STIHL WHISKEY BARCall us indecisive. Or, as we prefer, say we found a yin to the yang for this year’s Rookie of the Year choice. We simply could not choose between two strong entries—each is so different and stands out for different reasons—that we are selecting both the vegan “burger” joint, Next Level Burger, and the meat-centric Stihl Whiskey Bar as our Rookies of the Year. We consider the selections as representing the opposite ends of Central Oregon’s culinary spectrum and, as such, balancing each other like two very distant cousins sitting on a seesaw.
Stihl is a downtown whiskey bar—dark, yet fun and friendly, and serving wonderful variations of meat-and-potato dishes. In spite of the dimly lit and dark wood paneled interior, the service is effervescent; at a recent visit, the manager talked for five minutes with some patrons about different types of bread pudding.
Although attention is most naturally drawn to the whiskey—and the venue offers dozens of different types—Stihl's food selections are serious and elegant; a sirloin (from DD Ranch) with crimini mushroom sauce, an elk shepherd's pie, and my standby, the succulent pan-seared pork chop (from Carlton Farms) served with garlicked green beans. The blackened cod with mango chutney is typical of the menu—a top-notch meat dish with just a twist of culinary cleverness, yet still unpretentious. Even the salads make certain to eclipse anything that is purely healthy, with braised kale served warm with bacon and toasted almonds, and the Boston bibb topped with a sweet bourbon vinaigrette.
NEXT LEVEL BURGEROur other Rookie of the Year, Next Level Burger, is opposite in so many regards—it is brightly lit and the menu is as far from ranches and fishing streams as possible. Reminiscent of a classic 1950s diner, but upgraded to a modern Dwell magazine design, there are blonde-wood tables and a rollup garage door. It is simple and clean. The menu gives no clue, apology, or sermon about its vegan philosophy and the hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and milkshakes are, with no apologies, meatless and dairy-free. It is a burger joint that doesn’t serve meat—and without sacrificing one morsel of flavor.
A neighbor to Backporch Roasters and near GoodLife Brewing, NLB is a great addition to the cluster of stores tucked off SW Century on the west side, and one that re-enforces Bend’s personality as a place for healthy lifestyles. The first year has been so successful, that NLB is reportedly planning to expand to Portland in the coming months.