On bright summer mornings, the brunch spot Lion & Owl makes a striking first impression.
Sunlight glints off the iconic American aluminum trailer that houses the restaurant in the lot behind Eugene Backyard Farmer on the southeast edge of the Whiteaker area. Diners are seated outdoors on the shaded patio or inside the gleaming Airstream Land Yacht, where an intimate setting and welcoming atmosphere contribute to a family-feel for guests who bond over champagne and gourmet meals “for the fierce and the wise.”
While the location suggests a slice of Americana, the restaurant’s name is reminiscent of English pubs — an apt coincidence, co-owner Kirsten Hansen says, as the British cooked up the word “brunch” in the late 19th century. The name is also fitting, Hansen said, because traits associated with each of the animals reflect her personality as well as those of her wife and co-owner, Crystal Platt.
“I’ve always been a fan of brunch,” said Hansen, who is the lion to Platt’s owl. “It’s one of my favorite meals, hands down, but it’s also a special thing. It brings people together with family and friends. It’s a nice, bonding meal.”
Hansen and Platt opened the restaurant a little more than a year ago, but closed from November to March to work at a boutique fishing lodge in New Zealand. Platt was the chef, and Hansen managed guest services. In April, they reopened Lion & Owl, which they plan to operate year-round going forward.
The couple met while working at Stephanie Pearl Kimmel’s Marché. Platt, 38, moved to Eugene from Estacada in 2012 and started at Marché after graduating from Lane Community College’s culinary program. She worked at the restaurant in the Fifth Street Public Market for 10 years.
Hansen, 45, moved to Lane County in 2010, and has been in the restaurant business since she was 15. Her love for grapes goes back further, to age 12, when she visited the French wine region Clairette de Die. From then on, she followed a career in wine, leading her to the vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco and ultimately to Marché.
When the two met, Platt’s culinary education caught Hansen’s attention.
“She talked real sexy about food,” Hansen said, “and I would say, ‘I have just the right wine for that.’ We seem to be a perfect match.”
Kimmel said it was no surprise to her when Hansen and Platt opened their own restaurant. Having eaten at Lion & Owl, Kimmel described the atmosphere as “cozy” and like “being at home.” She said it’s the combination of intimacy and excellence that makes the place special.
“The concept is really wonderful,” Kimmel said. “Inside you can see Crystal cooking, and she’s brilliant. She’s doing small plates, but the attention to detail is fantastic and delicious. I wish them tons of success.”
The couple said they always wanted to open a restaurant and found Eugene lacking in brunch locations. While brunch was always the plan, a restaurant in a trailer was not.
However, when they found the 30-foot, 1977 Airstream Land Yacht, Hansen said, it seemed like “a sweet thing to put in” on their Washington Street location.
The only challenge to their location has been working in tight quarters. Cooking on a small, electric stove, storing food and chilling champagne with limited refrigerator space, and doing without a dishwasher took some adjusting for the two.
Beyond the practicality of their surroundings, Platt said one of the initial struggles was maintaining a work-life balance. She said they had to carve out time specifically for themselves to keep from burning out. Hansen agrees that the first year was difficult, and says this year they have communicated better and secured their rhythm.
The division of labor for Platt and Hansen is simple, Hansen said. She runs “front of house,” and Platt runs “back of house.” Although all of the restaurant’s decisions are made together, Hansen manages the customers and the books while Platt creates the dishes.
The restaurant, which can seat 26 customers at a time, serves brunch Thursdays through Mondays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with Saturdays and Sundays having longer wait times. “Most Sundays, at 10 a.m. we’re full, and by 10:15 we’re on a wait,” but things generally move quickly, Hansen said.
The menu is inspired by global cuisine as well as availability of ingredients from local farmers and other suppliers, including Turnip the Beet, Groundwork Organics, Caffe Pacori, Sweet Seed Flower Farm, Party Downtown, Mycological, Rain Shadow El Rancho, Newman’s Fish Company and Long’s Meat Market. That reliance on fresh, local ingredients also contributes to the venture’s rhythm.
“Every Tuesday we go to the market and see what’s available. It creates challenges in a positive way,” Hansen said. “You’re forced to get creative. Last year, compared to this year, spring happened a lot later, so there were ingredients available later on, and this year we had to work a lot faster. If you lost rhubarb earlier, you have to get creative with what comes next.”
Lion & Owl offers 10 unique dishes and changes up the lineup periodically. Meals start at $5 for a sweet or savory bread plate and goes up to $17 for breakfast in Istanbul. Wine and champagne start at $9 a glass, with bottles ranging from $26 to $125.
Platt, who recently updated the menu for summer, said her current favorite is the L and O Hand Pie.
“The flavors are so nice together,” she said. “It’s a summer dish. The dough is super flaky and crisp, and in the middle it’s rainbow chard, fennel and a soft-boiled egg. It seems heavy, but it’s light — there’s all sorts of surprises in there.”
Hansen described the pie as “sunshine on a plate” and “quintessential summer flavors.”
Hansen and Platt said they prefer to buy locally both to support the local economy, and because local products taste better and enhance the overall experience of the meal. The two also try to make a difference by donating 3 percent of sales each month to a charity. The July charity is the American Civil Liberties Union.
“People talk about tasting love in the food, and I believe that 100 percent,” Hansen said. “We have pride in what we’re doing, and you can taste it in the food.”
On weekdays, Hansen and Platt do it all themselves, but on weekends they enlist the help of Platt’s son, a close friend and a recently hired dishwasher.
Hansen said the business is growing to the point where they need more help and more space. The partners, who project annual sales of about $250,000, are in the planning stages of moving the enterprise — including the Airstream — downtown. They hope to complete the move by winter.
“We never had to work in the rain, in winter, dealing with that obstacle,” Platt said. “We lose the patio, and we lose half of our seating and revenue. It’s necessary to move to a more permanent place. We can expand and support more people.”
Hansen sees the expansion as a way to continue to support the community.
“We’re humbled by how many people want to eat here. It’s wonderful and lovely,” she said. “We’re so blessed. We want to continue to provide that for Eugene.”
Platt said the most rewarding aspect has been bringing joy to customers and “blowing people’s minds.”
“We had a lady telling us how wonderful everything was, and she said, ‘You must be sick of hearing that,’” Platt said, laughing. “No, not yet.”
Lion & Owl
What: Brunch restaurant inside an Airstream trailer
Where: 501 Washington St., in the parking lot of Eugene Backyard Farmer
Owners: Kirsten Hansen and Crystal Platt
Employees: Two on weekdays, five during weekends
Projected annual sales: $250,000
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday