Where to stay, shop and dine in that other major Northwest city.
I’m going to simplify your holiday shopping — and give you a present at the same time. Here’s what you’re going to do: hop on a train to Portland. Why should you go to Portland? Oh, Grasshopper, let me count the ways…
First and foremost, Oregon is tax-free. As in, you’ve planned to drop three grand on gifts for your nearest and dearest, so why not save $300 in the process? You can spend all that money you saved on a schmancy trip to visit our granola brothers and sisters to the south — and do it in high style.
The main thing you need to know about Portland is that a day there feels just like an episode of “Portlandia.” The chickens actually have birth certificates and these peace-loving people will march in the name of just about anything. When I was there last week I saw rallies for bridges, healthcare and — I’m pretty sure — locally-produced Pinot Noir Fire hot sauce (as opposed to imported Sriracha).
This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because Portlandites care about the communities they foster — the Pearl District is a gleaming example — and food they serve you in a restaurant. The food in Portland, quite franky, kicks the ass of food in Seattle. Cheaper rents and a willingness to experiment make Portland the foodie capitol of the Pacific Northwest, I’m afraid — and the city’s sweep at this year’s James Beard Awards proves just that (for those not in-the-know, these are the Academy Awards of food). It’s great that Portland is a short, boozy train jaunt away — but sad that they’re schooling us in the art of innovative cuisine.
Sometimes, Portlandites can be excessively demonstrative. If all that gathering, marching and petition-signing makes you long for a brief respite at an apolitical establishment, then stay at The Heathman Hotel. Located within the gushing aorta of downtown Portland. The Heathman is an oasis of serenity that exudes the vibe of yesteryear — yet provides every contemporary convenience. You can even put on your thinking cap at the hotel — it is one of few hotels to offer a self-guided audio tour of the artwork that adorns its walls.
The hotel’s award-winning library is full of great books, signed by authors who laid their weary heads on Heathman beds. If culture is your cup of vodka, kindly note that the hotel sits adjacent to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, a venue that regularly plays host to world-class performing artists.
The rooms at The Heathman are spacious and comfortable, with top-of-the-line electronics and L’Occitane toiletries. Because it lies in the center of downtown, holiday shopping is mere steps from your door — Mario’s, Nordstrom, Mercantile and so much more are all within easy walking distance. Thus, The Heathman is an ideal launching pad for your adventures in retail therapy.
Exceptional downtown restaurants include the cocktail-rocking Ping and super swanky Little Bird Bistro. Ping is a healthy stroll from The Heathman, but you walk past Voodoo Doughnut and Stumptown Coffee Roasters on the way — both formidable Portland mainstays worth a pop-in. Once there check out Ping’s generous happy hour for shochu cocktails and drinking vinegars, and don’t miss the shisito pepper skewers. If upscale fun is more your speed, jaunt through the ever-entertaining Park Blocks to Little Bird. You’ll pass more face tattoos and dermal piercings along the way than you ever thought you’d see — but once you arrive, you’ll be ensconced in a food lover’s paradise that only boasts the freshest local ingredients.
If all that walking and shopping makes you want to sit for a bit, why not take a cab across the bridge to Le Pigeon? You will not find a better restaurant in Portland — after all, Chef Gabriel Rucker just won the James Beard Rising Star Award. This young chef, who wears a bedazzled hairclip as easily as his food-centric tattoos, works extremely hard in the same way a ballerina does. The dance is riveting and fluid, yet there is pain and deliberation behind it. Raw creativity is bridled by the right amount of steady calculation, and he knows exactly when to play the right note.
In the few hours I was at the restaurant, I witnessed Rucker fire dozens of small plates, invent a degustazione off-menu, personally call a taxi for a sated patron, joke amicably with his well-tuned staff and greet virtually every person who dined there as though they stepped into his home for a dinner party.
Since Le Pigeon is an open kitchen, there is less of a distinction between the front and back of the house. It’s obvious the staff was carefully curated, and I got the sense this is how it is at the restaurant when the curtain falls. It’s not an act — there are no theatrics. This chef and his crew have achieved a noble degree of success, but it’s apparent there’s more to come — so keep Rucker on your radar.
If you’re like me, a day spent traveling, shopping, luxuriating at the Heathman and dining in style will require a nightcap. Walk south for two blocks south of Le Pigeon and you’ll find yourself at The Rum Club. The club’s well-tailored menu of craft cocktails heavily emphasizes Oregon-based distilleries — the perfect ending to a perfect Portland day.