That Portland buzz

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  • That Portland buzz

    That Portland buzz

    The Oregon city of Portland has a huge influence on the way we look, eat and drink. A decade on from its rise to fame, how is the hipster’s heartland holding up, asks Kate Maxwell.

    Need a break from glass-half-empty Britain? Go to Portland. I’ve spent the last six years living in the USA, conducting a careful survey of its cities’ dispositions, and Portland is the most optimistic place I’ve found. You may know this Pacific Northwestern city from Portlandia, the TV sketch show that satirises the strong-on-idealism, low-on-ambition lifestyles of the locals; for whom the 1990s, ‘when people were talking about getting piercings and tribal tattoos, and singing about saving the planet’, never ended.

    ‘Portland,’ says Fred Armisen’s character, ‘is where young people go to retire.’ Portlandia gets just about everything about the city dead right — apart from the weather. The sun always shines on TV; in reality it’s quite the opposite: Pacific Northwest winters are notorious for being protracted and dismally damp. But even this doesn’t get the locals down.

    Everyone you meet in this hipster enclave, the Hackney of the Pacific Northwest, seems to be high on life. Perhaps it’s the constant caffeine rush, or all that endorphin-generating cycling. Maybe there’s some kind of amphetamine in the vinegar: the city has bear-hugged the artisanal food movement and the pickle is its mascot. If you can eat it, they pickle it.

    Pictured: hanging out in the lobby at Ace Hotel Portland

  • That Portland buzz

    That Portland buzz

    Or maybe this unerring optimism is the naivety of youth. Portland is a relatively young city, even by American standards. And then, when the worldwide web came calling in the late 1990s, Portland, dubbed Silicon Forest, saw an influx of young creatives. Their numbers swelled even further with refugees from pricier West Coast cities when the bubble popped.

    ‘Portland has a small-town benevolence and connection to nature with metropolitan ideas and aspirations; it’s like a Shangri-La for artists and characters of all kinds, to the point where it bristles with creativity from every corner,’ says Ace Hotels founder Alex Calderwood, who opened his hotel here in 2007.

    You see the entrepreneurial-meets-nature mash-up everywhere: in the vintage stores and boutiques, which cater to the nouveau lumberjack with rugged outdoor-as-indoor fashion and Pendleton blankets made into handbags; in the rustic, woodsy decor of its locavore restaurants and bars peddling barrel-aged cocktails.

    Still, the thriving cottage-style industries have big business to thank: it’s the well-paid employees of companies such as Nike, founded here in 1965, and its advertising agency, Weiden + Kennedy, that help keep the lights on in the microbreweries, food-cart pods and countless coffee shops.

    Pictured: Woodsman Tavern

  • That Portland buzz

    Portland’s coffee culture

    The first thing I like to do when I hit Portland is to go on a caffeine bender: there’s no better way to assimilate. At Heart Roasters, I watched a bespectacled crowd (glasses are ubiquitous here; lucky, since I had inadvertently washed my contact lenses down the plughole the previous night) in army jackets, bow-ties, flat caps, nose rings and tattoos — occasionally all at once — tap away on laptops while a DJ played early 1990s pop and I drank my Ethiopia Yukro bean espresso. At the cavernous Coava, a Brooklyn émigré used a Chemex coffeemaker to craft my cup of velvety, single-origin Salvadorian coffee, extolled Portland’s peaceful, affordable lifestyle, and looked a little misty-eyed when he recalled the all-night house parties of his past New York life. But the Portland coffee HQ — the source — is Stumptown Annex, which offers tastings, free of charge, every afternoon.

    Founded by bearded Duane Sorenson in 1999 and named after one of Portland’s nicknames (trees were felled during its rapid growth in the mid 19th century but the stumps remained), Stumptown was the city’s pioneer artisan coffee roaster, and has now expanded to Seattle, New York and LA. Stumptown is a respected employer that treats its producers well; Portlanders are proud of it, although perhaps less so since a large stake was bought by a private equity firm in 2011. My sommelier, or barista, was certainly pleased to work there. ‘I haven’t just drunk the Kool-Aid, I sell the Kool-Aid,’ he said.

    Tasting coffee is far more complicated than tasting wine and, if my experience was anything to go by, oenophiles have nothing on the fanatics it attracts. We started by smelling five different coffee beans. ‘Oh, yeah!’ said the guy to my right, a local, at sample number three. Boiling water was poured on the grounds and we were instructed to move our spoons in concentric circles over the coffee while we assessed the aroma anew, our noses hovering just above it. ‘Oh, yeah!’ said the guy again. Next, the crust was removed to reveal the chalky liquor beneath. ‘Oh, that’s awesome!’ said the guy. Then the slurp, sip and spit.

