Portland restaurants are ditching free bread. Here’s why it’s actually a good thing

When was the last time you sat down in a restaurant and a plate of free bread and butter hit the table?

Bread is more often a menu item these days, no longer free. But it’s not your favorite restaurant, especially as inflation continues to tug on the already tight purse strings of restaurant economy.

Charging for something that has never reaped benefits before creates the opportunity to put bread on a pedestal. When bread is not a gift, chefs are more likely to give it the same time, attention and respect for product quality that has traditionally been reserved for classic entrees and starters.

To the trained eye, Olli’s Coffee the menu is clearly bread-based. Whether it’s the soft milk bread in the breakfast sandwich, the seed-crusted croutons in the panzanella salad, or the gloriously crispy baguette for deli sandwiches, bread is everywhere. Given its starring role, it makes sense that bread and butter would have a place on the menu. The $4 baguette and butter plate goes with the other dishes because they too are high-quality, hyper-local ingredients prepared simply and with flair.

“I think I had a pretty interesting insight into it because I worked in bakeries before I made the decision to cook in restaurants, which is kind of hard to do. Financially, it’s hard to justify a baker in a restaurant model,” says Daniel Green, associate of Café Olli, responsible for the restaurant’s bread.

Green says that, for some reason, paying for bread “piss people off”. Diners still aren’t used to paying for bread, he says, and sometimes get upset if they see it on the bill at the end of their dinner: “Expectation has been created; it takes years to go back.

The flours Green uses at Café Olli come from local mills and are perishable, much like a head of broccoli and a crate of tomatoes have a limited shelf life. Comparing commercially processed bleached white flour to the grains he sources from mills like Camas Country Mills in Eugene, it’s apples to oranges, except oranges in this case cost more than twice as much as apples.

Before taking the position of opening pastry chef of the Gregory Gourdet restaurant the brand new Haitian restaurant Kann, Gabrielle Borlabi baked country breads and focaccia for the free bread plate downtown at Mucca Osteria. She says the variety of breads she baked at Mucca took a lot of effort each day, but she was able to put a lot more heart and soul into the gluten-free, dairy-free plantain brioche muffins, 10 $ for two, which serve as a bread course at Kann.

Non-traditional, hypoallergenic brioche muffins are made with coconut milk and a vegan butter substitute, with ripe plantains imparting the rich flavor and binding properties usually provided by eggs. “When you’re baking gluten-free and dairy-free, you really have to have a little fun, a lot of patience, and make it work,” says Borlabi.

Gourdet says he envisioned the muffins as “a classic bread dish, but our way,” incorporating plantains, a centerpiece of Haitian cuisine, and blending the herbal Haitian spice blend with the vegan butter that is served alongside.

Like everyone else, Naomi Pomeroy made sourdough bread at home during confinement. She got a starter from her friends at Sorbu Paninoteca, the Italian sandwich cart in northeast Portland that bakes all its sourdough focaccia and ciabatta in the basket (just ask any baker how cramped that kitchen must be). OSince catching the virus, baking bread has become an obsessive quest – she calls it “taming the mustang”.

This house project has become Wall sourdough focaccia, which began as a vehicle for Pomeroy’s version of a muffuletta, the classic Italian pressed sandwich she chose to serve stuffed with bologna — her most beloved Instagram post, she says. But now, focaccia is a standalone mainstay on the menu at his all-day cafe.

Pomeroy’s focaccia is $9 per order, and it’s not a huge portion, which might hurt a bit, but she says it’s helpful in telling the story of the food’s real cost. The prize, she says, allows her to top the soft, olive oil-rich bread with the ingredients she really wants to cook with, like cave-aged Gruyere cheese or black plums fresh from the farmer’s market.

“When I did the math on how much focaccia we sell in a month, I thought, ‘oh, that totally justifies it becoming a big priority.’ And so, over time, it really evolved and grew,” she says.

Pomeroy points out that many diets have moved away from bread, due both to carb-conscious diners and the huge increase in awareness of gluten intolerance and allergies. “Throwing food is painful,” she says. “Part of that is also guarding against that. I don’t want to give someone something they don’t really want.

Bread isn’t the first example of a new cost added to your tab in recent years, but it’s one that speaks to the changing optics surrounding restaurant dining. The trend to eliminate some of the superfluous aspects of restaurant meals is slowly moving towards a more sustainable restaurant culture and helping to shed light on the invisible costs that have long been absorbed by restaurants.

After all, when was the last time you had a mint after dinner?

Christy J. Olson