For so many years, Portland’s crafty drinking culture was off the national radar. Now, the hype has arrived, and our best-known bartender has literally gone underground. But in true Portland style, Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s “secret” bar has a bubbly hostess posted at the door, next to an excited fellow shucking Netarts oysters to pair with hush-hush drinks one flight below. They’re “awesome,” he says.
Of course they are.
In this windowless bunker, time is erased as bartender supreme Morgenthaler (away from his usual post behind the bar at Clyde) lovingly stirs drinks we secretly desire, in near-pitch darkness. Schlocky cocktail pariahs rise again with newfound glory: espresso martinis croon velvety odes to Stumptown cold extract and Kahlúa; amaretto sours luxuriate under towering piles of ice cubes and sticky-wonderful brandied cherries (below). Rather than lofty infusions or fussy tinctures, Morgenthaler makes thoughtful tweaks to these long-scorned treats: his minty grasshopper shivers with ice cream, Fernet Branca (the hipster’s mouthwash), and sea salt, the whole thing commemorated as an objet d’art on a silver tray. In February, Pepe le Moko burrowed beneath a diminutive storefront of slinky curtains and hot pink neon, a mysterious arm of the Ace Hotel and Clyde Common around the corner. Everything you want in your bomb shelter can be found here: not just succulent bivalves, but happy xylophone music, nooks adorned with mini burlesque triptychs, and bygone cocktails to die for.
Yes, curse the $14 price tags. But even so, you must raise a glass to Pepe le Moko for relocating the heart of drinking pleasure to the subterranean bowels of the city. There’s no better place to toast a great year of Portland eating—or ride out the apocalypse. Cheers.