Genres of Bars in Portland- Where To Plant Your A** and Raise Your Glass

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

I tend to do my best thinking when I’m outside. I’ve heard that it’s something to do with endorphins, or the activity of the body matching the activity of the mind. It might also be the mirepoix of light, fresh air, and action that stirs the imagination to open doors it might have sullenly slogged by- even if the body itself seems to be slogging it’s way through the rainy, suddenly sleet-in-May-filled streets of Portland.

I tend to do my best THINKING when I’m moving around outside.

​My best WRITING, however, tends to happen in pubs and restaurants.

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Good enough for the Inklings, it’s good enough for me. Photo by Tom Murphy

As I write this, I am ensconced in a small subterranean cocktail lounge called Pepe Le Moko, hidden away between two stores on 10th St., just off of Washington.
Past a young woman in the doorway shucking fresh oysters and prepping appetizers, a narrow staircase leads to a pleasantly dark, well-arranged bar- moodily lit as seems appropriate, with smooth jazz playing at a noticeable, but not obnoxious level. I can’t help feeling nostalgic for certain bars in Philadelphia that echo this sort of not-unpleasantly-stereotypical atmosphere.

Really, only the most uninformed tourist would doubt that beneath it’s shiny, liberal-artsy, crunchy exterior, Portland is an honest-to-God drinking town, and there really does seem to be a bar not just for whatever you are craving, but whatever mood you are in.

Since moving to Portland a year ago (oh god it’s been a year), I’ve found myself belly-up to many fine establishments, and there are a few I come to again and again, based on what I’m feeling. Maybe it’s a fantasy of vintage class. Perhaps it’s a place to swap stories and lies with friends. Often it’s a quiet place to nurse a drink, sit down, and write.
Here’s my list.

​Writing Bars

    These bars tend to be either subterranean or well-secluded, allowing you to ignore the world outside and focus on whatever it is you are doing, whether that is writing or just drinking at enjoying a classy form of isolation. Usually not specializing in anything in particular, what makes a good writing bar can really depend on the person. For me, I like a good beer list, or solid cocktails. 
     Joining Pepe le Moko in this category is the McMenamin’s-owned “Al’s Den” in Downtown. I first found this place while trying to find a place to wait out the rain, have a pint and write. A narrow flight of stairs down from the pavement leads to a smallish, warm basement bar with a quiet atmosphere, fine McMenamins beer, and friendly people- the perfect place to wait out the storm.
     On East Burnside is a curious addition to this category called Rontoms. With the unobtrusive exterior of an old warehouse, Rontoms is a hip and spacious bar with regular music, great beer, and great food. Rontoms is a BIG space, but the choice of furniture (almost all low couches and chairs around coffee tables) and the layout of the room give one the sensation of people-watching in an enclosed space. An ebullient staff and solid food menu means an experience that I can only describe as “feeling pleasantly alone in a crowd.” 
     If you are interested in going a little further east and checking out the North Tabor neighborhood, you’ll find the Caldera Public House. Locating in a historic drug store, Caldera offers bar seating, a few comfortable chairs around a bookshelf, and a back patio. While their beer menu is a little lacking for Portland, their cocktail list presents intriguing offerings, like the “Dark Garnet” and “Leche Diablo.” Both Emily and I have found ourselves slipping down the block to get some writing in at their comfortable tables. Their 10pm closing time, however, tends to forbid late-night workshopping sessions.

The Local Watering Hole

Like a traditional Irish or English-style pub, the common thread in these bars is the homieness- between the atmosphere and the staff, you get the feeling that coming here is a pastime, where the servers know you and what you like. You might even have a favorite spot. Not necessarily a place to be alone, these are places to meet friends, enjoy company, and drink a few beers. As you can imagine, this is the category that MOST bars in Portland fit into. No matter what part of the city you are from, you are rarely far from a pub you can call home.

     My current local is the Horse Brass Pub, on SE Belmont. With an absolutely phenomenal beer list, and excellent English and American pub fare, the Horse Brass sometimes doubles as a Writing Bar for me when I really crave the noise and action of a busy bar. While you won’t be getting too many cocktails from the bar, that’s not the reason you came. This is a place to meet friends and have a beer or whiskey…and then another… and another… and another.

