Portland welcomes an enthusiasm for food. Long associated with quirky excess – nude bike rides, beard-grooming competitions and backyard chicken coops – this city combines a special brand of do-as-you-please West Coast liberalism with the region's fertile farmland.
The evidence is in the numbers. Portland is a city with 3000 restaurants, 600 food carts, at least 40 farmers markets and over 60 breweries – not to mention a wider region of wineries and Willamette Valley farms.
Portland chefs take a Dr. Seussian delight in pairing flavors and crafting mouthwatering names to line their menus. From a Bambino Plate (scrambled eggs, bacon, a biscuit and honey butter) to Pots of Gold & Rainbows ice cream (tastes like Lucky Charms), Portland thrives on a passion for innovative, local food, and it could take a lifetime to try it all. But in just one weekend, you can taste the highlights of Portland’s food and drink.
Gather your bearings in one of Portland’s pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. One of the latest iterations of the city’s blossoming hipster-hoods is a collection of blocks just east of the Willamette River on North Mississippi Ave. Browse Pistils Nursery (pistilsnursery.com) for ideas for your next terrarium (or discover that you want to create one), or head to Paxton Gate (paxtongate.com), a taxidermy curio store that’s less creepy than it sounds.
Next head over to one of Portland’s newest sudsy establishments: Ecliptic Brewing (eclipticbrewing.com). All chromed steel and malty aroma, Ecliptic fuses the head brewer’s love of beer with an astronomical theme (ecliptic is the term for the sun’s apparent path across the sky). Order a full pint or a flight of the cosmic creations, and spend some time pouring over the menu of pub food – an Ecliptic Burger made with local beef and aged gruyere, or fried russet potatoes drizzled with a malt vinegar aioli.
Rise early and head to Tasty n Alder (tastynalder.com) to start the day with Bim Bop Bacon & Eggs – a Korean-style bibimbap that includes brunchy ingredients with the traditional sautéed veggies and chili pepper paste served in an iron pot. Bring friends – the small plates encourage sharing.
After, trek northward to the Oregon Historical Society Museum to discover the historical basis for Portland’s obsession with food. In the 1800s an influx of settlers came to the area, drawn by the promise of vegetables the size of wagon wheels and a region of wild abundance. A permanent exhibit outlines the geological and cultural past of Oregon, giving some insight on the effects the landscape has had on its people.
Just north of Hawthorne Bridge, Tom McCall Waterfront Park encompasses over 36 acres of riverfront that replaced Harbor Drive in 1978 as part of a riverfront beautification project. Popular with joggers, bikers and strollers, it’s the perfect place for a walk among the cherry blossom trees.
By now you’ve worked up an appetite. A few blocks west, Voodoo Doughnut can help cure that ache. Long known for its commitment to experimental pastries – such as the bacon-maple bar – this Portland institution has become a bit of an attraction. Lines queue up outside the door, so plan on spending extra time here.
By 5pm – or earlier, we won’t tell anyone – it’s time for a beer. Catch a cab across the river to Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, one of Portland’s leading local breweries. Part of a ‘second wave’ of brewhouses that opened in Portland in the ‘90s, Hair of the Dog found a following with its envelope-pushing, high-gravity (high in alcohol content) beers.
A few blocks northeast, the kitschy-but-captivating Kachka (kachkapdx.com) expertly serves up Russian meals, a type of food that isn’t known for being the pinnacle of world cuisine. Blending a Portland interest in local ingredients with a Russian enthusiasm for vodka-centric meals, Kachka does more than just cross borders: the food is excellent and hearty, and the environment encourages a noisy good time…or maybe that’s the vodka (there’s a full menu of local and international brands).
Jumpstart the morning after with a foamy brew at Coava Coffee. In a space shared with a bamboo design company, this cafe takes a passion for coffee to its Portlandia conclusion: the beans are carefully selected and roasted in single batches (no blends are offered here), each described like a wine varietal, with placards detailing the beans’ producer, location and altitude.
Next have a stroll around the Alberta Arts District, a Northeast Portland neighborhood that’s become an ultra-hip hub of galleries, restaurants and shops. For the perfect summer treat, head to Salt & Straw (saltandstraw.com) for some gourmet ice cream. Or freshen up those tired dogs with some new kicks at Pie Footwear (piefootwear.net), which focuses on vegan, socially responsible footwear and will even recycle your old shoes.
Up next is Pok Pok, a Northeast Thai restaurant that’s become a leading Portland destination for foodies. What began with an enterprising cook in his yard has become a James Beard Award-winning formula with locations in New York and LA.
The original location might have a cobbled-together, street-food feel, but the food is as gourmet as anything in the city – papaya salad, pork belly in a curry sauce, beef collar and the restaurant’s renowned chicken wings. Most dishes are served with a healthy dose of red chilies, so order a refreshing vinegar drink to combat the heat.
As night falls, head into downtown. Hidden behind an unmarked door and up an unlikely staircase, Multnomah Whiskey Library (multnomahwhiskeylibrary.com) feels like the entrance to something illicit. Dark wood furnishings line the interior’s dim, windowless setting, and the knowledgeable staff scramble up bronze library ladders to access the 12ft-tall liquor shelves.
The entrance might be hard to find, but that doesn’t stop Portlanders from coming in droves – reservations are limited to Hall Pass holders ($25 for up to 8 people) or full Library members ($600 per year). Walk-ins are welcome but wait times can be lengthy.
Then head a few blocks east to Imperial (imperialpdx.com), one of Portland’s top restaurants. Opened in 2012, Imperial is the product of Chef Vitaly Paley’s hope to merge the city’s history with the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. Platters of local oysters served on rough-cut slices of wood recall the region’s logging past, and the dining area’s exposed brick and a bicycle chain chandelier illustrate the city’s hipster present.
The food is undeniably American, much of it cooked in the kitchen’s custom wood-fire grill, and it ranges from the inventive (Coca-Cola & PBR braised pork) to the classic (fried chicken with Texas pickles and local honey).
Knock back a fresh oyster on the half shell while thinking of a time when fortune was made in sawdust – or that tomorrow might be a nice day for a bike ride.
Alexander Howard traveled to Portland with support from Travel Portland (travelportland.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.