A perpetual layer of grime sits atop Portland’s increasingly shiny surface, which isn’t surprising considering the Pacific Northwest is the home of grunge, a movement whose aftershocks are still palpable in the city’s many dives and leftover saloons.
Equal parts underbelly, gentrifying hippie commune and “Silicon Forest,” the city has seen a boomlet of drinking establishments that embrace the idiosyncratic while attempting to reconcile the influx of money, East Coast expats and a general obsession for quote-unquote gastropub fare. Some of these places are watering holes under cover—restaurants, strip clubs and late night pho joints. Others are out in the open—breweries, whiskey bars and cocktail dens. The one thing they all have in common is happy hour.
Portland is a town that prefers to start early. At all hours of day, the city is all about hitting the bottle alongside plates of fried chicken at Tasty n Alder, bowls of Vietnamese vermicelli at Luc Lac and pans of wood-fired pizza at Sizzle Pie. At midnight, downtown crowds queue up between bar hops for a menagerie of food carts that line parking lot perimeters. A bite between drinking venues is requisite on any Portland itinerary—local or tourist—and subsequent drinks are never a far stumble.
Divided into quadrants, Portland’s neighborhood directions (Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest) have become the calling card for specific aspects of the city’s culture—and by extension, their drinking scenes. In the posh Northwest there’s Teardrop Lounge, one of the city’s cocktail scene keystones where Miller High Life-infused punches are served with equal meditation as Amaro Cobblers and Martinezes.
In the park-lined, civic-building dotted Southwest, Multnomah Whiskey Library ushers guests with reservations into its plush, leather-coated interior where a service cart tinkers quietly down the aisles with tasting flights instead of book stacks. Close by, the subterranean cocktail bar, Pepe Le Moko, anchors one corner of the Ace Hotel’s complex, lit each evening with a neon pink “cocktails” sign. Beneath, drinkers will find a menu that—at first glance—might seem nostalgic with its ice cream-suffused Grasshoppers and $13 Long Island Iced Teas, but the bar is far more serious, and the service more deft, than this whimsy might suggest.
In stark contrast to the glossier side of the river, the Northeast is a bucolic grid of homes, yards, elementary schools and affordable real estate, with neighborhood bars embedded within the quiet blocks. Barlow Tavern—the rare modern-day tavern—known for its fried chicken and waffles, welcomes neighbors with $1.50 tallboy beers on Tuesdays and $4 craft beers on Wednesdays (it’s always happy hour somewhere in Portland), while Saraveza, a beer emporium with a sweet vintage lacquer, doubles as a bottle shop. (Both Barlow and Saraveza are technically in “the North.”) For those in search of champagne, there’s the old Portland wine hangout Pix (now Pix / Bar Vivant), where a long list of sherry and Champagne at low markups prove that, really, everything is cheaper in Portland.
Further south, a pervasive hipster-cum-yuppie vibe has settled in with new condos popping up between old strongholds like Pok Pok and Clinton Street Pub. Ava Gene’s and the Woodsman Tavern have carried the neighborhood’s colonization with great wine programs, clean cocktail menus and sophisticated, but simple food. But even with the recent density increase, the quadrant’s dive bars abide. At Devil’s Point, Sunday nights are for Stripparoke (exactly what it sounds like), and at Reel M Inn, a bartender takes beer orders while simultaneously frying chicken behind the dive’s dust-coated bar, while, not far away, a stream of regulars wander down to Dot’s Café, a velvet painting-adorned vegetarian restaurant-dive that is open until 2:30 a.m.
Portland, it seems, has earned Shangri-La status with its unflappable mix of eccentric and enlightened, so infectious that even blasé, seen-it-all Brooklyners speak enthusiastically about the city as the West Coast’s “it” destination. Between Stripparoke, midnight noodle bowls, cheap craft beer and well-crafted cocktails, Portland is undoubtedly, one of America’s best places to escape for a cold one.