The Oregon Electric Station, one of Eugene’s bastions of fine dining since 1977, reopened Aug. 9 under new ownership, and people have taken notice. “We expected to be busy,” General Manager Paolo Ruffi says, “but we have been beyond busy. We’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction of the people.”
Ruffi is an ebullient Sardinian man who was beckoned out of retirement by brother and sister Raffaele and Rossella Ruggeri, the new owners. The Ruggeri’s paterfamilias, Roberto, founded an international restaurant group, Bice, with 39 fine-dining restaurants around the world.
Ruffi was the director of operations for Bice New York before retiring to Portland several years ago. “This place is different though,” Ruffi says. “It’s a family operation, nothing to do with the company. It’s much more personal.”
La Ruggeri Familia, including children, grandchildren and Rossella and Raffaele Ruggeri’s two sisters, moved here about seven years ago. When the previous owner of OES decided to leave the business, the Ruggeris were interested and pressed Ruffi back into service.
Walking around the restaurant with Ruffi, it becomes obvious that hospitality is an area in which the Ruggeris excel. Ruffi says, “We call our guests ‘guests,’ not ‘customers.’ This is the hospitality business after all.”
At a large table in the main dining room, Rossella and Raffaele Ruggeri are presiding over a meeting. Raffaele Ruggeri’s accent is heavy, but the word “hospitality” is plainly spoken while he opens his arms and gestures broadly.
Guests have flocked to Oregon Electric Station. Despite having a full house of 320 people and a wait for tables on a Monday night, the reactions have been positive. Nearly all furnishings inside the historic building are new. However, the changes that were made embrace the history and warmth of the building, which was built in 1914 as a station for the Oregon Electric Railway.
“We knew we wanted to keep the integrity of this building, the heart of this building,” Ruffi says. “It’s a warm building, besides being historic. It’s a milestone in Eugene history. That’s why we kept the name and the building intact.”
New carpeting, new tables and chairs, and new stone floors and bar tops complement the building, not the other way around, Ruffi explains. The space, from the iconic fireplace in the courtyard out front, to the entrance bar, to the private rooms and train cars, have been lightened and brightened.
“We want people to see our food, to see our place, how beautiful this place is,” Ruffi says. Private rooms along with the revamped train cars offer different “vibes,” he adds, from the modern, bustling bar to the Santiam Express train car, which Ruffi says is astonishing in its similarity to the Orient Express train car in which he traveled from Istanbul to Paris. “This looks just like it,” he says.
Yes, the Ruggeris are Italian, and so is the executive chef, a man named Michele Godina, who was executive chef at Ivar’s Salmon House in Seattle for 10 years. But that doesn’t matter, Ruffi says. “It’s a mixed menu. It’s not an Italian restaurant; it’s a restaurant for everybody. Michele knows the food of the Northwest. He knows the market.”
Guests can whet their appetite with burrata OES — fresh, creamy mozzarella cheese, grilled zucchini and mushrooms — or coconut prawns in sweet chili sauce. Lobster, beef, salmon or beet carpaccio is served with black topiko (fish roe), truffles, microgreens or goat cheese.
Entrees range from wild salmon to ossobuco (braised veal shank) and filet mignon to a double bone pork chop. All breads, pastries and pastas, including gnocchi, pappardelle and tortelloni, are made in-house.
The kitchen staff buys almost nothing other than meats and vegetables, Ruffi explains, because they make everything from scratch.
So, why did the Ruggeris and Ruffi, with their globe-spanning interests, choose to live in Eugene and invest so much money and effort into the Oregon Electric Station? “Because when you get older,” Ruffi says, “you realize who you are and what you really want in life. Which is peace and beauty.”
The Oregon Electric Station is open 11:30 am to 10:30 pm Monday through Saturday and 5 pm to 10 pm Sunday at 27 E. 5th Ave. See http://oestrestaurant.com for more info.