Best Bars 2009
It’s all about balance. A bartender should know this. One too many bitters and the drink takes a turn for the worse. Three olives for a garnish is fine, but any more than that spells disaster. And the sugar—it shouldn’t hit you over the head like a packet of Kool-Aid. Truth is, the best bartenders (see our Bartenders of the Year are models of restraint. They pour their whiskey and their bitters and their vermouth with a deft hand. And they see each cocktail as a creation that can uplift, transport and delight.
What you’re drinking: A Hot & Sour
Bartender Lucy Brennan sees more national print about her East Side bar than does any other drink jockey in town. That’s because in just a few years she’s transformed it into a place where you’re simply a square if you opt for a vodka-cran instead of the avocado daiquiri. Meaning, this is not your father’s timeless bar. But when the legion of connoisseur customers here finally retires, it most certainly will be. (820 N Russell St, 503-460-0820)
What you’re drinking: An Uptown manhattan
It’s a small West Coast chain restaurant. And once you step inside, that becomes entirely, sometimes crushingly, apparent. Which is why it’s utterly surprising that the cocktails are so good, especially when bar manager Bob Brunner has poured them. Indeed, every drink on the menu has been sharply refined by Brunner, each representing a scientifically researched, expertly rendered twist on a classic. No small feat in the face of such cookie-cutter surroundings, but one that makes Paragon stand out from the corporate pack. (1309 NW Hoyt St, 503-833-5060)
What you’re drinking: A Moscow Mule
Once seated in this dark red den, if you see a drink on the cocktail menu that involves “sweet onion, cracked pepper gin,” do not be afraid. Go with it. It’s called the Obscene; it includes olive juice and blue-cheese stuffed olives; and it’s delicious. (That Brigitte Bardot movie playing on the screen behind the curvy bar is pretty delicious, too.) Don’t shy away from the BLT, either—roma tomato vodka, muddled basil, lime juice and bacon salt actually do go together, and the combination constitutes the best liquid dinner around. In fact, there may well be no other mad mixologists in town who can pull off the sweet and savory cocktail better than those at Gilt. Part lab, part swanky James Bond hideaway, this bar has drinks that challenge every dull manhattan and cosmo in the city.
(306 NW Broadway, 503-222-4458)
What you’re drinking: A Truth Teller
A cocktail is 90 percent about the main liquor: the artisanal gin, the dark rum, whatever. But that last 10 percent—the bitters, the simple syrup, the lemon twist, the rinse—is what really matters. There are few bartenders in town who understand this as well as those behind the swank, circular bar at Ten 01. Potent drops of Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and bitters move rye whiskey into the sublime realm of lovely, subtle bitterness with a hint of sugar at the end. In other words: sugar, spice and everything nice. (1001 NW Couch St, 503-226-3463)
Ports of Call
Sure, familiarity is comforting, but it can also breed contempt. At times like these, a local oasis that can, even for a brief moment, fill our heads with tropical visions of sand-strewn Bali or a pirate-friendly pub in Pago Pago is worth its weight in blank traveler’s checks. Seasonal Affective Disorder got you down? Then it’s time to trade in your drippy bumbershoot for a very tall, very strong umbrella drink and take that all-too-brief holiday that you’ve always dreamed about.
THATCH TIKI BAR
What you’re drinking: A Fog Cutter
Not even the most clueless tourist in baggy Bermudas could possibly confuse Thatch with an honest-to-goodness surf-shack bar tucked away on some balmy beach. It’s just a little too cheesy, like a down-market Trader Vic’s, replete with idol-festooned grotto, blowfish lights and a battered outrigger hanging behind the bar. But that stubborn lack of subtlety, combined with an abundance of rum and Thatch’s dedication to the ultimate tiki experience, proves ideal for both Big Kahuna hipsters in Hawaiian shirts and soggy working stiffs fighting cold-weather ennui. With a few restorative pulls from a tangy, top-notch mai tai, you’ll find yourself with a first-class ticket to the shores of Tranquility Beach, where there’s never a crowd and the drinks only come in the colors of the sunset. Hold the phone: Did we say cheesy? Make that totally charming. (2733 NE Broadway, 503-281-8454)
MAIDEN IN THE MIST
What you’re drinking: A Ginger drop
Here there be pirates—and we’re not talking about dollar-store, plastic eye-patch, hankie ’do-rag poseurs, either. On at least one Friday a month, the nautical kitsch at this canteen springs to life as a crew of impeccably attired buccaneers and their buxom ladies descends on the place, swilling pomegranate margaritas and bellowing chanteys till two bells. Since we’re not really into trading verses with the yo-ho-ho set, we’re content to kick back and inventory the nautical knickknacks that adorn the shadowy premises while Hoovering down a prawn-and-spinach salad—not much chance of scurvy here, mate. (639 SE Morrison St, 503-232-5553)
What you’re drinking: Ouzo on the rocks
At the bar of this Greek restaurant, the scent of licorice wafts from the ouzo being hustled out to glass-clinking roisterers. And like an Old Country taverna, the room’s working-class dignity catches fire as a belly dancer appears, heralded by much drumming and clapping. Opa! (215 W Burnside St, 503-224-8577)
What you’re drinking: A Bloody Tiger
Take a hard left when you step inside or you’ll end up in the tony dining room of this posh Pearl Vietnamese eatery. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but then you’d miss out on the chance to revel with the frisky seniors from Condoland and the creative-class wage slaves whooping it up in the restaurant’s elegant shoe box of a lounge. Like tourists at a ritzy equatorial hotel bar, these disparate drinkers are bound by their mutual admiration for the unflappable bartender, who adroitly mixes purées of lychee, cherry and mango into towering tropical cocktails that never fail to tantalize our yen for foreign intrigue. (1012 NW Glisan St, 503-248-2172)
The Sporting Life
Good sports bars (the real McCoys, the ones people really love) don’t just shove themselves in your face with an onslaught of blaring high-defs and overwrought menus—they connect people to their town with a genuine root-for-the-home-team goodwill. So pull up a chair: The game’s just getting started, and the hot wings are on the way.
