If you haven't been to the Common Table lately, it's worth a visit.
The nonprofit cafe that's dedicated to providing meals for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, recruited a new chef in November and has made some significant changes.
Matt Matheny, a 27-year-old whose previous experience includes Pronghorn's Chanterelle and the now defunct Tart Bistro, has been slowly retooling the back of the house, and debuted a spring menu the first week of April.The menu is New American fare with a nod to southern comfort food and, with Matheny at the helm, has taken a turn for the fresher. Many of the items on the menu are now made in-house from start to finish.
"We make our own bread now, pastas, cure our own pork belly and bacon, and we make the yam chips," said Common Table Executive Director Bob Pearson. "We've really moved much more to a fresh-cooked menu structure, even more so than we've done in the past. Matt brought all that in and that's a really big change."
Matheny came aboard the Common Table team as the restaurant was struggling to stay afloat. Scaffolding and other construction material related to a remodel of the former Penny Galleria building façade largely obscured the restaurant for months. Pearson said people thought the restaurant was closed and the construction generally made for a less pleasant dining experience.
By last fall, the restaurant was nearly broke, said Pearson.
"At first I wasn't going to take this job... They had a very uphill battle," said Matheny.
But the chance to help Common Table achieve the goal of being a full-fledged upscale restaurant drew him to the position.
"At the same time, that is what attracted me to it - trying to get it to be a legitimate restaurant," he said. "It's not just for homeless people. We are an actual restaurant."
The menu is made up of salads, soups, sandwiches, homemade pastas, veggie sides, twists on traditional entrees, and desserts. People who cannot afford to pay full price may order a feature bowl off the menu and pay what they can or redeem tokens, distributed through churches and community organizations.
To keep costs down and meals affordable, a flock of volunteers helps serve and bus tables. On any given day, people without homes mix with Bend's political and professional elite.
After all the restaurant's changes, my husband and I decided to swing by for dinner last weekend.
We sat at Common Table's signature aesthetic element - a 20-foot-long walnut table in the middle of the room. The full bar was a few steps away and we enjoyed a few local micro brews while we waited for our food.
We shared the arugula salad ($7.50) as an appetizer and found it zesty and fresh. The salad was tossed with blocks of golden beets, chevre, and lightly dressed in a vinaigrette.
After debating between the homemade lasagna or house-made ravioli ($8), I went with the ravioli because it was the last one available. My husband ordered the pork belly ($15.50).
When our entrees arrived, Matheny's fine dining background was apparent in the artful and colorful dishes, and the flavors did not disappoint.
My husband's pork belly was the more filling entree, as he had roughly a half dozen one-inch thick slices of meat atop a bed of parmesan polenta, served traditional southern grits style with steamed collard greens. The flavors complimented each other expertly, and when I tried a few bites, I found myself trying to balance them all on my fork at once.
The ricotta ravioli was a lighter alternative, served as four squares adorned in roasted cherry tomatoes and the first fresh pesto I've had this spring. I can't get this dish off my mind, it was so delightful.
For dessert, we had the banana bread pudding ($6) as recommended by our waiter. Homemade bread, extra-ripe bananas, drizzled with dulce de leche, and finely sliced mandarin oranges sprinkled with cinnamon; it was so good it made us giddy.
Matheny said to expect more menu items to include produce from local gardens and co-ops as summer rolls around.
Common Table kicked off another season of their popular Sunday brunch buffet on Easter, too, and according to house manager Jasmine Donnally, had a line waiting outside when they opened their doors. Brunch is expected to run through the fall.
The façade remodel that made the last year a tough one for Common Table wrapped up in January. By March, the restaurant was turning a profit again, said Pearson. And if Matheny continues to serve delicious meals prepared with as much care as we experienced last weekend, Common Table may soon build the reputation Matheny craves.
150 NW Oregon Ave.
Lunch, Dinner, Sunday Brunch
Open Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.- close; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.