     If, on the other hand, you’re feeling something a bit more divey, the Yamhill Pub has you covered. Yamhill Pub stands proud as your loud, dark, windowless dive tucked in the bottom of an office building along Yamhill St. A raucous jukebox, even money on getting a craft microbrew or a big label domestic, and a generally colorful clientele means a splendid place to disappear into the noise and forget you exist for a while, or at least until you get sucked into another patron’s story time moment.

   Maybe you’re not really feeling a dive, but also don’t want something TOO fancy or clever. For that state of mind, my favorite place in the city so far is Beulahland– dark, but open. Divey, but friendly and welcoming. Great beers on tap, and a menu of solidly-done sandwiches, burgers, and other staples makes it the gold standard for local in my book, and the perfect place for an after-hours drink. You’re as likely to watch English Premier Soccer on the screens as you are to see flamenco dancing- which is to say, “Yes.”

    If you had the day off, however, you might find yourself on SE Hawthorne- a main drag of shopping, dining, drinking, and amusements. All the way at the end of the street, you’ll find Quarterworld and the Space Room. Quarterworld is a retro-gaming dreamland, with a great bar and carnival-inspired food to keep you fueled as you play vintage arcade and pinball games, listen to live bands, or guess at trivia.
For a quieter time, however, wander over to the Space Room. ​Kitschy and goofy by purpose and pride, The Space Room is a small bar decked out with all the 1950s sci-if shlock and goofy lighting you could want, and with a classic drink menu and infused vodkas to match. Laugh at the kitsch, and drink it up. It’s what you came for, and you got it and more.

​Casual Cocktail

     These are the bars that I usually find I’m in the mood for when I have guests, or if I’m taking Emily out on a date. Make no mistake- these places are solid places to get a drink, but they aren’t really the kind of place where you necessarily hang out and drown your sorrows. These places are a little swankier- you walk in here to see and be seen, and to drink the strange and wonderful cocktails they do so well.
     Given that it is the commercial and tourism heart of the city, the Downtown area west of the Willamete seems to be the nexus for these sort of bars. Notable among them is Shiftdrinks. When I first walked in to Shiftdrink, I was struck by the minimalist, warehouse-like decor. I had anticipated something akin to MIlkboy- a bar in Philadelphia notable for the fact that it is directly across from Jefferson Hospital, and has a “happy hour” timed for each shift at the hospital- one should always be able to end a day’s (or night’s) work with a drink.
Shiftdrink, however, is something clearly different. It’s a place to meet friends, and specifically to grab a cocktail. While their beer menu DOES sport some fine choices, come on- you don’t go to a sushi restaurant and order pizza.
    If you’re feeling something a bit less cosmopolitan in FEEL, if not necessarily in location- there’s always Swine. The companion bar to the Swank restaurant at the base of the Paramount Hotel, Swine specializes in two things: moonshine whiskey, and pork. With an exciting and intriguing bar menu for the bacon-obsessed individuals in your life, and great whiskey-based cocktails, it’s a great place to meet friends after dinner, or before a show.
     Beyond all this, however, there is one place that MUST be mentioned. Tucked away on SW Alder Ave is the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library. No, the “library” bit is NOT just them being clever.  Open to the public, but reservations only available to membership (at a $600 yearly price tag, and currently wait-listed), one may ascend a staircase in an dark, wood-walled hall and enter the smoking-room/study you always wished you had. With a leather-bound whiskey list an inch thick, listing two walls worth of whiskey in alphabetical order, this is a place for special moments. This is where you can melt into the leather upholstery of an arm-chair, enjoy a whiskey poured precisely to your wishes, and wrap yourself in the serene splendor. With very few actual tables, the Library DOES sport a brief but impressive menu- the price point, however, makes it a VERY special occasion sort of place. When you have the chance to taste whiskies that cost up to $2000 an ounce… yes. You ENJOY it.
This list isn’t comprehensive by a long shot, and I always love finding new and different places to try- but for the stranger in the Rose City, who may be worried by early hours of his hotel bar, or put off by the crunchy hipness of the local populace, fear not!
Portland is weird, it loves BEING weird, and it REALLY loves getting weird.

L’Chaim!

​Stay Classy,