SINNOTT’S LIL COOPERSTOWN PUB
What you’re drinking: Guinness
Like your grandpa’s hobby-room, nothing is out of place here. On the polished paneled walls, 8-by-10 glossies of bygone sports legends like Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks and bruiser fullback Larry Csonka hang in spiffy dark wood frames. The nine TVs don’t waste time beaming in third-rate attractions like snowboarding X Gamers or no-name boxing matches. Instead, a crowd of Elks Clubbers, chain-smoking old ladies and assorted Northeast Portland locals, all of whom appear to make up the joint’s DNA, come nightly to watch the Big Game. Even when Sinnott’s is jumping, the waitress, who also pulls the lever on the bar’s 12 beer taps, takes the time to make everyone feel at home by remembering your name and your poison—and fashioning a clover in the foam head of your Guinness. (5851 NE Halsey St, 503-282-4440)
What you’re drinking: Turtle Dew
The staggering volume of beer that spills annually from mugs gripped by a perpetual circus of rookie upperclassmen should be enough to snuff out the life of all other bars on its own. But it’s the sheer diversity of the regulars who frequent this 50-year-old (give or take) joint that help it trump every other sports bar in town. In the shadow of PSU, there’s a certain rah-rah, college-kid vibe here that’s hard to shake—except when all those West Side urbanites walk in, followed by desk jockeys and haggard empty-nesters, all here to shout down the refs with one unified, liquefied voice. (1939 SW Sixth Ave, 503-224-3377)
What you’re drinking: Terminal Gravity IPA
If you’ve just kicked back in a turquoise, tuck-and-roll captain’s chair at the bar, you’ve lucked into a prime spot for viewing the five flat-screens flickering overhead. During a commercial, however, it’s acceptable to swivel around and soak up the rowdy, clubhouse caterwaul hurtling out of the mouths of pizza-and-beer-slurping blue collars. What was that mother-scratching idiot referee thinking? Kobe, come on, get your head out of your ass! Hey Pete, let’s see that champion beagle! At which point the Westminster Dog Show comes on and everyone orders more Macho Nachos. (3006 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 503-232-1744)
Pass the Mic
Karaoke used to be a guilty pleasure for the drunk and tuneless. Now it’s a cottage industry glutted with cocky pros and spotlight hogs. Still, we believe everyone’s entitled to a chance at embarrassing themselves—which isn’t to say we actually like your Steve Perry impersonation—and at least a few joints in town foster a similarly inclusive philosophy and serve plenty of liquid courage to help you find your groove.