    Pictured: barber Adam Morehouse sporting the Portland look

  • That Portland buzz

    Eating and drinking, Portland

    By the time I’d watched five strangers make ‘fish lips’, vacuum up spoonfuls of coffee with an aggressive sound not dissimilar to clearing phlegm from the throat (the key here is to inhale so that coffee droplets populate the nasal passage), and hurl them into a spittoon, well, we didn’t feel like strangers anymore. Finally, the big reveal. My favourite, number four, was the Kenya Gaturiri, a ‘fruit bomb’ of a coffee which tasted like sparkling wine, according to our barista. Would that it had. Although, on second tasting, it did, sort of. I left with a bag of beans under my arm.

    Portlanders’ coffee ardour is matched by their devotion to local, seasonal, sustainably raised and sourced food. In one famous scene from Portlandia, the characters leave their restaurant table to visit the farm that has supplied the chicken they’re considering ordering — because knowing it’s an organic, heritage breed raised on four acres of woodland, fed sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts and called Colin isn’t enough.

    I was reminded of this when I pulled up a chair at the bar of Bamboo Sushi that evening. ‘First time?’ asked the bartender, handing me a thick menu. I nodded. ‘Everything on the left of the menu is about our sustainable partnerships,’ he said. ‘Everything on the right is food.’ Flicking through, I wondered how on earth he thought I could confuse ‘Seafood Watch: Understanding Sustainable Seafood’ with albacore carpaccio. Or how shigoku oysters could possibly taste like prosciutto and honeydew melon, as he had promised. Except they did. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion again; everything seems to taste better in Portland.

    Pictured: Ace Hotel’s breakfast room

  • That Portland buzz

    Brunch at Tasty n Sons, Portland

    The next morning, I took the 17 bus over the Hawthorne Bridge to my favourite brunch spot, Tasty n Sons, in Northeast Portland. At 9.30am there was already a half-hour wait for a table for one, so I poured myself a cup of complimentary Stumptown and browsed the bulletin board in the hallway, with its ‘Warm-a-Bulldog Coat Drive: Donate a New or Gently Worn Dog Jacket, Coat or Sweater to a Pit Bull’ and ‘Earthquake Preparedness Training: 10-Hour Workshop Using Theater and Dance’ notices.

    In New York, people more or less leave you to your own devices if you eat in a restaurant alone. Not here. By the time I’d finished my pickle-adorned Bloody Mary, homemade biscuits with venison gravy, and Burmese eggs (all delicious), I’d made three friends, been given local restaurant recommendations that spanned the globe — Mexican, Thai, Argentine, Japanese, Hawaiian, Indian, ice cream (it was January) — and road directions for the Willamette Valley, the Pinot Noir wine region which is, I was told, more beautiful than Tuscany. Who needs medieval villages, anyway?

    Pictured: brunch at Tasty n Sons

  • That Portland buzz

    Portland street style

    Portland itself is not a beautiful city. Its architecture is a mish-mash of periods: there are Tudor-, Victorian- and colonial-style wood-panelled houses, often painted many colours, and lolloping former factories on the east side of the river; new-build eco, LEED-certified skyscrapers abutting early-20th-century, 15-storey structures such as the American Bank Building downtown; spruced-up brick warehouses in the cobblestoned Pearl District. With its hefty, traffic-clogged steel bridges, the Willamette River that slices through the city, both literally and metaphorically (some hipsters wouldn’t be seen dead on the west side, where Nike execs and admen from Wieden + Kennedy live), is no Seine or Thames.

    But the fact that the city isn’t an oil painting, that it wears its industrial logging past on its plaid shirt sleeve, is to the locals’ advantage: residential and commercial rents are low, and as a result there has been an explosion of small, creative businesses (not everyone is sitting around drinking coffee all day long); a popular $75 business course has helped many young entrepreneurs on their way. Those who can’t afford a bona fide restaurant or shop often start with a truck. A few years ago there was only a handful of these; now, pods of as many as 50 food trucks occupy city-centre squares. I met boutique owners whose first premises had wheels, and many bricks- and-mortar smallholdings have a reclaimed, homespun aesthetic that might have been born of necessity but has become the default Portland look: it goes well with a beard and a flat cap.

    Pictured: Lodekka food truck, Portland

  • That Portland buzz

    Vintage shopping in Portland

    What was most remarkable about the entrepreneurs I encountered is their spread-the-love community-mindedness, the antithesis of capitalist America’s every man for himselfishness. ‘You must have loads of places to see,’ a vintage boutique owner would say as I was leaving, ‘but could I just suggest [insert name of competitive business] down the street?’ You don’t hear that in Manhattan. After Tasty n Sons I browsed stores on North Mississippi Avenue, including Lodekka, a double-decker London bus turned vintage-fashion and record shop, Flutter, which sells Fifties tea dresses and taxidermy, and Land Gallery, where woodcuts and watercolours share space with T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Cats are people, too’.

