A Ghost of Portland’s Gritty Past

Tucked beneath the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant, Langano Lounge was known for its free shows, pickle shots and requisite grit and grime.

Drinking at Langano Lounge always felt like hanging out in your grandmother’s basement. This was largely due to the fact that it was tucked beneath Jarra’s Ethiopian Restaurant, located in a 1904 Foursquare-style house that in its previous lives had been a boarding house, a nursing home and then a series of restaurants. Of course, I didn’t know this when I moved to an apartment building up the street in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Southeast Portland, Oregon. It was 2012, and Jarra’s facade still bore the decorative curved eave from its days as a Japanese gift shop.

While the restaurant, with its worn carpet, red tablecloths and mismatched china, had the air of a once-stately home, Langano Lounge had all the charm of a teenager’s dingy lair. In my most forgiving memories, Langano resembles a sultry, lowly lit midcentury lounge, its vinyl floors scattered with unremarkable wooden furniture. In reality, it was reliably shitty, filled with drunk kids spilling drinks. The bartenders poured cocktails blindingly strong, and, aside from the menu of home-cooked Ethiopian, the house specialty was the pickle shot, a glug of some below-bottom-shelf vodka made more acrid by the addition of a pickle and its brine. In the grand scheme of Portland bars, Langano was just another dive. But in the neighborhood, it was one of a few dwindling establishments yet untouched by the recent wave of precise, highly designed developments appealing to tourists and young, rich professionals.

I don’t remember the first of several dozens times I stepped into Langano, but I do remember the first time I realized it was special. In the dim, red, neon beer sign glow, a graceful woman wearing dirty, ripped jeans crooned into her mic, her sound pedals scattered across a thin rug. The TV that played secondhand VHS tapes was muted and the air was heavy with cheap liquor and injera. Slowly she layered her voice into loops until she’d built a haunting quilt over which to sing.

Humbly, and perhaps appropriately, the bar never advertised itself as a music venue. Shows were announced on phone pole flyers and brief listings in the local alt-weekly, if at all, and there was no semblance of a stage. But in my time as a patron, I wandered into more free shows there than at any other space in Portland.

On busy nights, Langano had the riotous energy of a house party. On quieter evenings, regulars could make it whatever they wanted. Once, a few friends and I walked in after work to find the place almost empty, save for a DJ spinning records. After a drink, one in our group got up to dance, alone, around a support beam in the middle of the floor. He twirled, shook his ass and took off his clothes to an audience of six or seven. We cheered as he entered a trance-like, fitful rhythm. Eventually, when it looked as if collapse was imminent, a stranger showered him in a spray of dollar bills. The DJ timed a magnificent crescendo of a drum-and-bass mix. At any other bar, a dutiful bouncer might have shut down this sort of display, and judging patrons might have stared disapprovingly. At Langano, it was welcomed.

In 2014, the closing of Jarra’s—and along with it, Langano Lounge—was announced. In the time the building was boarded up, fenced off and torn down, I had scoured newspaper archives to learn about its history, seeking clues about the owners who’d let a bunch of kids make weird music beneath their restaurant at all hours of the night. Petros Jarra and Ainalem Sultessa were a husband-and-wife team that had moved to Portland from Ethiopia in the 1970s to study. They opened Jarra’s, the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant, in 1983 and, in 2006, turned the basement into a bar named for the milky, mineral-rich lake between two nature reserves south of Addis Ababa.

By the time a boxy condo went up, the building’s name had been announced: Langano Apartments. Today, it promises immersion in the “true Portland experience.” It advertises to those “looking for a dynamic, artistic, deep-rooted neighborhood to call home”—ironically, the kind of place that felt lost with Jarra’s demolition.

For Langano’s former patrons, the new building’s name seemed insincere, a harbinger of the neighborhood’s sanitization disguised as marketable clout. But the truth was more complicated. I later learned that it was Jarra and Sultessa who decided to develop the property themselves after receiving speculative offers. It represents the rare story in which a black immigrant family was able to share in the wealth of Portland’s growth, a force that has displaced so many other people of color.

By the time I moved away in 2016, many places like Langano Lounge had closed or been pushed to the margins in favor of newer, more sparkly bars engineered to pop on Instagram. Spaces with a whisper of sweat or dirt, splinters or sharp-edges, were increasingly swept away. The bar’s departure sent the message that the city’s roots—its artistic, offbeat, pre-whitewashed DIY-ness—were too grimy and gritty to remain.

When I first stumbled upon it, Langano seemed to me the most unique bar in the city. I’ve since realized what made it great was quotidian. It was simply a space where a community—post-shift industry workers, moonlighting musicians, regulars like me—was allowed to converge and thrive. Today, a different crowd, one on the hunt for the “authentic Portland,” can walk past the crisp housing development unable to perceive the shadow of the communities that it rests upon. But the old regulars all know how Langano Apartments got their name.

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Tagged: dead bars, Portland

Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a Montana-based writer covering music, television, books, food, pop culture history and other distractions.