Bright, airy and full of good vibes as far as the eye can see, Tusk restaurant is a beacon of middle-eastern flavor and rock-fused fantasy in Southeast Portland. With bold brass Schoolhouse light fixtures dripping from the walls and ceiling, an oversized portrait of Keith Richards lounging in a pool and awe-worthy succulents abound, it's fair to say that this Portland palace is our new favorite go-to spot for after-work dinner and drinks. Interior designer Jessica Helgerson and her team turned vision into reality, working closely with Tusk to create a modern, sunny space that feels unlike any other in all of Portland. Helgerson also collaborated with Schoolhouse to design one-of-a-kind custom light fixtures to add a unique aesthetic edge to the interior (teaser alert: more to come on those later this Spring!).
Luckily Tusk doesn't have to rely on just looks (although it could easily ride that magic carpet alone). Its got incredible flavors - both in food and cocktail form - to back up its winning style. Locally sourced and aggressively seasonal, we chatted with Luke Dirks, Founding Partner of Submarine Hospitality and Co-Owner of Tusk and Ava Gene's, another nationally-loved Portland gem, about the style and substance behind this latest spot.
Date opened: August 21, 2016
Neighborhood: East Burnside, Kearns, Laurelhurst, Buckman
Tell us about Tusk – What was the inspiration behind the restaurant?
"My wife, Sivan, and I moved back to Portland two years ago from NYC. I'm from here, but Sivan is from Israel and we always dreamed about opening a Middle-Eastern restaurant in Portland. Joshua McFadden and I have been friends for about five years, since before Ava Gene's opened. When I got back to town we went out for beers and over the course of the conversation, he revealed that he and Sam Smith (Chef de Cuisine at Ava Gene's at the time) were also planning a Middle-Eastern spot. We decided to join forces and open Tusk together. It combines Sam's love of Middle-Eastern flavors and tradition with a serious focus on local/seasonal ingredients from the Pacific Northwest (a passion of both Sam and Joshua) with my particular focus on service and hospitality."
Where does the name Tusk come from?
"It comes from the Fleetwood Mac album, Tusk, originally released in 1979. It's not directly referencing anything specific but more borrowing from the overall vibe and attitude of the album."
Was there a specific design vision from the beginning or did it come together organically? How did you work together to create the unique look and feel of the space?
"The design direction was always, from the beginning, intended to be light, airy and uplifting. We wanted people to feel transported to somewhere bright and warm. We wanted the space to feel modern without feeling clinical; polished without feeling fancy; clean and minimal but not cold. We worked with Jessica and her team (of Jessica Helgerson Interior Design) on every decision. It was very collaborative. We would have ideas, they would translate them into something workable or just push back. They would have a direction they liked and we would process together. It was a fun and rewarding process for sure."
What are some of your favorite elements about the overall design or branding of Tusk?
"I love the indoor/outdoor vibe we have from the patio area directly adjacent to the dining room. In warm weather every seat feels breezy. I am very happy that we were able to achieve something that feels new and different for Portland. It's not to say there aren't other stunning restaurants in Portland (there are plenty) but we really set out to design a space that added something new to the mix. I think that happened. I think the space feels appropriate during the day or at night. That's a hard thing to achieve. I think lighting choices and color palate have the most to do with that particular element. Lastly, I love the massive photo of Keith Richards staring you in the face when you walk in. I think it sets the right tone: we're going to have FUN here!"
Can you tell us your philosophy behind food and how that plays out in the menu and presentation?
"Food philosophy: we use Middle-Eastern cuisine as a jumping-off point. From there we try to source the best/freshest offerings we can find from local farms and producers. Often we put out really simple food that just tastes fresh and vibrant. I think Sam is a genius."
What sets Tusk apart from the typical Portland dining scene or just in general?
"Generally speaking we do what so many other restaurants do: give everything we have to putting out fresh delicious food in a warm, friendly hospitable environment. At Tusk we have specifically made it our goal to offer excellent service but keep it FUN and keep our neighbors coming back because they have such a good time. Music matters. Lighting matters. People want to feel like they got something they couldn't if they stayed at home. So it's up to us to create that transportive experience "through design, flavors, sounds and service. That's our goal."
What’s your #1 recommended food and drink order?
"Food: Hummus and flatbread. Hands down. It's so simple and I eat it probably 4 days a week but I can't get enough. Drink: The Eastern Maid. A cocktail created by our bar manager Tyler Stevens. It's never leaving the menu."
What do you like best about Portland and your neighborhood in particular?
"I love being on the inner-Eastside because I feel like the neighborhoods still hold something of that 'old' Portland that I remember from when I was a kid. We're right on Burnside so Tusk definitely feels like it's on a busy, commercial street but go one block north or south and you’re in some of the most classic feeling Portland streets. That's what I've always loved about Portland, the human scale, walkable neighborhoods. As far as running a restaurant in Portland is concerned, it's a real blessing to have everything we need within 150 miles. We are so lucky to have local farms, producers, artisans, winemakers, brewers, etc. here -- all world class in their fields. Where else does that exist?"