Will Work for Bacon: The Rust Belt Irony of Portland’s Tilt

Tilt, the Portland restaurant that works hard to evoke the forgotten age of American manufacturing, is opening its third location on Burnside, maybe in late August. This after a second spot opened, in the Pearl District, in less than a year. Tilt’s slogan is "Handcrafted Food and Drink Built for the American Workforce," and clearly it's found fans. But what is American workforce food?

Some might say that in the 21st century, it’s anything quick, cheap, and healthy enough to supply the energy needed to power through a 3 p.m. sales meeting. Applebee’s $6.99 Chicken Fajita Rollup is something a lot of Americans might choose to fuel up on, but Tilt’s menu is packed with monsters like the Woody Royale, a burger with a slice of prime rib and double-cut bacon, cheese, and onion rings for $13.

Apparently Portland’s workforce is far too burly to be satisfied lunching on a quinoa and kale salad. Given the throngs of unemployed artists who live here, Portland seems an odd place for an American workforce restaurant. Maybe the irony is what makes hipsters line up out the door.

There are “handcarved” sandwiches and “blue collar” biscuits, and a large green machine that appears to make nothing. Napkins, in typical proletarian fashion, are red shop rags. At the Pearl District location, I pick up my Koolakofsky, a cholesterol-packed fusion of Reuben and burger, on an aluminum tray. It’s an artery-clogging tower of meat that would make Ron Swanson proud. My side of jalapeño tots are suspiciously like hush puppies (I’m glad I passed on the “pork n’ bacon” gravy). Maybe Tilt’s slogan should actually be "Handcrafted Food and Drink Built for the American Food Coma."

There’s a fluorescent case with pies and other sweets, thoughtfully located near the cash registers. Imagine your grandma’s apple pie. Now forget that mediocre pie, because Tilt’s version has a perfectly flaky crust topped with cinnamon and sugar. But the gem of the dessert case has to be the banana cake: banana bread layered with fresh bananas and banana-flavored whipped cream—because banana bread alone, clearly, would not get you through an afternoon of going over the Q2 numbers and reviewing action items from the morning status meeting.

Look, we can all agree that America was built, not founded, but was it built on burgers and biscuits and banana cake? That’s questionable. Not many Americans build anything anymore, but a lot of us sell stuff someone else has made. That includes concepts—like the concept of huge portions of meat, carbs, and fat, marketed as workforce food, with all the industrial nostalgia that implies. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s naptime.

Photos by Brian Staffield

Brian Staffield has been interested in food ever since he was a child experimenting in the kitchen. He received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Oregon State University, and continues his passion for food and writing at his blog, Cooking with B.S., and on CHOW.