Nothing is as simple as it seems in Portland. Portlanders take circuitous routes for everything; revering the effort it takes to produce something sometimes over the product itself. It doesn’t take long to conclude it’s their own subtle backlash to our overly wired world—a Le Resistance to instantaneity, a middle finger to anything that fits into 140 characters. Query just about any chef, bartender, or craftsperson how they made something or why they opened their store, and get ready to pull up a seat to hear the full story. Seemingly every object—every croissant, handmade pocketknife holster, leather shoe, morel mushroom, stick of incense, glass of pinot, or shot of vodka—has a story. And Portland wants you to listen. While it makes for good entertainment, you’ll need an efficient strategy to navigate the city’s plethora of attractive things to do, see, and eat. Here’s your short list of the best places to check out while in town.
Don’t expect prissy egg white frittatas on the menu at Tasty n Alder. This is where you come for a homey, filling brunch with flare. Think chewy radicchio with bacon lardons, manchego, and a runny six-minute egg or crispy Korean fried chicken with short grain rice and house-made kimchi. Wash it down with one of their six spins on the mimosa.
Voodoo is old news now that Blue Star Donuts has claimed Portland’s gourmet donut thrown, with flavors like dulce de leche hazelnut and blueberry bourbon basil. The fist-size French brioche pastries are so fluffy and airy that you don’t risk slipping into a carb coma, and they’re made from scratch with organic flour, eggs, European butter and cooked in rice oil.
Beloved popup Din Din recently moved into a permanent home, where they host a supper club and Sunday brunch. The food is simple but sophisticated (think braised duck neck with seasonal vegetables), but the best ingredient is the Portlandia-style humor. Meals often feel like the punch line of a joke: A 23-course miniature plate and wine dinner, or a romance-themed dinner with the cooks wearing heels and pearls while a fiddler serenades the tables.
Portland’s dining options are so vast, their menus so varied, that successfully finding a restaurant and ordering could be a Discovery Channel documentary. Ava Genes is no exception. Though the food is local, rustic, and approachable, their menu warrants a glossary (I’m not kidding. There is a glossary in the bottom right corner). And while you might feel inclined to study-up before arriving, you’ll only find the history behind the 30 purveyors they source from on their website, but no menu, so you’ll just have to wing it. But trust me, it’s worth it.
In their new warehouse on Distillery Row, New Deal Distillery is the best example of Portland’s growing and eccentric spirits scene. Case in point: chocolate vodka, aptly named Mud Puddle. But this is no Hershey’s syrup sugar bomb. It’s bitter, almost chalky, and smooth, made with organic cacao nibs roasted onsite. Other experimental concoctions—like vodka distilled from Williamette wine or delicate floral grappa made from the pomace of Riesling grapes prove just as worthy.
Across the street from New Deal, Vinn Distillery pours the first legal rice vodka in the US, from a recipe the family has been honing for over seven generations (whereas at a Napa Valley tasting room you’ll mostly hear about subtle tasting notes as you politely smile and nod, in Portland, and at Vinn in particular, the first thing distillers point to is the creation story behind it). Also try their other traditional Chinese rice-made spirits, like mijiu and baijiu.
Further north in Portland’s Overlook neighborhood garagiste winemaker (and San Francisco transplant) Jan-Marc Baker has 32 oak barrels of Willamette Valley pinot noir and chardonnay stacked in his 2-car garage next to a couple fermentation tanks. Call Jan-Marc Wine Cellars ahead to find out the next time he opens the garage door for a tasting.
Step into The Meadow and you’ll be faced with an artfully curated, but dizzying, wall of 110 salts from 26 countries. Why so many salts? Because, they say, each brings their own unique mineral and crystal property to the table, revealing a “sense of place,” in the same way terroir tells the story of a wine.
At first, you might almost mistake Canoe for a gallery. At this sleek modern house wares shop, each object comes with a lengthy description of what it is, how it was made, and where it’s from: A fireplace broom with hand-rolled straw, crafted by students of from Berea College in Kentucky, the first coeducational and interracial institution in the south. A gardening tool hand-forged using steel, fire, and an anvil in a blacksmith shop near neighboring Mount Hood.
Infamous Powell’s Books—taking up the real estate of an entire city block and known for being the world’s largest new and used book store—is just wrapping up a massive facelift. Covering 68,000 square feet with three floors and 3,500 sections, you need a map just to navigate it. Check out their website for author readings and the rare book room, which is only open weekends, to peruse thousands of old or hard-to-find book. Take that, Amazon.
Portland’s urban parks rival any of the other great US city’s, but the Japanese Gardens are definitely not to be missed, with five different garden styles spread across nearly 6 acres. You’ll find meditative stone walking paths through the lush Tea Garden, bridges arcing through iris beds and near waterfalls in the Strolling Pond Garden, and mesmerizing designs in the Sand and Stone Garden. Bonus: if you haven’t hit your foliage quota by the end, the Rose Garden is right across the street.
In some ways, Portland is like one big outdoor art gallery—galvanized steel bent and contorted into sculptures, old tricycles that have found a second life as an art installation, hip-hop inspired murals. The Regional Arts and Culture Council and the Public Art PDX app serve as good docents for your tour.
[If you’re under 30]
This midcentury motor lodge in the industrial neck of the woods has been renovated into a boutique hotel that connects to the Doug Fir--a lumberjack-chic bar, underground music venue, and large courtyard with fire pits that lure the lively chatter from inside. Book a room on the Bar Patio side to join the party, or the Chill Side for a quieter space. Bonus: They have two ZipCars on site. Starting at $169/night.
[If you’re over 30]
Downtown, the brand new Sentinel Hotel offers swank rooms with manly décor in a historic building—dark neutral tones, industrial photography, and plaster taxidermy. The lobby bar, Jack Knife, is the perfect spot for a lively nightcap, with craft cocktails, music, and a double-sided fireplace. Starting at $259/night.