It would seem that Portland chef and beloved restaurant kingpin John Gorham, along with his partner-in-crime Renee Gorham, can do no wrong. The pair behind some of our city's best and most consistently awesome dining experiences are also design aficionados with more than just an eye for style - they've got the muscle to back it up.
Skewing more aspirational than intimidating, they have an almost unheard of track record of successful spots under their belt. From a culinary perspective, Gorham isn’t afraid to go bold, mixing influences from Spain to North Africa to Israel and beyond. Design-wise, their interiors tend to gravitate towards the cozy side of industrial. As a longtime partner, we’re proud to have our light fixtures in several of their spaces.
For our next Schoolhouse Spaces feature, we stopped by their latest venture Plaza Del Toro (named inline with their original culinary golden child Toro Bravo) and chatted with Renee about life in the bullring.
How would you describe Plaza Del Toro?
"Plaza has become a space for unconstrained culinary creativity for the development of new recipes for our four properties, as well as experiment with new and innovative dining concepts. Most of all Plaza del Toro is a community center focused on all things epicurean. Plaza Del Toro is a private event space, and modern test kitchen and gastronomic society for the advancement of the culinary arts. We're both a private dining room for all of our restaurant's guests to celebrate within and an educational and gathering space for our staff for wine tastings and staff meetings. Plaza del Toro also serves as home base for pastry chef Carrie Merrill who develops all Gorham properties dessert programs.
Plaza del Toro is Spanish for 'Bullring'. Toro Bravo translates to 'Brave Bull'; Plaza del Toro is a Bulls home. We are the Brave Bulls..."
What inspired you to open and can you tell us a bit about your background?
"Plaza was a natural next step for our growing family/restaurant group. Offering a space for guests to host private parties, with menus inspired by each restaurant, (we don't do large party reservations or buy outs at our restaurants). We also wanted an space to host chefs and collaborate with Portland's amazing restaurant community. John Gorham's several trips to Spain - northern San Sebastian in particular - was the inspiration for Plaza del Toro, where the gastronomic Society was born. Additionally, John Gorham is addicted to the creation of new (old) spaces."
"His vision for the room is all about celebrating the raw bones of the space, showing the mechanics and celebrating the materials of the building. When I say he’s addicted to the design, I truly mean he craves it, he loves the build out process, working at the active hands on core of the design creation of each of our restaurants.
If he wasn't a restaurateur, I'm sure he would have been an architect, he never starts another project until he's paid off the last one, and I'm convinced he does so so he can build another one! Like an artist in the middle of a painting, he experiences an adrenaline rush while building a space, he loves the challenges of making his kitchens highly functional and (in my biased opinion) his design work is more and more refined as he's found his personal design aesthetic."
What’s your partnership like – who does what, and how do you guys balance each other out?
"The most simple answer is John is a chef and I am a host. We are also teachers, mentors, insurance agents, firefighters, gum scrappers and problem solvers. Our day-to-day is always changing. We love to be involved in every aspect of our operation. More and more that means fostering the relationships with our team to represent the philosophy behind our work. We check in with our staff at every service each day. John oversees the Back of House and operations, develops menus and concepts."
"He empowers our cooks to become chefs. My role is service manger first, ensuring our standards of hospitality are met and maintained and hosting our staff so they feel cared for and can, in turn, care for our guests. I can also add HR and PR after my name. I would say we balance each other out, like in any marriage or partnership, we pick our battles and let the best man (or woman!) win. Honestly though, our team is what creates balance, they are at the center of our operations scale."
Describe Plaza Del Toro’s décor style – what type of look and feel were you going for in the design, did you partner with anyone locally to make your vision to come to life?
"Plaza's design is all about industrial meets refined, showing our mechanics and celebrating the bones of the building. The goal was to expose the raw materials and blend them with quality products and beautiful art deco inspired finishes."
"Our modular tables were designed (also by John, he actually dreamt about them!) to set up and break down quickly and our custom oyster bar and cheese cart are reminiscent of the opulence of the roaring twenties. There are several local craftsman that make up our build out team, Jeff Whitaker of JEFFMADE is the man behind all the custom metal work, a crucial part of our projects. He is truly an artist and exceptional craftsman, and great friend. Woodworker Tim Lundholm has brought his classic style to the table, literally. Brett Smith, industrial designer has also been a great partner, working side by side with John to bring his designs to life along with Architect Ellen Cusick and contractor Charles Arnold. Oh, and the Toms, Thomas Bradley and Tom O'tool of Pizza Friday, they did the mural work and logo branding."
Why did you choose schoolhouse fixtures for your space, and why those in particular?
"We want to support local as much as possible, but what it really comes down to is style. Each fixture is timeless and beautiful, they bridge the industrial with the refined beautifully. We know and trust the quality is there and always get exceptional service from the schoolhouse team."
What are your favorite spots in Portland from a design perspective?
"Multnomah Whiskey Library, of course. Bit House was done well, beautiful space, they really captured the history of the building. I love hotel Deluxe, its like walking into another era, I love design that takes you away and it’s a refreshing departure from Portland’s typical refurbished look. And the new building on Williams and Freemont, with the curved nautical exterior walls. Its a breath of fresh air against the backdrop of 'new construction'."
The best drink order in Plaza Del Toro? Any secrets we should know about?
"The wine list, curated by Mindy Cook, is my first choice for beverages. If you're hosting a party with us, she'll customize our offering and work directly with clients to pair wines with the menu." Of course the cocktail program is amazing as well, we can re-create any of the cocktails from all of our restaurants menus."
"John says, 'Get a Mule, of any kind. Moscow, Kentucky, Mexican or Irish.' You'll look good sipping one out of our copper mugs under a schoolhouse sconce."
What do you like most about your neighborhood?
"We love being in the SE industrial district of Portland, the mix of old and new is inspiring. There is so much creativity and growth happening there, it mirrors our space, encouraging both hard work and tradition with creativity."