If you still picture Portland, Oregon as a mere slacker town only inhabited by the fleece and socks-and-sandals set, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
Known as the City of Roses, this playful place, infused with forested parks, green spaces and gardens, exudes a laid-back, alt-y vibe, an appreciation of everything drinkable and edible and the permissive nature of a still-sort-of slacker town.
It’s consistently ranked in the media as the greenest city in America, the best city for public transportation, the most bike-friendly and even the best city in which to have a baby (by Fit Pregnancy, 2008). It has a City-sanctioned “official doughnut,” an openly gay mayor (Sam Adams) and a 24-Hour Church of Elvis (a pop culture museum).
If that doesn’t convince you that Portland – a place where comedian Patton Oswalt jokes you can pay for a sandwich with a song – is worthy of checking out, then perhaps Oregon having no sales tax will. That’s right. None. Meaning the already-great deals in the city are that much better.
Portland, where pioneering foodie James Beard was born and raised, has always had an appetizing food scene, largely because of the high-quality vegetables, meat, fruit, fish, cheese, beer and wine that are produced within an hour or two of the city. Combined with a critical mass of passion, skill and experience, this has resulted in an explosion of innovative restaurants throughout the city, with incredible value, to boot.
Food carts are at the low end of the price spectrum. In downtown alone, there are 80 carts serving the lunchtime grab-and-go crowd. With Thai, Peruvian, Japanese, Pol- ish, Mexican and many more options, it’s a veritable United Nations of food where items average about US$5.
Another distinctive local eating experience can be had at Voodoo Doughnut, which is famous for its voodoo doll-shaped doughnut, complete with pretzel stake and dribble of jelly blood. It also did NyQuil doughnuts for a while until the health department told the shop to knock it off. You can even get married there with various ceremony packages available.
Le Pigeon offers gourmet French dining minus the stuffy atmosphere, with communal tables and seating at the counter overlooking the open kitchen and a menu that is creative, daring and elegant. Desserts are especially noteworthy.
Wildwood Restaurant & Bar offers Pacific Northwest cuisine and wine at its finest in a cozy, upscale setting that’s in perfect harmony with its location near Forest Park’s Wildwood Trail.
Andina is a contemporary Peruvian restaurant in the Pearl District that has a sexy, sultry atmosphere with a superb cocktail menu – don’t skip the pisco sours – and an extensive menu with terrific, unexpected flavour combinations.
For fans of Japanese cuisine, Masu Sushi does artful sushi in a modern lounge with beautiful decor and great lighting.
There’s beer in Portland, and plenty of it. In fact, in 1888, local brewer Henry Weinhard volunteered to pump beer from his brewery into the Skidmore Fountain at its dedication.
These days, with 28 breweries, Portland is generally regarded as America’s microbrew capital.
The Oregon Brewers Guild offers a map of local breweries for visitors, and a good place to start a tasting tour is atWidmer Brothers Brewing Company, one of the city’s oldest and largest. There are free tastings and tours on weekends where you’ll learn about the process and sample Drop Top Amber Alem Deadlift Imperial IPA, Sunburn Summer Brew, Hefeweizen and more.
With beer comes brewpubs – cozy places with low lights, crackling fires, good food and friendly people – of which Portland also has plenty. Brothers and brewpub pioneers Mike and Brian McMenamin own 23 pubs around the city, all of which are unique (mcmenamins.com). You can only get the brothers’ beers in McMenamin establishments, and their approach has been to create a European-style, community-based pub scene where children are welcome (with parents) and the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. They even have movie-theatre brewpubs in their repertoire.
But Portland’s booze scene does not thrive on beer alone, as local distillers are quietly starting a craft distillation revolution, producing whiskey, brandy, grappa, vodka, gin and even absinthe.
The epicentre of this movement is in southeast Portland’s Distillery Row, where there are five distilleries. They all offer tastings and, while the operations are modest and somewhat makeshift, they make up for it with charm and personality, especially at Integrity Spirits, where owner/distiller Rich Phillips is a storyteller extraordinaire.
In addition to its alcoholic products, Portland is a big-time coffee destination. The city is home to the originalStumptown Coffee Roasters, well known by aficionados as one of the highest quality direct-trade roasteries, as well as dozens of other micro-roasteries and cafs, where the baristas will school you on the intricacies of their brews.
