own personal stories about their road to sobriety and their commitment to eating and drinking well. “Gathering together all those chefs in one space to promote a healthier way of living is really powerful — it was an honor to be involved,” Rucker recalls.
Rucker, a two-time James Beard Award winner and a 2007 Food & Wine Best New Chef, also told guests about the formation of Portland’s own chapter of Ben’s Friends, an industry support group founded in Charleston, South Carolina. The Portland group meets weekly on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. at Jacobsen Salt and is open to anyone.
Fitness is a big part of the journey, and Rucker started The Bird Dog Run Club, which is open to anyone in the industry or not. The club meets every Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in front of Canard and goes for about 3 miles through downtown Portland. “Sobriety, food and exercise go hand in hand for me,” Rucker says. “I got into trail running first, but am currently training for my first marathon this March. I love weekly runs in Forest Park; it’s incredible how accessible the trails are.” Rucker has another Instagram account, @FitChefPDX, that documents the outdoor adventures he’s been up to as well, at the Grand Canyon and beyond.
During the holidays, Rucker encourages people who are looking to drink less to lean in to their support groups and “always have a good supply of [Mexican mineral water] Topo Chico on hand.” Here are some excellent spots for nonalcoholic beverages around town.
Zero-Proof Tasting Menus
If you want to feel like you’re at a dinner party with your cool chef friend, Willow Restaurant in Southeast Portland provides that intimacy, with a six-course tasting menu at an 11-seat chef’s counter. Like many pairing menus, there’s a separate cost for beer or wine to accompany each dish, but Willow is among a growing number of spots with a slate of lovely nonalcoholic drinks for pairing. These happen to sound like they come from the made-up language of Roald Dahl’s “Big Friendly Giant”: apple-cider sparkler, sage and maple switchel, burnt wine and butterscotch soda. There’s also a stellar nonalcoholic pairing menu with the prixe fixe dinner at Holdfast Dining, another inner Southeast Portland hot spot that serves up ever-changing, modern seasonal fare around an open chef’s counter.
Mocktails at the Bar
The swanky Departure Restaurant + Lounge in downtown Portland is famous for its Asian fusion cuisine by celebrity chef Gregory Gourdet, who is famously vegan and health conscious, so it’s no surprise that he takes his nonalcoholic beverages seriously. A seasonal coconut-milk tea and house specialty sodas including soursop, mango passionfruit, lychee, guava and tamarind are playful pairings to the mouthwatering menu. At Hale Pele, the lineup of nearly 50 tiki-themed cocktails includes some without booze called Virgin Sacrifices — and you aren’t likely to know anything’s missing. And at Whiskey Soda Lounge, a long list of no-proof drinks include Thai-style iced tea and juice concoctions as well as soda water mixed with the popular Portland-made Pok Pok Som drinking vinegars in tangy flavors like pomegranate, tamarind or pineapple.
Non-Boozy Beverages Outside the Bar
Award-winning chef Aaron Adams, one of Portland’s vegan health-forward chefs, has a new lunch counter, Fermenter PDX, that makes everything in-house — including a tasty selection of cultured beverages like hopped golden raspberry kefir, loganberry kombucha and lemon-verbena ginger beer. Soma Kombucha Taproom in North and Southeast Portland lets the kombucha-curious sample all the latest pucker-worthy flavors, from the Japanese-inspired ginger genmaicha to cherry chai. Served hot or cold, tea is a popular base for many nonalcoholic craft drinks, and Portland is full of eclectic tea-tasting rooms around town.