You’re singing: “Jackson” by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
A dollop of spit clings to the old man’s grin as he hands you a note. He’d tried to convey the awesomeness of your rendition of “Burning Love” with words, but his toothlessness muffled everything in gummy gibberish. You squint down at his chicken scratch: “No Obama! Damn! What soup!” You assume it’s English. You also assume it’s a compliment. His continued chortles confirm this. One of the last stoic holdouts in the gentrifying Mayberry of St Johns, Slim’s still clings to its grizzled past like a scalded cat might cling to your leg. There’ll be none of that nü-metal here. No rap. Just barnacled classic rock and country standards. And you’re up next. Perhaps you and your lady friend are headed down to Jackson. She’ll be dancing on a pony keg; you’ll have your tail tucked between your legs. And both of you will bring the house down. What soup, indeed. (8635 N Lombard St, 503-286-3854)
You’re singing: “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen
Unless you regularly troll for great places to dump a body, you’ll miss it. But there, tucked in the shadows of NE Columbia Boulevard’s industrial grime, is the best-kept secret on the local karaoke scene. No insufferable crowds. No elitist KJs. No cross-armed deconstruction of your take on “Sister Christian.” Just blue-collar bawlers who’ve outgrown the acoustics of their showers. (535 NE Columbia Blvd, 503-226-1181)
SUKI’S BAR & GRILL
You’re singing: “Band on the Run” by Wings
It’s attached to a Travelodge and the parquet has more scratches than a meth addict. But don’t cry for Suki’s: With a lively cast of mic fiends and no waiting, it’s a party outlet for sleepy Southwesties. Besides, you can get pancakes till 8. And nothing goes with “Brown Sugar” like a short stack. (2401 SW Fourth Ave, 503-226-1121)
KARAOKE FROM HELL
You’re singing: “Hold on Loosely” by 38 Special
You’ve been bouncing around the circuit for a while and now you’re ready for the big time: fronting a live band. With 400 songs in their arsenal, the Karaoke From Hell band can fulfill your Foreigner fantasy. On Mondays at Dante’s (1 SW Third Ave) and Thursdays at Tiger Bar (317 NW Broadway), canned tracks are napalmed in favor of living, breathing rock ’n’ roll, giving the devil’s music the dangerous edge it so richly deserves.
Long gone are the days when a boy asked out a girl, the girl said “yes,” and the two lovebirds embarked on a curiously antiquated journey together called “dating.” Yep, these days, singles have to suck it up and get their romance wherever they can find it. And really, where better to do just that than in mercifully low-lit rooms full of eager strangers with open tabs just waiting for you to add a drink to them?
What you’re drinking: A Jim Beam whiskey ginger
It’s Friday at 11:25 p.m. and hordes of power-dinner Los Angelenos, mod Euros and work-weary Portlanders—hopefully equipped with Radio Cab on speed dial—still fill the restaurant with a deafening, communally cultivated roar. So it may seem a little weird that Clyde’s quaint, 20-person-capacity bar is an ideal venue for making a love connection. If the people-watching isn’t enough to induce clever conversation, ask a prospective companion why he or she thinks it’s necessary for the bartender to keep a rotating collection of rare American whiskey locked in a cabinet on the wall. Better still, with a little luck, you can score the coveted window-seat-for-two and let the sparks fly. Speaking of lucky, rooms at the Ace Hotel are tryst-worthy and right upstairs. Um, check please? (1014 SW Stark St, 503-228-3333)
What you’re drinking: An Aviation gin and tonic
Look past the spotty service and the fact that you have absolutely no chance of finding an empty Eames chair, and fling yourself into the most boisterous, well-attended hipster-singles pool on the East Side. Shag-cut hotties who boldly cling to the bar long enough will likely experience that most elusive of Portland phenomena: a free drink courtesy of some shy wannabe rocker, who will no doubt forget his debit card at the bar, which is sure to be maxed out come the morning. (600 E Burnside St, 503-236-4536)
What you’re drinking:
The Room Service (house specialty marionberry margarita)
Imagine a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam’s red light district that serves a pretty decent burger, and you’re here. It’s no longer a flophouse for landlocked sailors, of course, but the tawdry ambience certainly helps the former turn-of-the-century brothel foster a kind of foggy, sleepy, can-we-get-a-room-please mood among its earnest, starry-eyed customers. And after indulging in a few dangerously effervescent champagne cocktails, they may begin to behave as though they’ve just been transported to a candlelit love den. (5008 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 503-232-6333)?
Kickin’ It Old School
There’s no shame in aiming higher than Pabst and cheese fries. Remember back when Cary Grant charmed Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief? When a dinner jacket and freshly shined kicks were just as crucial to an enchanted evening as the first sip of a martini? Gentlemen, scare up some cuff links. Ladies, steam your flimsiest silk dress. Tonight’s word is “debonair.”
