This is not a roundup. There are hundreds of bars in Portland, Oregon, and I understand that people are as fiercely loyal to them as they are sports teams. So don’t be confused, I’m not giving you a definite list of the absolute best bars in Portland. Rather, I am simply sharing with you my absolute favorite places to grab a beer or cocktail in PDX.
The Rookery Bar
Tawny and I prefer ambiance over almost anything else when we go out drinking. We crave a dimly lit mahogany stacked room, bejeweled with first editions, a fireplace in the corner, and a brawny barkeep clad in a canvas apron muddling mint he picked this morning. If any of that speaks to your heart, then you should take a peek at the Rookery Bar. Perched above its sister restaurant, the Raven & Rose, this bar is housed in the former hayloft of the 1883 Ladd Carriage House. It has a warm glow, food that takes its cue from the English countryside, rich leather seating, and oft times live Irish music. It is the sterling precision and care put into these unique cocktails and ambiance that sets the Rookery apart for us.
For an even darker feel, the Expatriate is a cross between an opium den and a Russian novel. There is a massive moon gate framing the liquor shelf and a handful of candles whispering in each corner. You’ll encounter a nostalgic vibe of time-weary travelers and storytellers lounging with friends. The cocktail menu reads like spell book and has amazing gems like “An Arranged Marriage” (Amaro Ciociaro, fresh ginger syrup, fresh lemon, J.T.S. Brown Bonded bourbon, Cocchi di Torino Sweet Vermouth, and Angostura bitters) or the “Bellwether” (Famous Grouse Blended Scotch whiskey, fresh orange and lemon, BG Reynolds vanilla syrup, and Fever Tree Ginger Beer). For the serious traveler or the weekend warrior, the Expatriate has all the charm one could desire.
Viewfinder Tip: If you’re thinking of drinking downtown, try taking the MAX Light Rail. This urban railcar connects the majority of PDX and keeps you off the road.
The Oregon Public House
One of my all time favorite bars in Portland is the Oregon Public House. This Pacific Northwest pub serves up warm feelings in both pints and principles. Billed as the world’s first non-profit pub, Oregon Public House donates 100% of their profits to a charity of your choosing. You select your charity from a rotating list of good causes printed on a blackboard hung above the taps as you order. Entirely staffed by volunteers, and with a woodsy, brick and mortar charm, this bar has a wide selection of local brews and all the good vibes you can handle. If you want to drink and give back to the community, then this is the spot.
Spin Laundry Lounge
It would be truly neglectful for me to talk about our favorite Portland bars and not mention the Spin Laundry Lounge. This is the epitome of youth-driven PDX. It is a laundromat (a really nice one I should mention, with some great industrial washer/dryer combos) that has a small arcade and a solid bar upstairs. Because, honestly, why should you have to choose between grabbing a beer with friends and doing your laundry. Thank you, Portland, you glorious hot bed of innovation.
Along a more classical line is Rum Club. Rum Club isn’t as tiki–themed as say Hale Pele (another amazing bar in PDX), but it walks a delicate line between kitsch and class. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it specializes in rum, but it does also boast a large section of other innovative cocktails. In my opinion, not-to-be-missed numbers include: the “Beauty School Dropout” (Aged Light Rum, Jamaican rum, Blanc Vermouth, Crème de Pêche, lime, and bitters) or “Under the Volcano” (Rum Club Black Barrel, Madeira, egg white, pineapple and lemon, cinnamon syrup, and bitters). If you’re looking to branch out from rum, you could always try a classic “Montoya’s Promise” (rye whiskey, Jamaican rum, Campari, Mandarin Liqueur, Blanc Vermouth, lemon peel, and big cube). Sidle up to the horseshoe-shaped bar and slip back into an easy evening.
Pépé le Moko
This non-roundup list is now chock full of my favorite bars in Portland, but I wouldn’t feel right sending you off into the black without one last suggestion. Pépé le Moko’s claim to fame is “the world’s best amaretto sour.” I traditionally don’t buy into bombast like that, but when master mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler makes a claim, he puts his money where his mouth is. The overproof bourbon and egg white really seal the deal on the amaretto sour. The bar lies in wait behind an unmarked door. Upon entering this subterranean lair, you’ll find a mid-century modern alcove that gives a solid nod to the Parisian bars of Dalí and Hemingway. The food is modern yet whimsical, like cumin roasted pistachio nuts and Nutella with Jacobsen sea salt. I love this spot because it is a true retreat.
As this isn’t a roundup, I know I missed some great bars. Since Tawny and I love doing boozy research, tell us what you love in the comments below, and I promise to go check it out.