I’ve long asserted, with a sniffy insider’s wink, that Party Downtown serves up the best eats in Eugene. And I stand by that claim. Chef Tiffany Norton is a culinary master — capable of introducing savory Americana to delectable haute cuisine and visa versa, with flair and unpretentious sophistication — and together with her co-owner husband Mark Kosmicki (a self-proclaimed “kitchen grunt”), these two have blessed our region with a restaurant that, in my humble estimation, rivals any on the entire West Coast.
Little did I know that insider winks and humble opinions do not a successful restaurant make, no matter how great the food. According to Kosmicki and Norton, Party Downtown, as it only recently existed, was a losing proposition. Despite rave reviews — and despite the irony that you could eat there for about the same it would cost you at Shari’s (or even McDonald’s anymore) — the business was struggling.
“We were either going to close or we were going to expand,” Norton says. Part of the problem was location; the restaurant was tucked into an alley, with a street-side entrance than ran through the now-gone Red Wagon Creamery, all but obliterating their visibility on Broadway.
Another debilitating factor was the common misperception that Party Downtown offered the kind of upper-crust, sit-down fine dining that was prohibitive to anyone but Eugene’s landed gentry. This, combined with the long hours required to keep a restaurant afloat, began to take its toll.
In February of last year, Norton and Kosmicki opened Party on Friendly, a risk that paid off in ways they never could have expected. This food counter in the Friendly Market, which offers high-quality variations on classic American diner food, has been wildly successful — and more in keeping with their vision for what kind of Party they’ve always wanted to host.
“We could have struggled through forever and ever,” Norton says. “Opening on Friendly made us realize that everyday food is just as much fun to make, and we could actually thrive and succeed on a different level. It’s not like we’re going to phone it in, no matter what we do.”
At this point in the evolution of Party Downtown, fate intervenes: Red Wagon Creamery went under, rather ingloriously, and when the fraught ice cream parlor finally shut its doors in April 2018, Kosmicki and Norton were faced with the possibility of inhabiting the entire retail space they’d previously been sharing.
This was no gimme. Expansion is a tricky business, full of all manner of financial and qualitative dangers, and if this tale has a defining gesture, it is Kosmicki and Norton’s decision to take the gigantic risk of completely redefining and restructuring their business.
They decided to open a bar serving food in front, and maintain a limited but high-quality dining establishment in back, opened Thursdays through Saturdays and by reservation only. It was the perfect compromise, striking a balance between accessibility and ambition. “I feel like we built the bar that we wanted to go to,” Kosmicki says.
“It reminds me a little of New Orleans,” Norton says, and indeed, the bar has a cozy, twilit warmth that hits that sweet spot between neighborhood dive bar and something chic and hip. With an oyster bar and a menu that includes everything from Party’s vaunted son-in-law egg and gnocchi tots to burgers and fried chicken, it’s like a little slice of the French Quarter in downtown Eugene.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I love having a bar,” Kosmicki says. “It’s really fun and people are stoked.”
“The response to all three places has just been so great,” Norton adds. “Party Bar is filling the niche we thought it would. Party Downtown is a nice creative outlet, and Party on Friendly is the perfect neighborhood spot, with some of my favorite foods on the menu.”
It can’t be overstated how rare it is, especially in this economic climate, to find any business not only surviving, but also expanding while holding tightly onto its original vision, without losing an iota of the quality that marked its early beginnings. But Party, in all its current manifestations, seems to have found a successful equilibrium — in large part due to its owners’ willingness to adapt, at significant risk. It’s a model to follow.
“It’s a progression of what we had to do to get where we are,” Kosmicki says of Party’s new incarnation.
“We felt we needed revitalization,” Norton adds. “We’d been open five-plus years and we needed to change things up to stay relevant and inspired. We’ve always wanted a bar like Party Bar to go to ourselves — a nice but not fancy spot that you can get a quality beverage and snack, or a casual dinner, in downtown.”
Party Bar at 55 W. Broadway is open every day from 11 am to late, except Sundays, when they close at 10 pm; for more information, including hours and menus at Party on Friendly and Party Downtown, visit PartyEugene.com.