With uncharacteristic restraint, I decided to wait 48-hours after arriving in Portland to start stalking Gus Van Sant. Unless it comes to (early) Morrissey or (all) Rosanne Cash, I’m usually no hero worshiper. But so great an impression was Van Sant’s work upon my young gay mind that I had to retain some kind of hope that the master would appear before my eyes, however un-synchronistically (i.e., as the result of a frenzied manhunt).
As it turns out, I had thirty-six minutes before my self-imposed deadline ran out. While tippling in a trendy Pearl District haunt, I was informed by the chatty barman that "Mr. Van Sant lives in the condo upstairs." Darting my eyes to a possible conduit, I was stopped dead in my tracks by my new-found friend: "Not so fast, Sherlock. The elevator’s locked."
Momentarily crestfallen, yes; down, but not out. There was far too much else to capture my shifty little mind in Portland; too much general fabulousness to explore. Besides, after day one I was already plotting my return visit, and I knew that I could (please, God) run into the divine director then.
In a depressingly mass-produced age, Portland vigorously defends its sui generis status. Off many Easterners’ radar until the now-famous New Yorker article a few years back, The City of Roses is a much-studied model of urban planning, and rightly so. Even in an atypically cold December week, downtown was abuzz with shoppers, and the praiseworthy light rail system whisks residents to vibrant neighborhoods, each boasting a wide range of restaurants, cozy coffeehouses (the regionally roasted Stumptown brand is rightly revered), and - hallelujah! - indie bookstores. Portlanders are fiercely loyal to their neighborhoods’ relative righteousness, but it’s a good-spirited jostling for position: what everyone agrees on is that there’s no other city they’d rather call home.
With good reason, too. It’s hard to find another place with so many effortlessly nice folk- and, more important, people with nearly tangible measures of civic pride. Although Portland’s population is just over 500,000 (the region includes nearly two million souls), the city boats more cultural, gastronomic, and nightlife attractions than many burgs thrice its size.
As for LGBTers, progressive Portland embraces us at every turn. The openly gay mayor (who recently admitted to lying about having sex with an 18-year-old; he apologized to the gay community for the embarrassment it caused) is fairly symbolic of the tolerant attitude here: gays, lesbians-and a rather large contingent of girls-to-men-are seamlessly interwoven in the city’s social, economic, and political fabric. And while there are certainly committed gay bars, we’re welcome at watering holes in any neighborhood we’d want to be near. (Portland has its share of Tonya Harding-esque white-trash gun slingers, but they’re well sequestered in far-flung nabes, so no problem there.)
And the neighborhoods here are nifty. Long admired by urban and transportation planners alike, Portland’s a town where each neighborhood beckons with charms of their own. Typically, an old movie theater anchors the main street, which inevitably boasts an indie/used bookstore (a tradition maintained with utmost defiance), one cozy café, upscale and ethnic eateries, and at least one raging dive bar. Jane Jacobs, that great American urbanist, would be proud. In addition to a thriving downtown, Westside districts such as Nob Hill and the Pearl attract the monied crowd; and Eastside neighborhoods, notably Hawthorne, Alberta, and Mississippi call loud and clear to the boho set.
Food here is fabulous-and a major conversational component. Sustainable farming, production, and supply are big business in Portland; and while the tone can occasionally get preachy, it’s a sermon we all need to hear. From nouvelle American to ethnic eateries, there’s a wider range of cuisines to be savored in Rose City than in any other city of Portland’s size.
Under no circumstances should you miss the more than 400 food trucks that dot the cityscape: in privately owned lots, gaggles of as few as four and as many as a dozen proffer a dizzying array of delectables. Our favorites: trucks featuring poutines (French-Canadian fries topped with cheese curd and brown gravy); tasty soy burgers; Mexican food galore; and Jersey/Italian fried ricotta balls. (For the latest on which trucks are where, go to www.foodcartsportland.com ) Wherever you find them, these mobile marvels are utterly sui generis -much, in fact, like the paisley patterns of Portland itself.
THE NINES is P-town’s perkiest hotel, fashiony and fab. The postmodern froideur - small, severe-chic rooms, pretty-but-icy staff - is counterbalanced by a warm library and lively lobbyette behind the "Lost in Translation" lobby. Best of all is Urban Farmer, which serves three meals a day; the Benedicts are bountiful (steak and ham especially) and the blueberry pancakes set us to swoon. The gym is very well equipped, as is the Powell’s-blessed library. www.thenines.com
HOTEL MONACO, part of Kimpton’s boutique chain, is splendid- a wonderful blend of style and substance. The upbeat staff is full of good advice, and the fireplace-kissed lobby features wine tastings at 5pm. Rooms are good-sized and wonderfully warm. Big bonus: walking distance to two major bars and Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookseller (for people like us, worth a visit to Portland by itself). www.monaco-portland.com
HEATHMAN HOTEL, named one of the "world’s best places to stay" by Conde Naste Traveler, has been on the scene since 1927. Its traditional, woodsy tones bespeak Old Money, and the tea room is a gorgeously anachronistic hoot. The restaurant, mover-and-shaker laden at lunch, is helmed by James Beard Award-winner Philippe Boulot. A luxury landmark that’s Old Portland to the core, with a slick new veneer, thanks to a recent $4 million "greenovation." The library here entices with more than 2,000 volumes- big wow factor there. portland.heathmanhotel.com
INN AT NORTHRUP STATION is a less expensive boutique alternative to the downtown hotels. Situated in the Nob Hill/Northwest neighborhood, it’s a bit removed to the hip Eastside neighborhoods you’ll want to haunt, but certainly accessible by light rail. Don’t be put off by the slow-loading website; the ’50s-meets-modern suites are spiffy and your fellow travelers will be terrific here. www.northrupstation.com
Next :: Restaurants, nightlife, more...
