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 here.
I was at the tail end of five days of gorging, imbibing and highly 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 here that predates Portlandia?
On the advice of several 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 immediately 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 several 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 very vintage establishments here might be mistaken for imitation retro outposts in another part of town, but most of them are in fact family-owned spots that are actually many decades old.
At Pattie’s Home Plate Cafe, an eccentric mix of diner/costume shop/toy store, you can dig into a hefty slice of coconut cream pie while shopping for vintage Barbie dolls, then browse for outfits to wear to the upcoming Saturday sock hop. The neighboring 73-year-old Lion’s Den Man’s Shop is a classic haberdashery that used that word long before it became cool, a place where button-up vests and pinstripe fedoras haven’t come back into style because they never went out of it.
Down the road, Tulip Pastry Shop is a pint-size storefront covered in classic-car memorabilia. Though the goods here 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 and sought after by locals every summer.
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.
A little less than a year later, I returned to Portland this summer with my new girlfriend, who was receiving an award from her alma mater, the University of Portland, which is just a neighborhood over from St. Johns. (Holly and I met in Brooklyn; our mutual affection for North Portland neighborhoods was purely coincidental.) Rather than holing up downtown at the Ace or another hip hotel, we found a $60 room on Airbnb in a private home in St. Johns.
To be sure, even this far-flung 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 that both Holly and our host, Jay, recalled as having once been “less than reputable.” But it doesn’t stand out or change the character of the neighborhood, tucked as it is into a single-family home on a side street. 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 facelift, with a trio of locals reviving the dilapidated building, once a hub of St. Johns’s booming downtown but in more recent years known as the neighborhood’s seediest tavern.
“From what I understand, it was quite the place in World War II, because the shipyards were here — it had a notorious reputation, as far as working women were concerned,” says Risa Boyd Davis, one of the partners behind the project. “Before we took it over, it was kind of where the worst of the worst hung out — heroin, meth addicts, drug deals in the bathroom, all kinds of things going on. My husband and I kept walking by and saying, ‘Somebody needs to do something with that building!’ ”
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 type of 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.
Of course, some old-timers are resistant to the new businesses coming in. Davis recalls an older woman knocking on the window and asking whether the hotel’s new owners were from St. Johns. When Davis told her that she had been living in the neighborhood for six years at that point, she was met with, “Oh, honey, you’re not from St. Johns.”
Yet Davis isn’t worried that the neighborhood will lose its charm. “All the young people moving in also have that independent streak,” she says. “Even though they’re starting to build synergy around it being a hip new place to hang out, it’s still unique. I think it will keep the independence.”
It’s that independence that makes St. Johns, with its mix of retro cool and just plain retro, feel more authentic than hipper parts of Portland, and a must-visit for those seeking a view of Portland beyond Portlandia.
Spiegel is a freelance travel writer and the editorial director of the New York-based storytelling platform Narratively (www.narrative.ly).