    The tips just kept on coming — it was like following a paper trail. But at Worn Path, which sells frontier-style accessories, penknives, slingshots and raccoon skulls, and where I bought a necklace comprised of a painted twig and a brass feather, the paper trail ran out. Occasionally all that community spirit gets a bit much, the ex-Londoner behind the counter told me, slipping a bunch of Palo Santo ‘spacial cleansing’ incense sticks into my bag. ‘Sometimes you just need to sit in a park on your own.’

    Pictured: vintage fashion at Wanderlust in Southeast Portland

  • That Portland buzz

    Portland nightlife

    A 30-minute bus ride and a saunter up a hill later, that’s what I did, which is another great thing about Portland: you can be in the middle of the city one minute and ‘in nature’, as Americans say, the next. The spindly branches of the rose bushes in Washington Park’s Rose Test Garden were still sparkling after a heavy frost the night before. I found an icy bench, placed my copy of The Oregonian on it, sat down and contemplated the city sprawling below. More peace and quiet lay a stroll away, at the pagoda, pond, and bridge-spangled Japanese Gardens. There were a few other visitors, but none of them was a hipster, nor did they offer me advice or friendship. It was something of a relief.

    That evening, my sociability renewed after a couple of barrel-aged Negronis (because Oregon is a controlled state mixologists have had to get creative and as Jeffrey Morgenthaler, barrel-ageing pioneer and head bartender at Clyde Common, put it, ‘New York has a crush on Portland’s cocktail scene’), I headed east again, to Mississippi Studios. ‘We’re usually a five-piece email band,’ said the lead singer of What Hearts, who was rocking a just-off-the-bus look (cardigan, skinny jeans and flat boots), gesturing to the three women and one man behind her. I thought I’d discovered the latest trend, songwriting by email, until I realised she’d said ‘female’.

    Pictured: a guest at Ace Portland; enjoying a mug or two at Heart Roasters coffee

  • That Portland buzz

    Hipster Portland

    What Heart’s bluesy, folksy tunes,with outdoorsy lyrics such as ‘The grass is too tall, there’s rust on the gate,’ and ‘It’s only a brick, it’s only a stone, if you get sick you’re on your own,’ seemed the perfect Portland soundtrack. And once again, I wasn’t on my own; I’d bumped into a waiter I’d met at Luce restaurant at lunch and his art-critic girlfriend (it’s hard to be an art critic in a town where people don’t like to criticise anything, apparently). We swayed together to the gentle music, PBR beers in our hands.

    As I took the elevator to my room at the Ace Hotel that night, contemplating a framed embroidery that read: ‘If you’d taken the stairs you’d be there already. It’s true,’ I had the same thought I’d had last time I’d been on the Pacific Coast: I’d made more friends in a weekend than I make most years. The whole experience had felt like a giant hug. Cheap rent, incredible food, great coffee, friendly, civic-minded people, green spaces to escape to when they get up your grill, and the ability to live by one’s creative wits. No wonder Portlanders are permanently on cloud nine. Perhaps next time I go I’ll buy a one-way ticket.

    Pictured: bedroom at Ace Hotel Portland; the vintage photo booth at Ace Hotel Portland

  • That Portland buzz

    Where to eat and drink, Portland

    FOOD AND DRINK IN PORTLAND If you only hit one food truck, make it one-dish-wonder Nong’s Khao Man Gai, in the Southwest Alder and 10th Street pod: the poached chicken with rice and garlic, ginger and chilli sauce is a $6.75 revelation.

    For delicious sushi with every possible eco, local and sustainable credential, book a table at Bamboo Sushi (310 SE 28th Avenue; +1 503 232 5255) which has just opened a second, Northwest restaurant (836 NW 23rd Avenue; +1 971 229 1925).

    Southeast Division Street has some of Portland’s best bites, including ever-expanding Thai sensation Pok Pok (3226 SE Division Street; +1 503 232 1387), and Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson’s Woodsman Tavern (4537 SE Division Street; +1 971 373 8264), which combines wood-cabin good looks with great local food: Pacific Coast shellfish, country hams, lumberjack-friendly cocktails like the Hunting Vest, with cedar-steeped Campari and rye.

    A few blocks down is the filament-bulb-lit Ava Gene’s (3377 SE Division Street; +1 971 225 0571), which has a meaty, daily-changing Italian menu (I liked the orecchiette pasta with sausage).

    And don’t miss the opportunity to drink Sorenson’s coffee for free at one of the daily 3pm tastings at Stumptown Annex (100 SE Salmon Street; www.stumptowncoffee.com).

