Portland is mourning the loss of Sarah Pliner. The accomplished chef was 50 years old and was in the process of opening up a new restaurant when she was tragically killed while biking across Powell Boulevard on her way to work Tuesday.
Today I talked to Sarah’s sister Jessica Pliner and family friend Suzy Hoke to learn a bit more about her.
According to Jessica, a lawyer who lives in San Francisco, Sarah moved to Portland from New York City in 1990 after graduating from high school. She attended Reed College, but dropped out and started working at restaurants. She found a spot in the esteemed kitchen of The Heathman Hotel, which was her first big opportunity in the world of fine dining. From there she traveled back to New York to gain experience working alongside notable chefs before returning to Portland a few years later. She opened Aviary in 2011 and it put Sarah on the map — although she never sought the limelight.
Aviary closed in 2020 during the pandemic. These days Sarah was chef at Fullerton Wines and also cooked at Bluto’s on SE Belmont (which closed today to try and “heal from the devastating loss”). She was on her way to Bluto’s Tuesday when she was hit. Her co-workers called the police when she didn’t arrive.
Sarah was dreaming of owning her own restaurant again. “She was looking at spaces for a new restaurant and meeting with the contractor about the buildout as we speak,” her sister said.
That new location would have very likely have been pretty close to her home near SE 28th Place and Holgate. That’s because Sarah didn’t own a car and she rode her bike everywhere. “I came up to visit her in 1995 or so and gave her my car and said, ‘I’ll teach you how to drive,'” Jessica recalled, laughing. “It takes quite a bit of patience to teach someone who’s never driven.” In the end Jessica said Sarah learned just enough to get her license, then gave away the car.
Suzy and Jessica shared another story about a 2019 visit when the trio wanted to try a pho restaurant near the Portland Airport. “We were driving and she’s navigating us, but the way she’s giving directions wasn’t the most efficient way to drive there, because it was how you’d bike there,” Suzy recalled. “It was hysterical.”
While driving directions weren’t her forté, Sarah stood alone when it came to cooking. You can find many accolades in local food media reviews and remembrances, but I think something Suzy shared with me was a great illustration of her talent:
“I have had a lifetime avoidance of fungi. Sarah insisted that I try them and prepared something I think called ‘hen of the woods.’ I tried to back out of trying them but she was persistent to the point that I took the tiniest bite and prepared to wash it down with a large glass of water. It was one of the most delicious things I ever tasted. We went back to Aviary for a second night and I got it again. I literally just shared this story on Sunday with friends. Can’t believe she’s gone.”
“She was highly respected in her field,” Jessica added. “And not just for her talent, she was so generous with her time in teaching people who wanted to learn.”
“This accident cut short the life of somebody really talented.”
— A celebration of Sarah’s life will be held on October 23rd. Once details are finalized, we’ll post them here.