Two years in, Portland’s unique The Table still feeding hungry people

The Table has been open for two years with its unique pay-it-forward approach. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

A little over two years ago, a restaurant opened quietly in the Portland neighborhood bent on bringing fresh, affordable food to a neighborhood awash in carryout places and fast-food joints.

In early 2018, The Table’s unique concept is still going strong, still attracting customers, and still serving top-notch food in a sit-down environment. If you’ve not been and don’t know the story, The Table is a nonprofit restaurant that relies on volunteers and the kindness of its patrons.

The Table offers an inviting space with friendly service. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Basically, the succinct menu comes with suggested prices, but you can feel free to pay whatever you can afford.

Some can’t afford a meal, and those people will be able to eat free. Some can afford meals for two, and the premise is to “pay it forward” when you dine so that someone else can enjoy a meal.

In addition, volunteers accrue $10 worth of credit toward meals for every hour they volunteer, so if you’d rather skip donating, stick around for an hour or so, do a little charity work, and earn a meal or two for someone who can’t afford it.

Of course, it’s still a restaurant, so the food is still important — obviously, without a good menu, the concept would be doomed. Fortunately, the food at The Table is not only sourced locally and fresh, it’s darn good.

I stopped in for lunch on a recent weekday to find the place buzzing with diners. The place is inviting, with plenty of reclaimed wood, modern lighting, muted green and yellow walls, and an outer wall of exposed brick. Black-and-white photos from the Portland neighborhood adorn the walls.

I was shown to a two-top table along the outside wall, where my volunteer host gave me a rundown of the restaurant’s concept, followed by the day’s specials of tomato basil soup and carrot cake for dessert.

Hard to beat tomato basil soup on a cold, winter day. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

I jumped on the idea of a cup of the soup of the day as something to help warm me up on a chilly winter afternoon, then asked for a few minutes to look at the menu, which consists mostly of signature sandwiches and a handful of salads, as well as a pumpkin chili with chipotle sour cream.

I barely had even begun to digest the options when my soup arrived, via another volunteer, a young man who said, “Here you are, good sir.”

(I found the service to be incredibly friendly, from the time I walked in the door until the time I left. Smiles abound at The Table.)

After briefly considering the meatloaf sliders topped with smoked cheddar, beet relish and greens, I opted for a smoked chicken sandwich with bacon jam, red onions, kale and buttermilk ranch on a cheddar jalapeño bun. There’s also smoked pork, pulled ham and cheese, and a grilled cheese sandwich, which would have made a fine companion for the tomato basil soup.

Speaking of which, the soup came out just as hot as you’d want it: warming and comforting, but not so hot that I had to wait to eat it. The soup clearly was made fresh, with a mild tomato flavor and a nice balance of fresh basil. My host saw me eating and came over to ask how it was, getting my thumbs up.

“I can’t wait to get mine,” she said.

Smoked chicken sandwich | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Four or five minutes after I’d finished my tasty soup, my sandwich and a side of Parmesan french fries arrived at my table (the sweet potato fries looked tempting as well). The fries were fresh-cut and sprinkled with shredded Parmesan.

I started with a few of those, and they were also hot and fresh, cooked to various levels of crispness, not at all greasy and, well, just really good. Nothing fancy, mind you — just good. All french fries should be like these, Parmesan or not.

The ample sandwich was a mouthful, and I plucked a piece of chicken first to give it a taste. It was sufficiently juicy, lightly smoked, with fresh chicken flavor and a hint of seasoning. The crispy bun had cheddar baked crispy on top, while the kale and onions added a fresh crunch.

I was happy the ranch dressing stayed in the background, while the bacon jam paired just right with the chicken, with plenty of smoky, salty bacon flavor, and just a hint of sweetness in the jam. I detected occasional flashes of spice, likely from the jalapeño bun. A satisfying lunch, from any angle.

At The Table, your tip goes toward another person’s meal — volunteer servers make that possible — and you pay at the front counter. My meal, with a soft drink, came to $12 and some change. I handed over a $20 bill so that someone else could enjoy one of those chicken sandwiches.

You don’t have to donate, and if you don’t, the fact is, you’re still getting a fresh, locally sourced meal for about the same price you’d pay for a meal at Wendy’s. Even without the charitable mission, choosing The Table over fast food is a no-brainer.

The Table, located at 1800 Portland Ave., is open weekdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.