I had barely arrived in Portland, Ore., when I experienced my first “Portlandia”-worthy moment. In a scene reminiscent of the quirky IFC comedy series, a small man with a long beard and his fresh-faced female companion beckoned through the window of their storefront on the main drag of the city’s Alberta Arts District.
Neil Perry and Susannah Kelly had just opened a gallery space about the size of a walk-in closet that somehow managed to stock the work of more than 10 artists. In the TV version, these two might have been portrayed by “Portlandia” series co-creators and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, who play multiple characters on the show.
The real duo hails from Northern England (Perry) and Santa Barbara, Calif., (Kelly) and eagerly chatted up my friends and me about their fledgling business, called Antler; their favorite spots to eat and drink; and most of all, their love of Portland.
This encounter proved to be the first of many such camera-ready moments with the real characters populating this Pacific Northwest city of nearly 600,000. I went to Portland to find out whether the actual place would live up to the politically correct, artisan-nurturing, locavore paradise that the show both celebrates and sends up.
But I didn’t want to simply retrace the steps of the series, which is filmed entirely on location. Instead, I aimed to star in my own version of “Portlandia.” In a place where one of the downtown landmarks is a mural exhorting people to “Keep Portland Weird,” I suspected that I’d find plenty of material.
And I was right.
For my hotel, I chose the Ace, a boutique property that figures prominently as The Deuce in a Season 1 episode of “Portlandia,” and rightfully so: The hotel has a retro, lived-in look, pairing vintage-style downscale furniture with upscale amenities. Imagine an old hotel from a black-and-white 1940s B movie spiffed up with high-thread-count sheets, a trendy restaurant-bar with mixology-inspired cocktails and a cafe serving a favorite local coffee, Stumptown.
I quickly discovered one of the qualities that sets Portland apart from so many cities with farm-to-table restaurants, small-batch beer and spirits producers and boutiques brimming with locally sourced products: In Portland, the hipsters who work at the Ace and the other restaurants and shops I visited seemed genuinely friendly and mostly free of the bad attitude typical of their brethren elsewhere. My travel companions and I dubbed this quality “Portland-nice.”
As in the show, however, those who stray from Portland’s mostly easygoing script might be met with a vexed look and a cross word, but rarely a raised voice.
When another guest interrupted my check-in at the Ace to ask a question, the front-desk clerk wrinkled his brow at the offending party, while politely fielding her query. He then apologized to me for the disruption, which hadn’t even registered with my Northeastern sensibility.
“That is so rude,” he said, shaking his head.
From the Ace, it’s an easy walk or bike ride — the hotel provides free bikes — to explore the downtown or nearby Pearl District, a gentrified area with loft-style apartments, restaurants, boutiques and, increasingly, chain stores such as West Elm. Portland also offers an extensive public transportation system, with free rides on streetcars and trams throughout most of downtown.
My first stop upon leaving the hotel was a pilgrimage that every book lover must make: Powell’s City of Books. The name hints at the bibliophilic delights that await inside this local chain’s flagship store.
This sprawling multi-floor warren stocks more than 1 million new and used titles and recently also installed an on-demand press that can instantly print rare, out-of-circulation books in the public domain or a would-be author’s manifesto. With so many books, I couldn’t imagine having to request getting one printed, but it’s good to have options.
There are sale tables all over the place, with prices slashed by half or more, curated lists of staff picks, lots of nooks for perusing and a corner cafe that’s a great place to plop down with a book or three.
Naturally, this being Portland, there was a leprechaun-like man outside Powell’s entertaining passersby with his fiddle.
In a much-referenced episode during the first season of “Portlandia,” a couple dining at an upscale restaurant inquire about the chicken’s provenance and are dissatisfied with the server’s answers, even when she proffers a bio of the bird.
They ask their server to hold their table while they visit the farm, but they’re gone much longer than they intended after they get drawn into a cult before finally returning to their table, at which point they decide against the chicken.
I didn’t bother going to the real restaurant that inspired “The Farm” episode — The Gilt Club — because seemingly every eatery has jumped on the farm-to-table express.
I found the commitment to authenticity everywhere I ate, from Pok Pok, which specializes in the authentic street food of Thailand and other Asian countries while emphasizing seasonal local ingredients, to Tasty n Sons, a homey restaurant serving updated comfort food family-style, to the pod of 30 or so food carts in one downtown location offering every kind of ethnic food you can imagine.
Somewhat disappointingly, I wasn’t offered a bio of any fowl, fish or other menu item — the life of the nettles used in a tasty pesto on a pizza at Oven & Shaker might have made for a compelling read, I suspect.
Still, most servers showed a willingness to please. At Pok Pok, for example, the staff asked our party when we were between courses whether we’d mind shifting to a different table to accommodate a large last-minute group. For our trouble, they gave us a 20 percent discount.
Portland-nice strikes again.
I did experience the exception that proves the politeness rule at a local landmark, Voodoo Doughnut, a 24-hour operation that always has a line out the door. Its mouth-watering choices include the signature bacon-maple bar, decadent chocolate cake versions and wacky concoctions with such toppings as Fruit Loops, grape dust and lavender sprinkles.
Despite being in the presence of so many sweet treats, the tattooed clerk sounded the only sour service note of our visit, alternating between bored and impatient with the customers. She did briefly crack a smile, before shooting me down, when I jokingly asked for extra bacon.
Portland is literally green, with multiple squares, parks, botanical gardens and even the oldest official test garden for roses in the United States.
For great city views, I suggest venturing away from downtown to the International Rose Test Garden, which boasts more than 600 varieties of roses, and the Japanese Garden, considered one of the most authentic of its kind outside Japan. The day I visited the latter happened to be a rare, clear spring day in Portland, affording spectacular views of Mount Hood.
For Asian-inspired greenery within walking distance of downtown, I checked out the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Chinatown. The compact space features a series of bridges and temple-like buildings that were constructed by artisans from Portland’s Chinese sister city, Suzhou. Although dangerously close to Voodoo Doughnut, the garden features a lovely teahouse with a multi-page menu of teas and sweet and savory snacks.
As we sipped our green tea and sampled taro buns and almond cookies, we had our own “Portlandia”-esque moment of Zen when a woman at the next table regaled us with tales of the good life in Portland. The intense woman had left behind the harsh winters of her native Michigan and apparently never looked back, but hadn’t quite assumed the mellow approach to life that locals practice.
If there were a template for the quintessential Portland neighborhood, North Williams would seem to be it.
The area’s main drag of North Williams Avenue boasts the usual mix of homespun restaurants and shops. There are the expected microbrewery, bike shop, tattoo parlor and modern takes on traditional food purveyors, including Chop butcher shop and Pix Patisserie.
There are individually owned boutiques selling letterpress cards and stationery, soaps and households items, and even a double-decker bus converted into a vintage dress shop. And, of course, there’s a place for mixologist-created cocktails — the Box Social — and the aptly named Tasty n Sons, a locavore restaurant in a warehouse-like space. The latter, which is open from brunch through dinner, riffs on comfort food with family-style portions and a clever cocktail list with various kinds of “Marys” and other libations.
I capped off my visit to North Williams — and Portland — with a stop at Queen Bee, the studio and factory store for a line of handbags and accessories adorned with birds. The latter would seem to have inspired a “Portlandia” episode, in which the characters proclaim that everything in life can be improved if you “put a bird on it!”
As I watched a young woman behind a machine do exactly that, I experienced one of those life-imitating-art-imitating-life moments that make for the best TV and travel.
DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer and co-founder of the City Traveler, an online magazine.