TONY STARLIGHT’S SUPPER CLUB & LOUNGE
What you’re drinking: A brandy alexander
There’s no shortage of joints in this town that try to tap into the elusive Rat Pack swagger of the Stork Club in its heyday, but Tony Starlight’s has a distinct advantage—namely, the presence of the dapper proprietor himself. He’s the hepcat, dressed sharp enough to slice cheddar, who materializes at your table inquiring about the quality of your cocktail, Daddy-O. Indeed, nothing can touch the twice-nightly Saturday stage shows when Starlight (forever sweatin’ to the oldies) keeps clusters of smartly attired diners rapt with a barrage of banter, jokes cribbed from Henny Youngman and a set list of swingin’ tunes that will have you wishing you’d paid more attention when Mom and Dad tried to teach you the foxtrot. (3728 NE Sandy Blvd, 503-517-8584)
What you’re drinking: A Spanish coffee
As if the dark wood and art-deco tile work weren’t clue enough that you’ve just stepped into the oldest bar in town, there’s the distant aroma of mustache wax lingering like ghostly potpourri. As befits a gentlemen’s club, there are no ill-trained drink monkeys on the premises. Instead, roving mixologists whip up flaming Spanish coffees with the flourish of magicians performing sleight of hand. A round of applause won’t embarrass anyone. (411 SW Third Ave, 503-228-5686)
PADDY’S BAR & GRILL
What you’re drinking: A shot of Laphroaig
Battle your way to the bar of this bustling saloon; request a Blanton’s bourbon, neat. As the barkeep wheels his ladder in front of a 15-foot-tall tower of bottles to reach your brand, it’s hard not to experience a moment of awe: Cripes, that’s a load of hooch. Nearby, knots of business-casual types spill their workaday woes. But the sound of that ladder rolling from one shelf to the next keeps your white collar cooled. (65 SW Yamhill St, 503-224-5626)
THE RINGSIDE STEAKHOUSE
What you’re drinking: A sidecar
The new bartender introduces himself as Burt and fashions a breathtaking martini just before pouring a respectable pinot noir for a grumbling Blazers fan. No small news, the arrival of Burt: A fresh face behind the stick at the Ringside doesn’t appear too often—bartenders here tend to have careers longer than Andy Rooney’s. But like his predecessors, Burt is Fred Astaire-smooth and calm as the Buddha, even when things get hopping. (2165 W Burnside St, 503-223-1513)
Dives of Distinction
Nobody said a dive was supposed to be inviting. Fact is, the rule of thumb at any dive bar is this: Either come to drink—or go home. We prefer not to call these smoky holes—with their shady characters, saucy servers, debauched rockers and all the cheap hooch you can stomach—scary. They’re colorful. Just don’t forget to leave a trail of bread crumbs behind you.
GEORGE’S CORNER TAVERN
What you’re drinking: A shot of Old Grandad
George’s bartender Andy is 5-foot-nothing of hooch-slinging Jedi. And she has to be, because this is the Mos Eisley cantina of Portland: a shady way station for video-poker fiends, MAX renegades, trivia addicts and a sea of future 12-steppers. Black vest buttoned up for business, cigarette jutting like a sniper’s rifle from the side of her mouth, Andy keeps the peace by keeping the taps nodding. When there’s not peace, however, we recommend sliding a buck into the jukebox to drown out the muffled strains of Andy wrestling another drunk out the door. (5501 N Interstate Ave, 503-289-0307)
What you’re drinking: Pabst Blue Ribbon
On a random Friday night, Britt Daniels (lead singer of hirsute pop combo Spoon) cozies up to the side of the stage as a dancer peels off her stockings to the razor-blade gurgles of Tom Waits. At the bar, a few members of local band the Dandy Warhols swivel their stools to take in the gyrations. But they soon decide that ordering another round of PBR is more interesting. While there are naughty bits flailing about on the main stage, it’s hard to think of the Tragic Gardens as a strip club. It’s more like an X-rated black hole, where you go when you want to wipe yourself off the face of the world for a few hours. A place where unkempt indie-rock princes, pulp fiction caricatures and haggard boozehounds mingle in a seedy heaven woven from cigarette smoke—and where, at this very moment, a woman with holsters tattooed onto her hips is hanging upside down from a well-worn brass pole. (217 NW Fourth Ave, 503-224-8472)
What you’re drinking: Clam nectar
If Jaws had taken place in Portland instead of on Amity Island, this is the kind of place where doomed Captain Quint would’ve bellied up—cracking clams open with his gnarled hands, swallowing bottles of Genny and soaking up the salty atmosphere that’s stuck in some mid-1970s rock ’n’ reel vortex. The steamers are surprisingly stellar, but it’s the slate of $2 domestic brews that keeps us firmly planted on our stools. (4630 NE Sandy Blvd, 503-288-9732)
THE FLORIDA ROOM
What you’re drinking: A bloody mary
In a town full of transplants, it’s nice to see a place where a Southerner can feel at home—as long as your idea of home is a trailer park. Here is a white-trash wonderland of deviled eggs and Rainier. Add to that a clientèle awash in tats and Kool smoke, and this neck of the woods just got a little redder. Yee-haw. (435 N Killingsworth St, 503-287-5658)
There is something so, well, civilized about wine bars, isn’t there? Jack Daniels isn’t invited; there’s no Scandinavian black metal screaming from the jukebox; and you might actually see someone born before 1970 tossing back a few at the bar. But civil doesn’t have to mean boring. And whoever said ‘In Vino Veritas’ wasn’t just a genius—he also knew a good wine bar when he saw one. We think he’d approve.
What you’re drinking: Veuve Clicquot
If IKEA opened a wine bar, it would feel a lot like this Scandinavian-inspired escape from Northeast hipsterdom. (In fact, the swoopy, oddly comfortable chairs were designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, the guy behind the St Louis arch.) Enclosed within Pour’s mod, spaceship-cafeteria décor, urban sophisticates chatter and sip glasses from a Northwest-centric wine list—a list that owner Robert Volz has forbidden to be diluted with varietals owned by corporate interests. (2755 NE Broadway, 503-288-7687)
What you’re drinking: The flight of the day. Or two.
