Dayna McErlean

The Art of Spaces – An Interview With Restaurateur And Living Space Creator Dayna McErlean

WORDS Jamie Mustard | PHOTOGRAPHY Richard Darbonne

Dayna McErlean has a unique voice within Portland’s vibrant food metropolis. As a founding member of Portland’s coveted restaurant community, McErlean is owner of eternally popular — fine dining, artfully hip and casual food spots DOC, Nonna Tavern and Yakuza. All distinct cinematic spaces known for amazing food. As a “non chef” owner with an extensive background in fine art, McErlean’s focus is on creating cinematic spaces that make patrons feel as though they are being transported to a distant time and place. It is no small feat that she has been able to do this working with some of Portland’s most innovative chefs cultivating some of the city’s most coveted yet accessible food.

Under her umbrella of her company The Dept. of Food and Shelter, McErlean’s restaurants are located within one city block of each other in Portland’s stylish NE 30th and Killingsworth neighborhood. She drove to this area ‘before it was cool’ over 20 years ago in a Dodge Stealth Sport van that she still owns. She settled there when it was still diverse, and was well known back then for her “Warhol-esque” parties before Portland started to change. She is a pioneer with her own vision. Her Airbnb, The Loft, looks like a movie set.

In recent years, McErlean has turned her love for intoxicating spaces toward property development with her event space The Colony and the unique living spaces The Cabins in Portland’s emerging neighborhood of St. Johns. McErlean is currently developing micro-hotels, as well as more newly designed and visually cinematic living spaces, and she is the founder and owner of Dash I and Dash II, two fully equipped rentable commercial kitchens available for anyone to hire. We caught up with her recently to ask about her unusual approach to her work and the ‘art of the space.’

PI: Do you think that starting with building the space or environment first changes or informs the dining experience?
DM: I think you inherently have a heightened experience when all of your senses are being satiated. A space can transform the way you experience food. The opposite of that is that when an environment is too hot or too cold, has bad seating or is uncomfortable in some way; even if you are unaware of it, it detracts from your ability to fully taste, enjoy and fully experience food.

PI: Does the physical space change the way we experience food?
DM: Spaces are everything. Often a poor space takes away from our experience and we feel upset without knowing why. Body comfort, including sound and physical space, change our senses. When we are in an inspiring space we are free to fully experience what we taste.

PI: I know you have a background in fine art. When did you develop your passion for creating spaces?
DM: My last year of art school I took a performance class where I turned my studio into an installation space. I was doing paper-making and creating tiles out of large slabs of paper. Also, my father was a talented builder and my siblings and I were raised in a house that he built. I remember at this time in my life being very aware of the impact spaces were having on my consciousness.

PI: Running all these operations is a lot of work. What drives you?
DM: Honestly, the responsibility of employing people and contributing to my community is a huge factor. I also like the feeling of seeing something that looks like nothing and imagining how its raw elements could turn it into something amazing.

PI: What inspires you?
DM: There are the obvious things like light, shape and form. Sometimes the worse a raw space looks the more inspired I am to transform it. I like how an existing space sets parameters or limits on what I can do. I like the challenge of figuring out how to make it special with set rules dictated by the space as opposed to the limitless possibilities of building something new. I love looking at antiques and things that were made a long time ago and admiring the ingenuity, time, skill and often simplicity that went into making them. I see this in architecture and other things as I drive around Portland living my daily life.

PI: As a “non chef” owner how is running restaurants different than you thought it would be when you started?
DM: I don’t have the control I wish had. I have to trust other people. I have to sometimes wonder if the chef gets my vision or not. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but it’s a collaboration and it can sometimes feel like an artful game of tug-of-war. I was very naive when I started and didn’t understand the amount of work that went into operating businesses. I thought my chef partners would take care of that. Now, after much trial and error, I have an amazing team and it works out well.

PI: How would you describe Portland’s food culture and is it actually that different than other cities?
DM: I would say what makes food special here now is what made it special when I decided to stop driving and settle here two decades ago. Then, I was struck less by a food scene, but rather by the sheer bounty of product. The volume of impeccable food product produced by the land was awe inspiring. I believe everything that has happened to Portland in terms of cutting edge food culture is result of the topography of the local land. In that way, the Portland we see now was kind of inevitable.

To stay at one of Dayna’s spaces or eat at her restaurants please go to: DeptOfFoodAndShelter.com

About The Author: Jamie Mustard