The Lobby Lure of Chris Cosentino's Jackrabbit at Portland's Duniway
How the hotel restaurant harnesses its natural flow for guest traffic.
“It’s kind of like being at someone’s house and hanging out in their living room—a really freaking cool living room.” That’s how Chris Cosentino, celebrated chef, restaurateur, and mind behind Jackrabbit restaurant and bar at the Duniway hotel in Portland, Oregon, describes the Duniway’s cozy new lobby as an alluring extension of his adjacent Jackrabbit. The two spaces are bridged by the Jackrabbit bar, with half of it in the lobby and the other half continued in the restaurant.
“We created an environment where people can have multiple experiences in that setting depending on what their mood is, and that’s what I love about it,” says Cosentino. “The lobby should be like Cheers. It’s a gathering point where people can feel comfortable and connect. From the lobby, our bar continues four steps down to the restaurant, and it was specifically designed in that fashion so we could have people standing in the lobby with a drink, looking down into the dining room, and saying, ‘The drinks are really good here. I wonder what the restaurant is like down there?’”
Indeed, while many hotels have traditionally created dividers signaling to guests that they’re leaving the lobby and entering the restaurant, or vice-versa, the Duniway’s anticipation of customer flow through its design helps make the lobby a pre- or post-nosh hangout, with easy streetside access from one of Portland’s busier pedestrian corners at Taylor and 6th Avenue.
“We’re right off one of the light rail lines and accessible to public transit, we’re close to a lot of businesses, Pioneer Courthouse is nearby, and we have a valet, so it’s pretty easy to get in and out as a local,” says Doug Martin, Jackrabbit’s GM.
Jackrabbit and the lobby were ready for business last March after a five-month renovation, while the rest of the Duniway opened in June. Both areas were previously part of the Hilton Executive Tower—one of two towers that comprised the entire Hilton Portland property. Owners Thayer Lodging decided the 20-story Executive Tower should be transformed into a 327-room boutique hotel (part of Hilton’s Curio Collection) while the other 22-story tower (which was also renovated) remains a Hilton today, called Hilton Portland Downtown.
“Portland has evolved over the years as a luxury boutique market, so it was important for us to be competitive in that area,” says Ralf Brabandt, former F&B director for both hotels, who spent six years at the property and observed the transformation. “The Duniway is centrally located in downtown Portland, so it’s a perfect fit.”
The Duniway and Jackrabbit are also a perfect fit for profitability. Since opening last March, Jackrabbit’s beverage revenues have more than doubled compared to the previous F&B concept, Porto Terra—an Italian-themed venue that was isolated from the lobby. Meanwhile, food revenues at Jackrabbit are triple Porto Terra’s numbers, and happy hour draws four times more locals than the previous concept. As an added accolade, Punch Architecture, which created the restaurant and bar space, recently won an Excellence in Design Award for Jackrabbit from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in Nevada, where Punch is headquartered.
While Cosentino keeps a close watch on Jackrabbit’s menus and guest experience, the day-to-day culinary operation is overseen by Executive Chef Chris DiMinno, previously the chef at Portland’s trendsetting Clyde Common, while the front of the house is managed by Martin, a Vegas veteran who worked with Chef Michael Mina for many years.
Cosentino’s contributions extend beyond the lobby bar and restaurant, into catering and room service menus at the Duniway. While many know him from his Season Four Top Chef Masters win, frequent appearances on the Food Network, and as a snout-to-tail pioneer when it was controversial instead of cool, within the industry he’s regarded as a hard-working chef whose skills were honed by years of paying back-of-the-house dues—not always a prerequisite for celebrity chefs. While his current flagship restaurant is Cockscomb in San Francisco, Cosentino has recently expanded into hotel F&B with the Duniway and the luxury Las Alcobas in Napa Valley.
“It’s exciting to think about all the meal periods in a hotel, because I’m touching the guest in a bigger way,” Cosentino says. “I’m giving them breakfast (see sidebar), lunch, dinner, in-room dining, and the banquet component. It’s a learning experience for me, but one of the big advantages working with a hotel is the accurate forecasting of occupancy, knowing what conventions are in town, and what VIPs are in-house. Then we’re able to adjust our staff schedules and supplies so we’re ready. Overall, we work with a bigger team in a hotel than a freestanding restaurant.”
Hatching the Plan
When executives at Thayer Lodging were looking for a restaurateur to collaborate on the Duniway project, they were serendipitously swayed by an experience at Cockscomb, according to Cosentino.