Like that musty yet undeniably romantic Madrid hangout where you pretended to practice your Spanish during your college year abroad, this loud, chaotic, crowded, sometimes steamy wine bar never strays far from your thoughts. Of course, it could just be the power of that German Riesling kabinett or the Oregon pinot you just tasted, or the fact that your server knows how to use “awesome” and “hints of bacon” in the same sentence, that makes an evening here so memorable. Or maybe it’s simply the sight of all those red leather booths filled with flushed-face oenophiles actually having… fun. (2724 SE Ankeny St, 503-233-1999)
What you’re drinking: A glass of Rioja
There is a distinctly stealthy quality to this nook of a wine bar tucked between a bike shop and a weedy alley in North Portland. Little more than red lights and a sign bearing the image of a wolf on the door announce its existence, but once inside this cozy lair where nary more than a dozen people can comfortably sip at once, you’ll find that what the place lacks in size, it more than makes up for in wine. Let other establishments specialize in pinot. Here, a bottle of South African sauvignon blanc pairs seductively with a selection of sheep’s milk cheeses—a bit of decadence disguised in wolf’s clothing. (3955 N Mississippi Ave, 503-287-5872)
What you’re drinking: An Argentinean Malbec
The 1960s-gigolo motif would almost be too much, except there’s something about the lack of snoot at this Pearl District art-and-wine bar that keeps us coming back. Perhaps it’s the disarming bartender who suggests the best pinot gris to a bawdy bunch of girls one evening, or the humble waiter who convinces a table of dapper old fellows to try a bottle of port on a Sunday afternoon…after they’d split a bottle of champagne. (417 NW 10th Ave, 503-295-9536)
Bartenders of the Year
It looks like a tumbler of pink lemonade, but don’t be fooled: The Salta Año is a textbook Teardrop Lounge (1015 NW Everett St) cocktail, an embodiment of everything that co-owners Ted Charak and Daniel Shoemaker do so well. Not only is the vanilla-rhubarb syrup made in-house, but those 20 drops of habanero green-tea bitters Shoemaker just added to the mescal-based libation are also made from scratch. An exploratory taste brings on the heat from the peppers and a playful jolt of tequila, but successive sips reveal a tangy rhubarb base just before the vanilla rolls in like a smooth, palate-cleansing wave. It’s hot, sour, salty, sweet and, above all, impeccably blended, with no single ingredient getting the upper hand.
“Even a teaspoon either way can jar the balance,” says Shoemaker, the master mixologist at Teardrop Lounge, which he and Charak opened last July after working as bartenders in San Francisco for the past 15 years. “Our most fervent belief is precision.” Combine their mad-scientist flavor combinations with their exacting jigger pours, exquisite house-made tonic and bitters, and you get the most exciting cocktails in town.
But newbie customers needn’t fear the unknown. After a little question-and-answer session to determine your flavor profile, Shoemaker or Charak will whip up any number of exotic ingredients into an invigorating tipple. Indeed, so successfully have they divined their clientèle’s taste buds that regulars seldom order the same drink twice. And there’s no reason why they should, considering Teardrop has served between 200 and 300 different custom cocktails since it opened. In fact, that Salta Año? It was a special, offered for only one day, February 29—salta año means “leap year” in Spanish. If it doesn’t appear on the menu again before 2012, shed no tears. There’s a whole calendar of potable possibilities behind this bar.
The Scenic Route
In such a charmingly rugged corner of the world, it’s a shame to sequester yourself behind tinted glass, cigarette smoke and canned ambience. Towering trees, gulp-inducing skylines, views of snowcapped peaks—that’s the reason we live (and, yes, drink) here. Because when your mood calls for a cold beer and a sublime vista, the alienating blue glow of the video poker machine just won’t cut it.
