Capital of cool: Portland, Oregon (Elle)

‘You know we have a vegan strip club here!? There’s a sign on the wall that reads “no fur, no cellphones, no leather”, and all the bar snacks are vegan!’ Paige Powell, erstwhile right hand to Andy Warhol, girlfriend of Jean Michel Basquiat and now the most photogenic animal rights activist-cum-art curator in the world, is back home in Portland and talking about a few of the things that make this remote Pacific North West town the hands-down coolest city in the States. It’s her birthday, and the small group around her table at Le’Happy, a boho candle-lit dive bar and creperie, is a cross section of Portland’s hipster monde. There’s the artist Philip Iosca, who helped design the Ace Hotel; filmmaker Gus van Sant; and Thomas Lauderdale, co-owner of Le’Happy, founder of the band Pink Martini, political activist and all-round Oregonian good egg.

Thomas has a theory about why Portland generates such an inordinate proportion of musical talent (local bands include the Gossip, the Dandy Warhols and the Decemberists): ‘Well… It rains a lot so you have to stay indoors and practice!’ Everyone I speak to references rugged frontier spirit and liberal attitudes – oh, and affordability. As Paige says, ‘You can work at a coffee shop, ride your bike to work and do your artwork on the side. People really enjoy what they do here, whether it’s making cookies or growing herbs for essential oils. When I left New York, Wall Street had become such an influence and Tribeca was full of double strollers.’ Gus van Sant, who speaks with the detached, not-quite-here air of Paige’s old friend Warhol, has his own theory as to why Portland is the way it is: ‘It’s a place that’s on its own, so you’re… abandoned together.’

Portland bonds through creative endeavours. Paige has recently curated the art for new five star hotel The Nines, installing work by hot local artist Storm Tharp as well as by her friends van Sant and Iosca. Iosca, in turn, was one of the creative directors on the refurbished Ace Hotel, which featured in van Sant’s early movie Drugstore Cowboy when it was still a flophouse. ‘Visually I still love that area in the Pearl District,’ says Gus.  ‘There are still a bunch of buildings there that are a throwback to the transient hotels.’

The lo-fi chic Ace Hotel is at the very epicentre of the city’s scene, and might just be the funkiest hotel in the world. It’s a paradigm of Portland cool, with in-room turntables and a box-o’-vinyl, and a lobby scene that incorporates a 60s b&w photobooth, the best coffee shop in town (Stumptown Roasters), and the coolest bar in the Pearl (Clyde Common, where the coasters are letter-pressed somewhat macabrely with a sketch of a meat cleaver). Last year the Japanese designer Takahiro Miyashita riffed on the Ace with his autumn/winter Number (N)ine runway show in Paris entitled My Own Private Portland: red grunge Elmer Fudd plaids strode the catwalk while the front row snuggled beneath Ace blankets.

The Ace is one block from the behemoth Powell’s City of Books, the largest used and new bookstore in the world. Open right through to 11pm every night, it’s ground zero for local ‘zine hounds, rare book collectors and really just about every Portlandian who can read.  If anything feels like the spiritual centre of the city, it’s the main branch of Powell’s.

While the Pearl district – which sits adjacent to downtown, Broadway and the city’s celebrated bronze 1917 Benson Bubbler water fountains – feels like Portland’s heart, it’s by no means the whole story. Yes, the Pearl has Andina, the Peruvian restaurant that has everyone going nuts for its mouth-tinglingly spicy Sacsayhuaman (pronounced ‘sexy-woman’) martini and its Alfajore cookies, but just across the river, on the east side, there’s the bare brick-walled Le Pigeon, where you can sit at the bar and watch chef Gabriel Rucker at close quarters as he cooks up a rustic storm. The eponymous bird reappears in tattoo form across Gabriel’s forearm, as well as in one of the restaurant’s most lush supper dishes.

‘This is the best part of Portland!’ insists Tres Shannon, co-owner (with the fantastically named Cat Daddy) of deeply alternative 24/7 patisserie Voodoo Doughnut. With his striped jumper, boot-cut jeans, specs, shoulder length hair and brightly coloured knitted hat, Tres looks like he’s just wandered, dazed, from an overturned Mystery Machine. The man who invented Froot Loop and bacon maple doughnuts, not to mention the Voodoo Doughnut wedding, drives me through the East Side en route to his new store, Voodoo Doughnut Too. We pass Le Pigeon and, next door, the Doug Fir Lounge, a kitschy-mod music venue and bar. ‘People talk about the Pearl,’ says Tres. ‘But this is where it’s happening! When we opened the new store we had a huge parade down here, with everyone on bikes, a marching band and Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandy Warhols.’