“My business partner Oliver Wharton was doing some work with the Duniway’s ownership group and he had a meeting with one of their representatives at Cockscomb. They were having dinner and the rep talked about how they wanted something dynamic, fun, and exciting for the Duniway. By the end of dinner, the rep told Oliver, ‘I’ve already figured it out. I would like him,’ pointing at me. So by experiencing Cockscomb from a guest’s perspective, they wanted to re-create that kind of experience at the Duniway.”
Cosentino—who operates on a management agreement with the Duniway—went right to work developing Jackrabbit’s concept, making sure it was reflective of Portland’s history while utilizing the area’s abundance.
“Jackrabbit is the indigenous rabbit of that region, and a unique trait of jackrabbits is they’re convivial. They only come out at night to eat and play, so we thought, ‘Isn’t that what people do as well?’ So we thought naming it Jackrabbit would be really fun,” he says.
The dinner menu is highlighted by the Sharable Suppers section, featuring the restaurant’s namesake: a whole braised rabbit, with 80 cloves of garlic, rosemary, and heirloom carrots. There’s also Cosentino’s signature roasted pig’s head, with chicories, capers, shallots, lemon, and “brainaise”—whipped pig’s brain; and the pin-bone steak, with seasonal vegetables and bone-marrow dip.
“It’s a four-pound steak for the table to share. It’s an incredible marriage of three different primal cuts: a very tender portion of top round, tenderloin, and sirloin. You get the best of New York strip and top sirloin coming together, with all those different textures and flavor profiles. We serve it on a large wooden board with a variety of roasted vegetables and sauces, and it’s one of our top-sellers,” Martin says.
Other fast-moving items at Jackrabbit include charcoal-oven roasted chicken with seasonal panzanella, shallots, and bacon vinaigrette, and Around the World in 8 Hams, served with seasonal remoulade. “We have two hams from the United States, two hams from Italy, two hams from Spain, and two hams from France. You get a taste of all the different styles, and it’s a fun way to sample,” says Cosentino.
Portland’s lineage as a logging community is echoed in the Bateau (12 oysters, six clams, and housemade charcuterie) and Grande Bateau (36 oysters, 12 clams, plus charcuterie). “James Beard grew up in Portland, and the area has a rich history of food, fishing, and lumber, so that’s why we have the shellfish tower bateaus. A bateau was the boat that moved wood and lumberjacks down the river, so this is about celebrating that heritage,” explains Cosentino.
The name Portland was actually decided on a coin flip in 1845, as two landowners from New England argued whether the Oregon town should be named after Boston, Massachusetts, or Portland, Maine. Portland won the wager, and on the cocktail menu at Jackrabbit, the bet is playfully re-enacted in the Coin Toss, made with Yellow Chartreuse, Giffard Crème de Pamplemousse, ginger, and lime in a hollowed-out frozen grapefruit filled with shaved ice.
“The guest has the option of gin or tequila. Each server carries custom Jackrabbit coins, so if the guest wants to leave it to fate, they decide which spirit gets heads or tails, and the server flips the coin,” notes Martin.
Other cocktails at Jackrabbit are a nod to Portland’s fame as a film location, including Drugstore Cowboy (The Famous Grouse, Ardbeg rinse, honey, lemon, house sangrita, pickled ginger) and Homeward Bound (gin, pear puree, housemade vanilla syrup, bubbles). The City of Roses (rosé wine, Cynar, Dolin Blanc) is Jackrabbit’s cocktail calling card, featured in The New York Times, so “people who have seen the article come in just to try that drink,” Martin says.
Punch Architecture’s award-winning Jackrabbit design continues the Portland point of view, reflecting the area’s logging and artisan history with an emphasis on reclaimed wood with leather and metal accents; patterns and detailing reflective of Portland’s iconic bridges; Portland-produced custom furniture; vintage Portland artwork and memorabilia; and Schwinn Collegiate bicycle frames repurposed as chandeliers, which also reflect Cosentino’s love of cycling.
The restaurant has a nine-seat oyster bar/charcuterie station, and two private dining rooms seating 20 and eight, respectively, with the latter called the Rabbit Hole featuring Alice in Wonderland décor. Overall, Jackrabbit has 97 total seats in the dining room, 14 seats at the bar (seven in Jackrabbit, seven in the lobby), and 40 seats in the lobby lounge. The entire 4,500-square-foot restaurant space also is available for group buyouts up to 250 people.
The Duniway name has historical weight in the City of Roses. The hotel was named after Abigail Scott Duniway, an early resident of Portland who arrived via the Oregon Trail, and a tough, non-nonsense businesswoman devoted to women’s suffrage, who lived her life against the grain of popular opinion.
