Portland is a nightlife kind of city, with bars everywhere. You won’t find it difficult to find places to drink, but here’s a primer on some of the city’s best bars.
Named after modernist Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, the Aalto Lounge (3356 SE Belmont St., 503/235-6041) projects a cool mid-century aesthetic courtesy of its thrift store–chic decor. Gathering for wine and cocktails, an eclectic crowd represents a cross-section of Southeast Portland: young artists, students, hip professionals, pretty gay men, young women showing off their tattoos, and restaurant workers out after their shifts. There’s usually interesting art on the walls, and the food’s good too. At 10 p.m. DJs start spinning techno tunes.
The McMenamin brothers have a witchy genius for finding fascinating and unique landmarks to convert into brewpubs, hotels, and theaters, but of the dozens of the kingdom’s locations in Portland, the Back Stage Bar (3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/236-9234) is the most amazing. At the front of the building is the Bagdad Theatre, a popular pub-slash–movie theater.
Back when it was built in the 1920s, the Bagdad was the city’s top vaudeville hall. When the painted scrims and backdrops that set the scene for its live song-and-dance routines weren’t in use, they were hung in the Back Stage, a seven-story curtain storehouse directly behind the theater.
Fast forward to 2006, when the Back Stage Bar opened, making the most of this narrow towering space. On the ground floor are the handsome bar and pool tables, but catwalks and staircases lead to secluded drinking spots tucked into the walls. And there’s nothing like a bar with a seven-story-high ceiling to start a conversation.
You’ve got to check this one out. The Back Stage Bar is at the heart of SE Hawthorne Boulevard’s entertainment district, with many other night haunts within easy stumbling distance.
The Crow Bar (3954 N. Mississippi Ave., 503/280-7099) feels comfortable and slightly old-fashioned, a narrow space with exposed red brick, high ceilings, and a long wooden bar. However, the crowds are anything but old-fashioned—this is a favorite watering hole for the many 20- and 30-somethings who have refashioned the adjoining North Portland neighborhoods in their image. Everyone here is an up-and-coming writer, filmmaker, restaurateur, musician, designer (fill in your favorite new-creative-class category here), rubbing elbows in an alcohol-charged synthesis that’s usually highly energized and always interesting.
Gold Dust Meridian (3267 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/239-1143) started out as a 1960s-era accountant’s office, which it remained until it was transformed into a rather swank temple of drink. This is a lively spot, with a pool table, good cocktails, and a youthful high-energy vibe. Many Southeast Portland bars can be rather dingy, relying on thrift-store decor for irony, but not the Gold Dust Meridian. If you like bar atmosphere to be sophisticated, you’ll enjoy the stylish makeover: thin Roman-style brick so typical of the ’60s looks great with the low-pitched roof and blond wood accents. The young attractive crowd, chatting above blaring techno-pop, isn’t hard on the eyeballs either.
The grandly renovated landmark Grand Central Bowl (839 SE Morrison St., 503/236-2695) is, of course, a bowling alley, but it’s also quite a bit more. Built in the 1920s, this block-square structure with castellated towers on each corner was Portland’s fresh produce market, busy with farmers’ trucks selling fruit and vegetables. The building eventually fell into disuse and was transformed in the 1950s into the city’s largest bowling alley. Move now to 2006, when the disheveled building was bought by new owners and a $14 million remodel ensued.
Reopened in 2008, the revivified Grand Central Bowl is set to make bowling cool again and to recalibrate any preconceptions you may have of bowling alleys. A lot of thematic convergence is happening here: Two bars (one an upscale sports bar, the other on the mezzanine overlooking the lanes), a dozen lanes of bowling, pool tables, a cozy bar seating area with couches and stone fireplaces, loud music, and video monitors everywhere contribute to the feeling that you’re in a nightclub. This is a real nightlife hub; consider coming if you’re with a group that can’t quite decide where to go for late-night action, as Grand Central is a hip vortex of high energy.
The side-by-side Mint and 820 (816 N. Russell St., 503/284-5518) are owned by Lucy Brennan, a renowned mixologist whose cocktail creativity has won her accolades from Food and Wine magazine and Bon Appetit. Inventive cocktails that incorporate fresh (and sometimes unusual) fruit and juices are the hallmark of Brennan’s creations. Mint is nominally the restaurant side of things, with Caribbean-infected cooking, while 820 is the lounge (with outdoor seating), but these popular and richly decorated nightspots, located under the soaring Fremont Bridge, are easily thought of as a two-for-one destination. The crowd is usually well-heeled and attractive in an urban professional kind of way.
A gregarious pub along NW 21st Avenue, North 45 (517 NW 21st Ave., 503/248-6317) is named for the 45th parallel, which circles the world just south of Portland. And that’s the whole point: This is a travel pub, meant to provide the social aspects of a friendly drinking establishment with tastes, sights, and sounds from around the world. In truth, this spot reminds us of a belle epoque bistro from Brussels, perhaps due to some 20 Belgian beers and the eight different mussel dishes on the menu. Come for a sociable night out and the great atmosphere—there’s also a quiet patio in the back with picnic tables.
A relic of the 1950s, the Space Room (4800 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/235-6957) is another era’s version of futuristic, with its weird flying-saucer lights and Jetsons-like murals. The most astonishing thing is that no one ever remodeled this dark and often tightly packed little lounge from the days of Sputnik. The weirdness isn’t lost on irony-seeking scenesters who come in droves to drink strong cocktails and act out their ennui.
You probably already know that in Portland restaurants, everything is going to be local and house-made, but you may not have heard that the reverence for regional and homemade also extends to bars. The Teardrop Lounge (1015 NW Everett St., 503/445-8109) is a small and stylish see-and-be-seen bar in the midst of the Pearl District where highly creative drinks are crafted from handmade elixirs, hard-to-find Oregon liquors, and tinctures of a very local variety.
While the bar celebrates the classic drinks of the cocktail age, it also makes sure that everything is sourced locally. The tonic water and a selection of bitters are made in-house; the changing menu of drinks celebrates locally distilled gin, vodka, and absinthe; house-made infusions fuel many cocktails; and the bartenders are eager to help make sure you get a drink that suits you. The small but well-prepared food menu has been created to match the flavors of the extremely tasty cocktails.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel