Cocktail Hour in Portland
There has never been a shortage of bars—or drinkers—in Portland, but I wonder if there are enough falernum and verjus lovers to sustain all the non-stop newcomers. The not-quite-week I was in town, more than a handful had either just opened or were about to. I did my best to survey the modern Portland drinking scene.
Nearly all of my ‘90s haunts: My Father’s Place, Holman’s, Space Room Lounge, Dot’s (r.i.p. original Hung Far Low) are still in operation; it’s not as if the new Portland has subsumed the old. But this was not a nostalgia mission. I’m doing my Gen X best to steer clear of that emotion.
Rum Club is a newcomer from the Beaker and Flask (which was the new bar on my last visit in 2009) folks and based on the opening week menu, did not appear to focus exclusively on sugar cane spirits.
More delicately ‘50s than tiki, I loved the wood paneling, predominantly black, hummingbird patterned wallpaper and ornate vintage glasses. I also loved $8 price tag. There is something to be said for being able to buy two well crafted cocktails with only a $20 bill in your wallet. It makes the whole experience more pleasurable than precious. It’s also great for fancy drink drunks. It’s tough getting trashed on $13 Pimm’s cups.
The Quarterdeck Cocktail (Black Seal Rum, sweet sherry, blended scotch, orange bitters) and The Rum Club Daiquiri (Bacardi 8 Aged Rum, lime, sugar, Maraschino, Angostura bitters, absinthe). The SOSAP (tequila, grapefruit, Lime, Peychaud bitters, salted rim) was the prettiest pink thing I’ve ever sipped and more tart and bracing than a margarita.
Bent Brick is really more of a restaurant, but the bar has a good number of seats and there was plenty of space on the Tuesday evening I went. Beyond being affordable—cocktails were $8 here, too—non-crowding is another benefit of Portland. I’m not sure if I just picked off times and nights, but this was far preferable to a few night’s before in San Francisco where it could take 20 minutes to get a bartender’s attention at a popular place like Bar Agricole.
The Stranger (bourbon, sarsaparilla, verjus, angelica) was my favorite, like an herbal whisky sour. Rise to the Occasion (apple brandy, bourbon, vermouth, black tea, bitters) was a stiff little brown drink. Beginning of the End (rye, strawberry shrub, rainier cherry, pecan) sounded the tastiest and turned out to be the oddest. I’m not wild about the whole drinking vinegar thing (I did not go there at Pok Pok) so I’m wondering if it was the shrub that gave it a twist or if the pecans were doing something unusual. I kept getting a dirt/stale bread undercurrent. I’m not saying that was displeasing, necessarily.
I was impressed by the $4 plate of mussels because this was the closest thing I’ve encountered to pintxos since San Sebastián. (Er, does that sound pretentious? I got called a snob the other night for saying that I don't like it when people pronounce tapas with a hard A, so can't tell any more. I still don't think being a grammar/pronunciation sticker makes one a snob.) Not only were they creatively plated and priced right for a snack, a lot of thought had gone into the preparation. Each mussel sat atop seemingly aerated smoked aioli made with the bivalves’ liquid and were garnished with Tabasco mignonette, creating a perfect bite.
I can’t really say much about Dig a Pony because it was still two days from opening when I showed up to the meet a friend who had suggested it. We did get some whiskey shots and I got a few photos. I doubt it will be this empty again.
Instead, we moved onto Belmont Avenue and another new bar, Sweet Hereafter, an offshoot of Bye & Bye where I’ve never been so that didn’t mean anything to me. My Portland life generally centered around Southeast (though I also lived in NW and NE) and so too the people I know who still live there—I just can’t get into the whole Alberta, N. Mississippi thing (my excursion to Pine State Biscuits in that quadrant was cloyingly Carroll Gardens-esque). I took no photos because it seemed like a bar, bar, a vegan bar, apparently. They did have cocktails, with bitters, I’m sure, but I continued with bourbon on the rocks.
Driftwood Room. This naturally retro bar was probably the one part of the Mallory Hotel’s 2006 transformation into the Hotel deLuxe that needed the least overhauling. And at five-years-old it’s not new, but to me is. I was last there two visits ago in 2004 while my dad was in the hospital (he did not leave). My sister and I ended up drinking past the last light rail and couldn’t get back to my mom’s in Beaverton. We ended up on MLK thinking that Denny’s was still 24 hours (it’s not—where is Shari’s when you need it?) and ultimately had to flag down a cab. Portland is not friendly to last callers.
Since I was staying at Hotel deLuxe, I had to stop in for a happy hour drink. It was packed, very dim and was scented with truffle oil (truffle fries being a bar food standard now). I couldn’t even gauge how much revamping had transpired. Most importantly, many of their champagne drinks were only $6. The Elizabeth Taylor was the obvious choice; I will always take an opportunity gaze at a crème de violette cocktail. Too bad the mood lighting wasn’t so great for capturing the lavender bubbly.
And I just missed the opening of Portland’s Trader Vic’s and didn’t make it to Kask, Gruner’s next door offshoot, even though it was only a few blocks from the hotel. I always walked past before it was open. If I wait another two years (I suspect it will be longer—I can only take small doses over long periods of time) I will have completely lost track and be so elderly that I’ll give up and return to my decrepit old faves.
Rum Club * Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR
The Bent Brick * 1639 NW Marshall St., Portland, OR
Dig a Pony 736 SE Grand St., Portland, OR
Sweet Hereafter * 3326 SE Belmont St., Portland, OR
Driftwood Room * 729 SW 15th Ave., Portland, OR