Coffee is one area the hotel chose to emulate Duniway’s defiant spirit. In a city synonymous with great roasters, the Duniway uses Vittoria coffee from Australia, and serves it from a luxury barista station on the lobby side of Jackrabbit’s bar, with easy streetside access for locals.
“We have a group of people that come in almost daily for their morning coffee,” says Martin. “We use a custom Italian espresso machine that’s manually operated. It’s all levers and feel with no programmed buttons, so there’s skill and artistry required to make our espresso. We also have nitro cold brew on tap for those who are serious about their caffeine.”
Staffing on a busy day in the lobby includes a barista, a cocktail server, and up to three bartenders that roam both sides of the horseshoe-shaped bar, while on the Jackrabbit side, up to seven servers, and seven kitchen staff are needed on the busiest weekend nights.
“We’ve found a good niche within the Portland community,” says Martin. “We’re still in the phase where people are discovering us for the first time, so that’s our chance to make a connection. They usually have such a great experience they come back with friends to show them this new spot they found. It’s wonderful to see because that’s how you build repeat business."
This feature originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Hotel F&B. It is one of our Reader Favorites and is updated regularly.
Jackrabbit’s chicken and waffle sandwich: fried egg and fried chicken with hot sauce on
zucchini waffles. Photo Courtesy of Mark Mediana
Chris Cosentino on: Hotel Breakfast
While breakfast traditionally has the highest guest capture rate for any meal period at a hotel—frequently 90% or more—it’s also perceived as a chore by many chefs, who believe the morning menu stifles their culinary creativity, due to overwhelming customer demand for traditional, less adventurous items such as the ubiquitous “two eggs any style” or oatmeal. However, don’t count Chef Chris Cosentino among the chorus of complainers when it comes to hotel breakfast.
“Anybody who thinks it’s beneath their talents is a little too hung up on themselves,” he says. “They need to focus on what the customer wants and is comfortable eating. Don’t use that as an excuse to give them a standard breakfast 101; take that 101 and make it a 105—make it better. The guest is still getting what they want, but you validate it by focusing on improvement.
“For example, we make our breakfast sandwiches at Jackrabbit better because we make our English muffins from scratch. We offer three different fresh-squeezed breakfast juice blends every day. We also make our own bacon inhouse, and it’s delicious. We use (Jackrabbit Executive Chef) Chris DiMinno’s recipe for bacon, and when I first tasted it, I was like, ‘done.’ I bought a smoker for Jackrabbit just because his bacon is so damn good.
“I think breakfast is one of the most overlooked experiences out there. Even if it’s a buffet, it’s easy to make a little sexier, and see it as a challenge to get better and put your personal stamp on it. No situation at breakfast deters from your personal integrity as a chef.
“If the guest has a great experience at breakfast with us, we’re probably going to capture them for dinner too. I think that’s the mentality people have to have when they’re working in food and beverage at a hotel. Guests get a taste of your capabilities in the morning, and say, ‘If these guys can blow me away at breakfast, I wonder what they can do at dinner?’ But if you mail it in at breakfast, they’ll say, ‘These guys can’t even cook eggs, so what the heck can they do with anything else?’”—MC
No matter which side of the room service debate you’re on, it’s clear the luxury end of the hotel spectrum isn’t abandoning traditional in-room dining anytime soon, primarily because their guests—who pay a premium to stay at those properties—expect more than a bag of food and a knock on the door when their order arrives.
At the luxury boutique Duniway hotel in Portland, Oregon, Chef Chris Cosentino developed menus for the entire F&B program, including Jackrabbit restaurant and bar (see main story), catering, and room service, with a particular understanding of what the Duniway’s clientele want out of their in-room dining experience.
“When someone orders room service here, it’s not because they’re antisocial. They may have had a hard day, they may feel ill, they might just want some peace and quiet, or maybe they have work to do in their room and want to focus,” says Cosentino. “We want them to feel comfortable and well taken care of—like they’re in a restaurant but in their room.
“I think when you look at room service as a whole, there has to be an element of your restaurant within room service, but also menu selections that are understandable. I want somebody to say, ‘I know what this is, I want it because I’m comfortable with it, and nobody has to teach me how to eat it or explain it to me.’ But it also has to be a direct reflection of the restaurant in feeling, presentation, and quality.
“It’s not uncommon for people who travel on a regular basis to be under the weather while on the road, so we always have our housemade chicken noodle soup on the room service menu. It has a little bit of ginger to soothe your stomach, and I know how comforting that could be for somebody who doesn’t feel well to call down and say, ‘Can I just get some chicken soup sent up?’ And our answer is always, ‘Of course you can.’ That goes a long way with our guests to show we really care about them, putting their needs first and our egos aside.”—MC