“When you visit most special-occasion restaurants, you eat a photo in the kitchen, go home, and that’s that,” says the chef Matt Lightner, whose highly anticipated return to the American dining scene,Ōkta, opens this summer at the new eight-suite Tributary Hotel in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “Here, you never leave.”
Hotel is something of a misnomer when it comes to this self-described “sanctuary of slow” that features plenty of exposed brick and a fireplace in every room. Inn doesn’t quite do the trick, either. And even though the morning meal Lightner and his team of 20 will prepare for guests promises to be memorable, you shouldn’t call it a bed-and-breakfast. Tributary is a restaurant with rooms, an intimate destination where the team orchestrating your tasting menu is responsible for every aspect of your visit. If you’re not eating at Ōkta, you’re probably not staying at Tributary. Dinner is the reason. Food is the focus.
The concept will sound familiar to any gastronaut who has made the pilgrimage to the dearly departed, spectacularly remote Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden; fine-dining temples Michel Bras, Maison Troisgros, or Les Prés d’Eugénie in France; Reale, nestled among the hills of Abruzzo; or Massimo Bottura’s Casa Maria Luigia, in Modena. This immersive sensitivity is central to the Japanese ryokan and widely available in the UK (The latter is the birthplace of the term “restaurant with rooms.”) Right around the time Tributary opens, Aussie expat chef James Henry will begin serving overnight guests at Le Doyenne, a remodeled horse stable an hour’s drive from Paris. And in November, London’s Margot Henderson will launch the Three Horses—“a pub with lodgings”—in the Somerset countryside.
Lightner believes that, as travelers increasingly plan their vacations around food, the tradition will take hold further in the United States. The chef cites the success of SingleThread, the three-Michelin-starred California-wine-country ryokan launched in 2016.
“In some ways I’d describe these destinations as the reverse of what inns used to be,” says Yale historian Paul Freedman. “The inn was historically a place to sleep, to be protected during the night, and it had to serve food as a convenience. The priority has changed.” Some restaurants with rooms are more plush than others; a good number include accommodations simply because there’s nothing else nearby. But Freedman appreciates the one crucial amenity they all deliver: “You can drink all you want because the only thing you have to do at the end of dinner is walk upstairs.”
There’s an air of inevitably endeavor to Lightner’s latest. The Nebraska-born chef attended culinary school in Portland. After a stint in Europe, he returned to the city and earned national acclaim at the Castagna restaurant, serving food that filtered the avant-garde naturalism he’d absorbed at Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country through an Oregon lens. In 2011, Lightner moved east and earned two Michelin stars at the tasting counter Atera. Whether “fussing over a corsage of edible wildflowers or tinting a baguette with squid ink to fashion a copy of a razor clam,” he wrote New York Times critic Pete Wells, “Mr. Lightner is opening our eyes again to how busy nature has been.” Four years later, the chef left the restaurant for consulting work and fatherhood. The plan was always to return to the Pacific Northwest.
This time Lightner will resist the urge to bend nature to his will. “These won’t be dishes that we’ve spent years tinkering over,” he says of Ōkta, which takes its name from the unit of measurement for cloud cover. “The food will be more spontaneous.” He envisions guests visiting the growers and artisans that form the ecosystem of the restaurant, or spying something curious taking shape in the kitchen during prep hours and tasting it on the spot. “I want the sommelier to randomly knock on your door to ask if you want to poke around the cellar, or to have someone bring up the latest new snacks from the larder and leave them as a surprise,” Lightner says.
Tributary’s general manager is Christine Langelier, a veteran of Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, two northeastern bucket list destinations known to bend over backward. EMP famously employed “dreamweavers” to research guests’ hobbies and preferences, in order to present them with personalized surprises during their meal. When Google fell short, servers would gather intel from conversations overheard in the dining room. “Our goal,” says Lightner, “is basically to never say no.”