What you’re drinking: Mirror Pond
Your New York driver’s license doesn’t expire until 2009, and despite having lived in Oregon for two years, you refuse to trade it in. Because to do so would mean never again hearing bartender Andrew’s sing-song welcome: “New York City?! What in the dog shit are you doing here?” As if he didn’t know. The Skyline is like a summer camp for casual drinkers: The metronome of ping-pong balls clacking on the back porch, the clang and thud of horseshoes thrown in the pit, the smell of burgers sizzling on the BYO-meat community grill, all played out in front of a tree-lined view of the Willamette Valley that’ll put a lump in your throat. If friends from the Big City try to tempt you into coming back to Manhattan when they visit, this is where you take them to explain why that will never happen. You’ll sip in silence, frame the valley between two outgrowths of spindly pine and chase the most beautiful beer buzz in the country. (8031 NW Skyline Blvd, 503-286-4788)
What you’re drinking: One of their approximately 8 gazillion microbrews
It’s not so much a bar crawl as it is a bar sprawl: A handful of pubs—the Frodo-sized, 10-seat Little Red Shed is our favorite—strewn about 38 hilly acres of gardens, golf courses and vineyards, most with a seamless view of the Columbia River Gorge. Best of all, after you realize you’ve had a little too much to drive home on, you can crash in one of the 100 or so well-appointed rooms in the 96-year-old Georgian manor that crowns the property. (2126 SW Halsey St, Troutdale, 503-669-8610)
PORTLAND CITY GRILL
What you’re drinking:
At least two fruity, six-syllable martinis
As much as our inner Bukowski wants to roll our eyes at this big fish tank in the sky, the knee-buckling, Blade Runner-esque view of downtown Portland from 30 stories up softens even the most cirrhotic of livers. During the frenzied happy hour, the bar takes on the feel of a jumbo jetliner without curtains: First-class debutantes, business-class PowerPoint heroes and the lowly coach chattel all squeezed together, though equal in the eyes of the overwhelmed bartender and bustling waitstaff. Now tip back your fancy-pants martini glass and drink in that glowing neon cityscape below. (111 SW Fifth Ave, 30th Floor, 503-450-0030)
If your notion of hotel bars still includes sepia-toned scenes of traveling salesmen pinching waitresses and getting bombed on coco locos, allow us to bring you up to date. The stately and dignified hotel bar is well stocked with spirits, top-notch service and lonely travelers in need of companionship. And if you’d like to pretend you’re a wealthy diplomat with a dark secret, it’s OK in our book.
What you’re drinking:
A 37-year-old Highland Park scotch, neat
Should Portland’s casual airs make you long for a touch of social grace, we suggest you slip into the lobby of the Benson Hotel and head straight to the bar. If the 30-foot-tall molded ceilings and multistoried chandelier dripping with crystal don’t instantly elevate your station, then give the purple-and-gold leopard-spotted banquette a little stroke. Notice the polish on the recently renovated oak bar, the golden tassels on the curtains, the beveled glass that lets light in (but obscures unseemly views of the street). Then call over the most attractive bartender, the one with pomade in his hair and a bow tie worn snugly round his neck, and order a manhattan. Have two while pondering the huge stone urn in the corner and the wall of bottles behind the bar, or that ritzy-looking man with the tan suitcase in the corner (obviously a power player just in from Hollywood for the evening). Ponder long enough, and you might begin to believe that Broadway outside has been transformed into the real thing. What you’ll know for certain is that opulence, thank heaven, is not a thing of the past. (309 SW Broadway, 503-228-2000)
THE DRIFTWOOD ROOM
What you’re drinking: A Rita Hayworth
With a name like the Driftwood Room, one might imagine a bar with a nautical theme, its walls coated with ship’s wheels and fishing nets. But this darkly lit (dare we say cavelike?) bar, set discreetly off the lobby of the Hotel Deluxe, is more like a rendezvous locale for vintage-clothed hipsters or a posse convened by David Lynch. Pale-yellow couches undulate beneath exposed-brick walls at the bar’s elegant cul de sac. It’s a piece of drinking real estate desirable for its views of the room and also for the abundance of shadows where a couple can easily disappear—into either a vodka haze or a lusty mood. (729 SW 15th Ave, 503-223-6311)
What you’re drinking: A Hemingway daiquiri
There is something distinctly theatrical about the Heathman’s drinking spots—as in, they make you feel like you’re onstage. Consider the Tea Court, where an Austrian chandelier and a roaring fireplace recall a European villa (there’s no better place for a toddy). Or perhaps the library perched on the balcony above (though not technically a bar, it’s still an ideal place for another glass of wine and deep conversations). Or the French bistro-like Marble Bar, where leather stools line the glass windows of Broadway. It’s here that one should, after touring the various stages, play out the evening’s dénouement with your blushing co-star. (1001 SW Broadway, 503-790-7752)
What’s on Tap
’Twas ol’ Ben Franklin who took a break from his kite-flying to observe that “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” And nothing makes a lager lover more ecstatic than a profound assortment of taps—preferably from exotically named brewers he’s never heard of, poured in the company of other equally obsessed suds fanatics. Cascade Lakes Monkey Face Porter? Make it two!
THE HORSE BRASS PUB
What you’re drinking: Hair of the Dog Blue Dot IPA
Having spent the lion’s share of our three-week English holidays powering down on pints of really bitter ale in a succession of pubs from Brighton to Tunbridge Wells, we can attest to the Anglo authenticity of the Horse Brass. Thick with smoke and chatter—not to mention darts enthusiasts grumbling into their (legitimate, not cheater) pint glasses—the 31-year-old rough-hewn pub delivers a hearty slap on the back to expats and soccer hooligans alike. They, in turn, cheerfully coexist with the beer snobs in the corner booth carefully considering the malty merits of their doppelbocks. The guy with the long white beard, chain-smoking and drinking at the end of the bar, is not Edgar Winter or a malnourished Santa Claus, by the way, but owner Don Younger. No autographs, please. (4534 SE Belmont St, 503-232-2202)
THE GREEN DRAGON
What you’re drinking: Read the chalkboard, dummy!