    For fine dining par excellence, head to tiny LePigeon (738 Burnside Street; +1 503 546 8796; www.lepigeon.com); for a low-key experience nearby, try restaurant-grocery store Luce (2138 E Burnside Street; +1 503 236 7195), where my $12 set lunch included a sublime, buttery al dente spaghetti with a peppery kick.

    The preposterously popular Tasty n Sons (3808 N Williams Avenue; +1 503 621 1400) is the place to brunch: arrive before the doors open at 9.30am or suffer the consequences.

    To take a ride on the city’s artisanal cocktail wave, make a date with Teardrop Lounge (1015 NW Everett Street; +1 503 445 8109), which mixes the ultimate Portland tipple, Have Faith (black bourbon with cold-brewed coffee and fig-balsamic gastrique).

    Raven & Rose (1331 SW Broadway; +1 503 222 7673) has a great line in homemade fruit liquors, and at Clyde Common at the Ace Hotel, sample one of Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s barrel-aged beverages.

    If you prefer your liquor straight up, Distillery Row (www.distilleryrowpdx.com) is a clutch of craft distilleries in former warehouses; the original is the New Deal Distillery (900 SE Salmon Street; +1 503 234 2513), whose tasting flight includes the spicy Hot Monkey vodka.

    Pictured: cocktail hour at Clyde Common

  • That Portland buzz

    Where to shop, Portland

    WHERE TO SHOP IN PORTLAND Portland’s vintage stores range from scruffy assemblages of Salvation Army finds to tasteful edits of back-on-trend styles; for the latter, try Yo Vintage! (413 SW 13th Avenue; +1 971 266 8811), which mixes 1980s-era animal print, denim and leather with new jewellery and accessories, Lulu’s Vintage (916 W Burnside Street; +1 503 360 1142) for colourful, 1950s-1970s men’s and women’s duds; and in Southeast Portland, Wanderlust (2804 SE Ankeny Street), for girlie 1960s shift dresses and plaid shirts for guys.

    At Canoe (1136 SW Alder Street;+1 503 889 8545), 20 per cent of the home, office and lifestyle products are made in Portland — look out for Patrick Long’s and Chester Wallace’s canvas tote bags.

    Make a pit stop for drinking chocolate at nearby Cacao (414 SW 13th Street; +1 503 241 0656), and edible souvenirs: its vast array of choc includes local brand Alma.

    Over the Burnside Bridge, Appetite (2136 E Burnside) sells handbags made from leather and Pendleton blankets, pretty prints and thrifted furniture, some of which is made at the studio out the back; a couple of doors down, Nationale (811 E Burnside St; +1 503 477 9786) exhibits local artists and sells perfumes, bowls, tchotchkes and cult magazines such as Apartimento.

    Up on North Mississippi Avenue, Worn Path (4007 N Mississippi Ave; +1 503 208 6156) has rugged fashion, camping gear and accessories, while Flutter (3948 N Mississippi Avenue; +1 503 288 1649) has a cushion, necklace, candle or book for every Portland obsession: birds, cats, letterpress, found objects, moustaches, you name it.

    Pictured: aprons at Wanderlust

  • That Portland buzz

    Where to stay, Portland

    WHERE TO STAY IN PORTLAND Nowhere says Portland like the Ace Hotel Portland (1022 Stark Street; +1 503 228 2277; www.acehotel.com; doubles from about £145), on the edge of the Pearl District. It’s a social hub as much as a hotel (guests sit on sofas around a terrarium in reception, drinking Stumptown from the on-site café and tapping on Macbooks), it has the industrial-chic decor that’s the city’s defining aesthetic and a great bar-restaurant, Clyde Common, serving seasonal, pickle-peppered fare. Rooms are basic but comfortable: there are Pendleton blankets on the beds (and bunks in some rooms), thrift-store furniture, turntables and claw-foot baths; guests can borrow bikes for free.

    Also Downtown, The Heathman Hotel (1001 SW Broadway; +1 503 241 4100; www.heathmanhotel.com; doubles from £165) is a wood-panelled classic with strong literary connections (there’s a library of books by writers who have stayed; it even features in Fifty Shades of Grey), top-notch service, a tearoom and elegant bedrooms — beware of the ghosts in rooms ending with ’03’.

    A couple of blocks away, The Nines (525 SW Morrison; +1 877 229 9995; www.thenines.com, doubles from £190) occupies the upper floors of the former Meier & Frank department store and has a contemporary, Schrager-lite look; its seven-story atrium has mismatched furniture and houses the Urban Farmer steak restaurant, serving grass-fed Oregon beef. Rooms are bright, with large windows and glossy wallpaper.

    Published in Condé Nast Traveller January 2014.