At the 2015 Whiteaker Block Party, Eugeneans welcomed the opening of Board, a new restaurant taking the space long held by (the recently defunct) Tiny Tavern (TT) at the northwest corner of Blair Boulevard and Fourth Avenue. Board preserves the casual funk of TT while showcasing the cooking skills of two young, talented, and energetic co-chefs, Michael Autrey and Pierce Kieffer. The Block Party was a success: “We sold out of everything,” Autrey said.
For decades, Tiny Tavern—launched in 1945—had devolved into an emblem of Whiteaker funk. The emergence of the neighborhood as a destination for fine dining left TT on an island, seedy and run-down. Finally, it closed—until Autrey and his wife, math teacher and social activist Courtney Stitt, bought the lease and began transforming the iconic tavern into Board. They rebuilt the kitchen, remodeled the bar and bathrooms, cleaned and cleaned.
Board has a dual identity. It is still a bar/pub, but it is also a fine-dining restaurant. The space consists mainly of one large, open room dominated on one side by a handsome eight-stool bar, covered by brushed copper topped in plastic. On the north side of the room, a rock-faced fireplace painted orange-red warms the rudimentary wood tables and chairs for 50-plus diners. The menu is still bar fare, the entrées are mainly sandwiches, but the small-plate appetizers served on (you guessed it) cutting boards allow co-chefs Autrey and Kieffer opportunities to showcase their culinary skills and food imaginations. For example, there’s shrimp and grits with cilantro jalapeño butter ($10); or a nightly special gratin ($7); venison steak with lambic-braised cabbage, whipped sweet potatoes, and mushrooms dressed with tasty demi-glace ($16); and a superb baba ganoush served with warm olives ($8). This is pub grub taken to epicurean dimensions, but it still encourages diners to sample the array of spirits, signature cocktails, ciders, beers, and wines offered on a separate menu.
Plans are in the making to build a north-side deck for patio dining, and perhaps development of the second floor (currently a rental) for another dining room. “This place might have more plans for us than we have for it,” Autrey says. At present, Board’s popularity already tests the capacities of its small kitchen and the talents of its chefs.
Autrey and Kieffer are motivated and experienced, and are certainly worth getting to know.
Michael Autrey was born in Michigan, but his father, Ray, a mechanical engineer, worked in management for an oil/energy company, leading him to move the family around Texas to Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Michael has five sisters, four older, one younger, quite enough to keep his mother, Kathy (Gann), very busy. Michael was often the new kid in school. The family’s frequent moves took them to Cincinnati, Ohio. There, two events shaped Michael’s life: at age 14, he landed a job in his first restaurant, LaRosa’s Pizza; later, he enrolled in the University of Cincinnati’s engineering program, where he earned his electrical engineering degree in 2002. After working briefly for General Electric, he discovered that his real passions were food and cooking.
Autrey moved to Eugene in 2008; the next year, he found a gig cooking at Agate Alley Bistro near the University of Oregon campus. He stayed with Agate Alley, where he was encouraged to experiment with food and flavors, through its migration to Willamette Street and its evolution to Agate Alley’s Laboratory, until it closed in 2014. Meanwhile, Michael got lucky: He met and married Courtney Stitt in 2012. Together, they took up the lease on Tiny Tavern and set out on a new food adventure.
Pierce Kieffer, co-chef at Board, began his life in 1984 in Pasadena, the son of a single mother, Susan Nobles. They stayed in East L.A. for some of Pierce’s early life and schooling, after which Pierce experienced severe culture shock with a move in 1992 to Ten Mile, Oregon, a country village near Roseburg, remote in so many ways compared to L.A. In a few years, Susan Nobles found herself fighting to survive cancer, a scary prospect which brought mom and Pierce closer—in the kitchen. Pierce says, “What we did together a lot was cooking.” Pierce’s first job in a restaurant (D’s Magnolia, Roseburg) was as a dishwasher, The chef called Pierce “Dishie,” which accounts, Pierce says now, for his distaste of the title ‘chef’: “I’d rather hear my name.”
Today, Board binds the neighborhood’s gentrified present to its slouchy past. And it feels right. As Pierce Kieffer puts it, “We’re busy, and people seem to like it, so that’s good.”