Beer dilettantes and fern-bar regulars will likely not be enchanted by the stark industrial interior, which resembles an auto-parts warehouse with a bar sprouting up from its center. But a constantly rotating cast of 19 taps ensures that there’s always a spanking new IPA from some remote artisan brewery in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania to get acquainted with. (928 SE Ninth Ave, 503-517-0660)
HIGGINS RESTAURANT & BAR
What you’re drinking: Delirium Tremens Belgian ale
The mating rituals of the herd of suit-and-tie squares here are not a pretty sight. Fortunately, a beer menu that seemingly stretches to infinity, loaded with far-flung entries like Grotten Brown Cave-Aged Ale, more than compensates for the yahoo factor and the often standing-room-only crowds at this smart but snug backroom bar that plays second fiddle to the formal bistro up front. Rumor has it that Trappist monks occasionally abandon their prayers to swing by for a sublime Higgins sirloin burger and a seasonal tap. (1239 SW Broadway, 503-222-9070)
HENRY’S 12TH STREET TAVERN
What you’re drinking: Hopworks Organic IPA
Why is the bar in this multileveled, shiplike behemoth full of grinning office drones at 2 p.m. on a Friday? Looks like the three-martini lunch has been replaced by the two-pint afternoon bailout. No wonder America can no longer compete in the worldwide market. But we have to admit, it’s pretty amusing to order a Sea Dog Blue Paw Wild Blueberry Wheat or some other esoteric offering and then watch the beer-tender wander among more than 100 taps, searching for the proper pull. Considering most drinkers here are still on the clock, no one seems to mind the wait. (10 NW 12th Ave, 503-227-5320)
It’s a sad truth that when faced with the prospect of drinking out in the sticks, most people opt for a soul-crushing night of T.G.I.Friday’s hopping. Call us naïve, but we prefer to believe that in every subdivision, there lies a hidden gem, the kind of last-stand bar that Willy Loman would have called home. The kind of joint that doesn’t remind you that you’re in the suburbs, so much as help you forget.
What you’re drinking: A Jack Daniels on the rocks
Thank God there are no windows here. Nobody wants to gaze out at the used car lots, the seedy loan shops and all the other reasons not to leave the city limits that threaten to beat down the Tilly’s rusted metal door and smother the joint’s soul. It’s worth a journey through the wasteland, though, if only for the chance to enjoy a drink made fast and well by a pretty, down-to-earth bartender who loves her job. And to lean back near the J-shaped bar above a tiny sunken stage, where music is cranked out by blues journeymen and 9-to-5 guys who play for tips, sharing the space with anyone who cares to dance before they continue their journey home. (8585 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy, 503-292-1835)
THE ELBO ROOM
What you’re having: Second thoughts
What’s with all the faux brick and dated Lichtenstein prints? Get over it. Fact is, you found a place with a solid martini—in Gresham! Damn it, you think, ordering another, they’re trying. And for a town that always ends up on the news for the wrong reasons, that counts for a lot. (124 NE Third St, Gresham, 503-665-5704)
What you’re drinking: Budweiser
Yes, it’s the building that looks like a barn. Go through the rickety screen door closest to the parking lot. Sit at the long, rectangular bar. Say hello to your neighbor—a laid-back country-folk kind of a guy who’s just ambled across the worn wood floor to sit next to you. Basking in the light of neon beer signs, the 25-cent pool table looks lonely, but open to suggestions. On every table, pints of cheap beer accompany an equal number of cheeseburgers, and from behind the bar, you can hear the sizzling of patties—the crackle of grease serving as a delectable siren calling out: Tarry just a little longer. (1025 NW Helvetia Rd, Hillsboro, 503-647-5286)
Sitting at the bar in a restaurant means you’re not about fuss. You don’t have the time or the patience to deal with waitstaff struggling to serve from the left, take from the right. You just want a plate of roasted chicken and a cocktail and a nice bartender to talk to. Opting for the bar instead of a table can also make you feel less like a guest who needs to be pampered and more like a regular, especially if you stay late and chat up the kitchen crew.