CASTAGNA scared us; we’re not small-plates fans. But when we learned chef Matthew Lightner trained in San Sebastián, we couldn’t stay away. Good thing: Castagna gets our vote as best restaurant in town. Dishes derive from a key ingredient (duck egg, salsify, leeks) and show it off with primo technique and gastronomic integrity-usually, with just two or three complementary ingredients, not an army thereof. Celery root sounds ordinary, but forms an astonishing backdrop for boneless oxtails kissed by ash, apples, and cress; but then, there’s nary a misstep here. Phenomenally inventive cooking at once honest and sublime. www.castagnarestaurant.com
CLYDE COMMON is anything but. Located in the trendy Ace Hotel, this bi-level beaut is the restaurant of the moment, filled with pretty plates and prettier young things. Downstairs is a communal table popular among the local set, but we like the balconied tables up top even more. Lamb sugo and grilled trout are standouts at this modern American restaurant, and the wine list shines. For a taste of hot, hip Portland, Clyde is your "man." www.clydecommon.com
HIGGINS all but started this city’s local-ingredients craze when it opened in 1994. And although we rolled our eyes at the tired "nourish body and spirit" line and poorly penned, page-long (!) mission statement on the menu, we marveled at the kitchen’s offerings. Not to be missed: seasonal soups (chunky and tangy, not the anodyne baby food found elsewhere), seafood gratins, and well chosen wines. The trendoids have moved on, but connoisseurs of fine food have never high-tailed from Higgins. higgins.ypguides.net
LITTLE T AMERICAN BAKER is the brainchild of our tribe’s Tim Healea. Drawing on baking traditions from around the world and an extensive professional CV, Tim produces the best baguettes in town- and, quite possibly, the best croissants we’ve had outside France. His modern café is filled with loving locals and - yes! - castoff New York Times. Don’t miss the Stumptown-based coffees and luscious-looking sweets. www.littletbaker.com
TOAST requires a car (or much bus patience), but worth the haul for the best breakfast and casual lunch in town. Locally sourced ingredients abound, and we chuckled at the names of the fine-and-hearty fare: "The Occasional Hedonist" made us feel better about Hollandaise sauce on an onion tart and "Dismal Times" gave us a good reason to down ground beef, cheddar, and chives served on toast with eggs and rosti. Hey- anyplace that can make fun of its own clientele with "Hippies Use Front Door" (yah, granola) gets a very fat thumb’s up from us. www.toastpdx.com
VINO PARADISO’s chef/owner, Timothy Nishimoto, is a gay Renaissance man: he’s also a vocalist/percussionist in the acclaimed local Pink Martini band. (Check them out at www.pinkmartini.com) His food sings, too, especially honey- and cider-glazed pork belly and thin-crust pizzas, both veggie and non. Modern yet cozy, this bar/small plates winner is perfect for soloists and groups of pals both-friendly and fine, the name tells the story in full. www.vinoparadiso.com
Bump (and Grind) in the Night
BOXES/FISH GROTTO/RED CAP GARAGE is on what locals used to call Vaseline Alley (I know- how ’70s). This triple-threat (bar, fish resto, small dance club) is fairly generic, but attracts a lively young crowd. www.boxxes.com/boxxes www.fishgrotto.com
C.C. SLAUGHTERS slants slightly older, with mainstream gay dance music and an aggressively un-alternative crowd. www.ccslaughterspdx.com
EAGLE PORTLAND is the state’s premier (only?) leather club. Bear Naked Billiards and the Sunday Bear-B-Que (I’m not making this up) headline the proceedings. www.eagleportland.com
INVASION CAFÉ started as a coffee house, then morphed into a convivial bar (with cozy upstairs seating) and less-vulgar go-go alternative to Silverado (below). Shower scenes, Thursday. www.invasionpdx.com
SILVERADO is slutty, sir. The go-go hos are way hardcore; we haven’t seen stiffies on stage since pre-Giuliani Gotham. Some of the customers can get pretty amorous, too, especially as closing time (officially 2 am, but we hear the bar allows lingering - and fingering - till 3). www.silveradopdx.com
And Don’t Miss. . .
FIRST THURSDAY IN THE PEARL, a monthly art walk sponsored by the Portland Art Dealers Association. Free of charge, it runs between 5:30 and 8:30 pm-and is the perfect excuse for tastings in the Pearl District’s many wine bars. www.firstthursdayportland.com
HOUSE SPIRITS DISTILLERY is at the forefront of Portland’s craft distillery boom. Cofounders Lee Medoff and Christian Krogstad produce Medoyeff Vodka, Aviation Gin, and a host of "apothecary" special spirits. Event-sponsorship-generous to the GLBT community, their retail store is a charmer- and their products top shelf. www.medoyeff.com
PORTLAND ART MUSEUM is one of the Northwest’s major galleries; special exhibitions, such as the magnificent China Design Now (a paean to contemporary art and design), are usually more meritorious than the permanent collection itself. portlandartmuseum.org
PORTLAND Q CENTER is a small but mighty LGBT center executive directed by powerhouse Kendall Clawson, a seasoned nonprofit pro. The library is amazing and the staff a wealth of good ideas; check out special events at www.pdxqcenter.org