TO SEE AND DO
There’s a strong tree-hugger contingent in Portland, and for good reason. Forest Park, the largest wooded urban park in America, has more than 113 kilometres of recreational trails that draw runners, hikers, bikers and horse riders. It includes the 48-km-long Wildwood Trail, a pedestrian trail that’s part of a 64-km loop system. It’s also the site of numerous festivals, parades, performances and more (portlandonline.com).
Or, you can check out Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland’s answer to Venice Beach.
Flower aficionados won’t want to miss the International Rose Test Garden. Established in 1917, it’s the oldest continuously operated garden of its kind in the U.S. It’s free and open from April through October, so visitors can stroll among 7,000 rose bushes.
If it’s raining, as it frequently is, a visit to Powell’s City of Books is a must. This gigantic independent bookstore – the largest in the world – fills an entire city block and houses a collection of more than a million new, used and rare books. The store is located in the Pearl District, where you’ll want to take some time to explore the shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, and note the wonderful diversity of the people out and about.
TO SEE AND DO … LATER
If you want to start your evening Gus Van Sant style, head to the Nines hotel and begin with a cocktail in the comfortable library/billiard room, a place the Portland-raised filmmaker is known to frequent. It’s open to non-guests, but a better bet is just to stay at the stately Nines because it’s gorgeous.
Later, hit up one of the city’s many music clubs where indie cred runs deep.
The Doug Fir Restaurant & Lounge, its decor a rustic throwback to 1950s modernism, is a hotspot where scenesters, music-lovers and ordinary folk mingle in chilled-out harmony in the upstairs restaurant, outside around fire pits or in the downstairs lounge where the bands play. The Crystal Ballroom is a fixture on the local music scene, drawing acts like the New Pornographers, the Decemberists and Pink Martini.
The aforementioned Nines recently received a major facelift, turning it into a masterpiece of elegant, contemporary decor that features an abundance of local art. It sits atop Macy’s department store in the centre of downtown.
The 79-room Ace Hotel, where the flophouse scene from Van Sant’s acclaimed Drugstore Cowboy was filmed in 1988, features distinctive murals, vintage furnishings and, in some rooms, turntables and a vinyl collection. The Jupiter Hotelis a modish motor inn-turned-boutique hotel. It’s attached to the Doug Fir Restaurant & Lounge and shares the same eclectic spirit.
Portland is nothing if not charming. Brimming with oddities, it can sometimes resemble a circus show as unicyclists wheel by suit-wearing corporate types, who mingle with tattooed moms pushing strollers. The beauty is that, not only does the city have something for everyone, but it welcomes all types into its quirky mix of wit, style and taste.
The Willamette Valley: A taste of Burgundy in the Pacific Northwest
Nestled in the foothills of the Coast Range Mountains, between Portland and the Pacific Ocean, is the Willamette Valley. More than 200 wineries inhabit this 242-km-long fertile stretch where the climate is cool and moist, with the right amount of sunshine to grow temperamental pinot noir grapes, for which Burgundy, France is renowned.
But while Burgundy has been doing it for 900 years, the history of winemaking in the Willamette Valley dates back only as far as the late 1960s, when David Lett bought a hillside acreage near the city of Dundee and planted a vineyard, against the advice of his California cohorts who said it was impossible to grow grapes in Oregon. He would prove them wrong when he entered his pinot noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades and placed third among pinot noirs, against France’s best labels.
By that time, a small, committed group of wine producers had made their way to the valley, all working together toward a common goal of producing superior cool-climate, terroir-driven wines.
That spirit of community and shared optimism remains today. As a winery visitor, you feel welcomed, not just as a paying customer doing the circuit ( la Napa), but as a guest invited to join a conversation about terroir, farming, winemaking, food and, of course, wine.
Touring the valley is not as straightforward as touring other wine regions, partially because residents have shied away from tourism in favour of preserving their bucolic paradise and maintaining their agricultural heritage. However, it’s worth the effort to sample world-class pinot noirs and splendid pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling.
The Oregon Wine Board’s website is useful for planning a self-guided tour, but a better bet is going with a driver/guide. Grape Escape Tours offers private, custom tours with guides who have experience in the areas of hospitality, history, food and wine. The tours provide food to complement various tastings, and recommend visiting no more than three wineries in a day so the experience is unhurried. Visitors can’t go wrong visiting J.K. Carriere, Domaine Drouhin or WillaKenzie Estate, but these are just three in an ever-growing list of splendid wineries.