Friday, February 6, 2009

Merenda Is Dead -- Long Live 900 Wall

Jody Denton's showplace downtown restaurant, Merenda, has folded, but it's being reborn as "900 Wall." Can it survive in its new incarnation?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 6, 2009 at 10:01 AM

Jody Denton's showplace downtown restaurant, Merenda, has folded, but it's being reborn as "900 Wall." Can it survive in its new incarnation?

Duncan McGeary of Pegasus Books, who has seen a hell of a lot of downtown businesses come and go, gives it a fighting chance: "Shed most of the most onerous costs, and the place might have chance. It's still awfully big [6,000 square feet], but ... the fact that it's being bought by the former manager [Mike Millette] bodes well."

According to KTVZ's account, the new restaurant also will have the same executive chef and some of the same menu items, although the management "will make up a more approachable menu, with more seafood and beef dishes, staying Mediterranean but with a Northwest flair and affordable prices." It's supposed to open by April 1.

The Eye wishes 900 Wall nothing but success. It stands on the most important corner of downtown, and it would send a terrible message if that prime space was boarded up. It's also good to see a quality locally owned restaurant there instead of a chain operation like the Old Spaghetti Factory (gag) or the Olive Garden (double gag).

We have to say, though, that we think 900 Wall's chances of lasting a year are slim. Entrée prices of $14 to $30 certainly are affordable by Portland standards, much less LA or NYC standards, but could be a little steep for what is still, basically, a blue-collar town. Plus, of course, we're staring down the throat of a bear of a recession, with double-digit unemployment in Central Oregon already.

The Eye fears that Merenda and other glitzy "upscale" restaurants that popped up in this town in the past seven or eight years - Volo, Deep, The Blacksmith, 38 and others - were founded on an illusion: that Bend has a deep pool of rich retirees, tech-savvy telecommuting Yuppies and second-home owners who, combined with the tourists, would keep those places afloat. All the real estate, development and construction money that was sloshing around during the carefree bubble days kept that illusion alive. But that money is gone now - and tourist numbers are way down.

That leaves the locals, and there just ain't that many of them who can afford to pay $100 or more for a restaurant meal three or four days a week. So our guess is that the better-known, more established fine-dining restaurants (we're thinking Pine Tavern) probably will survive, and maybe a couple of the new ones.

Which ones? If The Eye knew that, we could make enough money to retire rich ... in Hawaii.

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