What you’re drinking: A Bombay Sapphire martini, up with a twist
A man in a suit walks up to the bar. He orders a Beefeater martini with a splash of Carlos 1 brandy. No olives. Up. “Excellent choice, sir.” A woman in a suit walks up to the bar. “Give me the burger, side of mayo, please. Champagne.” “Bottle or glass?” asks the bartender. “Bottle. I’m celebrating. Alone.” The man loosens his tie. The woman lets her clipped hair down. The man and the woman do not speak to one another. They do not have to. Like so many sitting at the long bar that serves as the centerpiece of this swanky dining room, so full and bounteous is their confidence that these bright-faced professionals hardly need to entertain the idea of making more friends. But a second martini is ordered, and the bottle of champagne is slowly drained. The woman tells the man about her favorite Cecily Brown painting, and the man admits he’s late for rehearsal with his improv theater company. The bartender nods goodbye as they each go their separate ways: “We’ll have that bottle of champagne waiting for you on ice next time, ma’am.”(529 NW 23rd Ave, 503-445-7400)
What you’re drinking: A glass of Argyle Brut
Drinking at the bar in a white-tablecloth establishment feels subversive, and never more so than at this bistro in Nob Hill. It’s not that the restaurant is so fancy, although there is an elegance to the cuisine here that’s unparalleled elsewhere in the city. It’s more that getting a table can be so very difficult that when you’ve scored a seat at the tiny bar, where the bartender tells you he has 15 other drinks to pour before he can get to your order, you feel as though you’ve been accepted into the inner sanctum of an exclusive club. One you’re more than happy to be a part of, no matter how long the wait. (1204 NW 21st Ave, 503-243-2403)
What you’re drinking: A negroni
Sure, the cocktails here are some of the smartest in the city—is there anyone else daring enough to redefine the martini by adding a simple splash of chestnut cognac to bracing, ice-cold vodka? But, really, what will keep you coming back is the way in which the bartender behind the tiny eight-seat bar commands your attention: the exacting seriousness with which he or she tastes each cocktail before it’s set in front of you, the way he watches out of the corner of his eye as you take your first sip—and his ability to tell, based on a slight shift in your eyebrows, whether to ask if it’s not quite balanced enough to your liking. (1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 503-231-9959)
Remember what happened the last time you tried to throw a party at your house? Yeah, you dropped 300 bucks at Pier 1 on tiki torches and thatch place-settings alone, hoping that might keep the horde outside. It didn’t. They invaded the kitchen like they always do, and you still can’t get that stain out of your drapes. So do yourself a favor: Let someone else clean up the mess, and let yourself get just as rowdy as your invitees.
DARCELL XV SHOWPLACE
What you’re drinking: A Chi Chi
If you order a piña colada, don’t expect fresh coconut cream to come pouring out of the plastic bottle. And that woman who greeted you at the door with the flowing red feather boa, the gorgeous eyelashes and the high cheekbones? She’s actually a man. But as the lights dim and the uproariously naughty, catty and, yes, classy choreography and comedy unfolds on stage, you realize there’s nothing at all fake (aside from the cleavage) about this 41-year-old fiery drag cabaret. A chorus line of fishnetted legs kick into the air one minute; the next, the buxom mistress of ceremonies, Darcelle herself, points out a man in the crowd and exclaims, “Looks like a TV dinner from here. All that meat and no potatoes!” Next up, a Bette Midler impersonator purrs into the mic, followed by an outrageous chaps-wearing rhinestone cowboy. In the audience, a trio of elderly women dressed all in purple look as though they just got off the cruise ship for the evening. A bachelorette party yelps out catcalls from up front. And a crew of rowdy architect-types cheer on their buddy who just joined in the fun: “Y… M… C… A!” It’s always a party here, and everyone’s invited, no matter your orientation. (208 NW Third Ave, 503-222-5338)
What you’re drinking: A Shin Kicker
Last time we went to this raucous two-story den of skater-rocker-retro sin, we took over the private leather pod (or was it velvet?) upstairs, and proceeded to get very, very drunk. One of us started a catwalk competition. (Trust us, it was hot.) Another member of our group may have borrowed a skateboard from a cute bad-boy she spied and taken it for a spin across the concrete floor and… come to think of it, we never saw her again. The beats kept spinning, the drinks kept coming and the servers, no matter our behavior, never batted an eye. The Chesterfield made us do it. Which is why we go back again and again. For the sake of your relationship, do what we did, and tell your significant other you went to a wine bar. (1101 E Burnside St, 503-236-6133)
GRAND CENTRAL RESTAURANT AND BOWLING LOUNGE
What you’re drinking: A Gutter Ball with four straws
Droves of snappily clad postcollege kids from the ’burbs fill this eye-popping 40,000-square-foot perfect storm of plasma TVs, garlic prawns, fishbowl-sized libations, IKEA-inspired conversation pits, faux fireplaces and neon signs. Even the dozen crowded lanes pulsate with flickering light like some kind of Las Vegas-style UFO landing strip. In other words, when it comes time to host your boyfriend’s impending 30th birthday bash, don’t even think about stocking up on chips and salsa at Costco and trying to organize a Wii tournament. With a grown-up fun center like this in town, why would you want to? (839 SE Morrison St, 503-236-2695)