Parts of hipster hot spot Portland, Ore., mix the old and the new.

DON RYAN • Associated Press,

In search of pre-hipster Portland

  • Article by: Brendan Spiegel
  • Washington Post
  • August 17, 2013 - 10:00 AM

Sitting at the bar in Portland’s Ace Hotel last summer, sipping a tart Negroni cocktail — barrel-aged for added flavor and novelty — while nibbling a circular sliver of pork head roulade presented as a bite-size bar snack, I pondered how it could have taken me so long to make my first visit to the city.

I was at the tail end of five days of gorging, imbibing and caffeinating my way through Oregon’s trendy riverfront city, the wonderland of craft cocktails, pour-over coffees and competitive burlesque that has practically become synonymous with the word “hipster.”

Portland’s over-the-top organic-obsessed aesthetic is lovingly skewered on the hit IFC comedy “Portlandia,” in a depiction that I found not so far from what the city’s like in real life. And as a craft-cocktail-and-coffee-loving East Coaster myself, I was happy to embrace it.

But I also found myself wondering something else while daydreaming at the Ace that afternoon: Where was the old Portland? This is, after all, a frontier logging town and shipbuilding port city with half a million residents. Surely there must be something to see that predates Portlandia?

On the advice of locals, I took my search for pre-hipster Portland north of downtown, riding the light rail to the North Denver Avenue stop, where I was greeted by a 31-foot-tall concrete-and-metal statue of logging legend Paul Bunyan. The bearded, plaid-clad likeness was erected not, as I’d first suspected, by modern irony-loving Portlanders but with absolute earnestness for the 1959 Portland Centennial Exposition.

From there I walked over to the St. Johns neighborhood, which, like other far-north parts of Portland, is centered on its own distinctive “downtown” strip, one of the remnants of the small towns that were annexed by this growing city in the early 20th century.

St. Johns became part of Portland in 1915 and today perhaps best epitomizes the city’s mix of old and new. Many of the vintage establishments might be mistaken for imitation retro outposts in another part of town, but most of them are family-owned spots that are many decades old.

At Pattie’s Home Plate Cafe, an eccentric mix of diner/costume shop/toy store, you can dig into a slice of coconut cream pie while shopping for vintage Barbie dolls. The neighboring 73-year-old Lion’s Den Man’s Shop is a classic haberdashery that used that word long before it became cool.

Down the road, Tulip Pastry Shop is a pint-size storefront covered in classic-car memorabilia. Though the goods may not be as eye-catching as the bacon-and-Cap’n-Crunch-topped items at downtown’s much-hyped Voodoo Doughnut, I was more than happy to settle for a 75-cent fritter piped full of marionberries — a supremely juicy strain of blackberries cultivated in Oregon.

By this time, the rain had started to pour down, but after nearly a week in Portland, I’d learned that you can’t let that stop you, and like the locals I soldiered on, sans umbrella.

After a wet walk through majestic Cathedral Park, a grassy expanse named for the Gothic-like arched towers that line the base of the St. Johns suspension bridge that cuts through it, I found a stool to dry off on at Port Way Tavern. This is a decidedly old-school establishment where the regular crowd is heavy on longshoremen, the bar top displays about 200 beer tap handles, and you can extract a handful of pistachios from the quarter machines. For all the city’s downscale charm, I’d also learned that you won’t often be served a downscale beer in Portland; even here I was glad to find a citrusy Red Chair NW Pale Ale (made in nearby Bend) on tap for $4.25 a pint.

Even the far-flung St. Johns neighborhood is ever-so-slightly gentrifying. Last summer, the Baowry, a food cart turned brick-and-mortar restaurant serving trendy Chinese-Vietnamese fare, took over a rundown building. But it doesn’t change the character of the neighborhood. What did stand out was the bold flavor of the savory noodles served with bacon and mussels in a sizzling house-made broth.

A few blocks away, the 1904 Central Hotel is also in the middle of a face-lift. The building was once a hub of St. Johns’ booming downtown but in recent years known as the neighborhood’s seediest tavern.

Risa Boyd Davis and her partners plan to reopen the Central in 2014 as a boutique hotel, one they hope will retain the neighborhood’s existing character. “St. Johns, out of all the neighborhoods in Portland, has kept its own personality throughout its entire existence,” says Davis.

For now, Davis and her partners have reopened the hotel’s ground-floor nightspot, centered on a 60-foot-long 1930s mahogany bar, where giant blocks of ice and a manual juicer now contribute to $7 cocktails, such as a lemon, gin and ginger beer “gin buck.”

While the place is hardly renovated yet — stained-glass Tiffany lamps mingle with a musty floral carpet — there’s something appealing about sipping a classic cocktail in this laid-back environment, which is probably closer to what a pre-Prohibition-era bar was actually like than all those hip new joints with million-dollar faux-retro designs.

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