Much further east, there’s the slightly beatnik strip of Hawthorne and Belmont, reminiscent of a cooler Haight Ashbury, but with skateboards and the architectural folly of the Bagdad movie theatre. To the north is the up-and-coming Mississippi Avenue area, a haven for architectural salvage stalls, artisanal salts and nice hats.

The prettiest area in town is Nob Hill in the North West, where the tram finishes its loop amidst dense green tree lined avenues and elegant wood beam façade houses with decorous porches. Small boutiques run along NW23rd; the most notable is Seaplane, which has stocked local designers since it first opened in 2000. Two streets away, in an old Victorian house, there’s Paley’s Place, the hautest of cuisine destinations in the city, but still typically Portland – there are no tablecloths, and Vitaly Paley’s muscular use of local organic meats has found a fan in St John’s Fergus Henderson, who has been known to guest in the kitchen while visiting Vitaly and his wife. Paley’s Frisee aux Lardons & Bacon-Crusted Soft Scotch Egg isn’t so much good comfort food, as it is a big warm hug.

For all its star chefs, authors and filmmakers, the arts scene in Portland is far from male-dominated. Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Beth Ditto have both been guest teachers at Rock Camp for Girls, an alternative (in both senses) to summer camp. It’s become such a phenomenon that weekend-long camps are now being run for grown up women, raising funds for the girls’ weeks. Despite its success, its organisers repeatedly turn down reality TV offers and are careful to keep the celebrity aspects low-key; as one of the camp’s founding sisters, Lady Connie, explains, ‘The camp is about helping girls realise they can be whatever they want. The camp attracts girls who don’t fit in: they’re outgoing about music and fashion, but aren’t necessarily the popular girls or cheerleaders. It’s self esteem that we’re pushing.’

A similar spirit of indie can-do spirit inspired Laurie Lewis of Hip Chicks Do Wine to start her own winery with her partner in 1999. ‘We both enjoyed drinking wine, so we used our credit cards, got a second mortgage and made 500 cases of wine,’ says Laurie. Now they run a tasting room and make 5,000 cases a year, including a Bad Girl Blanc and an exceptional Muscat with tasting notes they liken to ‘a June’s bridesmaid caught in a rainshower.’ It’s a typical make-it-up-as-you-go-along Portland success story.

The author Chuck Palahniuk, who still lives here, commented in his irreverent travel guide to the city, Fugitives and Refugees, that Portland is populated by ‘misfits among misfits’. That might be, but fitting in has always been a much overrated pursuit.

ADDRESS BOOK

The Ace Hotel, Doubles from $95 (1022 SW Stark St, enq 503 228 2277)

Andina (1214 NW Glisan, enq 503 228 9535)

Doug Fir Lounge (830 E Burnside, enq 503 231 9663)

Le’Happy (1011 NW 16th Ave, enq 503 226 258)

Hip Chicks do Wine (4510 SE 23rd Ave, enq 503 234 3790)

The Nines Hotel (525 SW Morrison, enq 877 229 9995), Doubles from $159

Paley’s Place (1204 NW 21st St, enq 503 243 2403)

Le Pigeon (738 E Burnside St, enq 503 546 8796)

Powell’s City of Books (1005 W Burnside, enq 503 228 4651)

Rock Camp for Girls (8900 ‘A’ NE Vancouver Way, enq 503 445 4991)

Seaplane (827, NW 23rd St, enq 503 234 2409)

Voodoo Doughnut Too (1501 NE Davis, enq 503 235 2666)

HOW TO GET THERE

KLM  (enq 0871 222 7474, http://www.klm.com) fly up to three times daily from 15 UK regional airports to Portland via Amsterdam. Fares from £481 return.

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2 Responses to “Capital of cool: Portland, Oregon (Elle)”

  1. Liked all the good stuff you blokes have over there, its cool to see that the hippy movements of the 70’s are still alive and kicking – Peace Brother

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by GreenGalPDX: To be printed in April’s Elle Magazine: http://ow.ly/1pYf9 @Andina @LeHappy @Powells @PinkMartiniNews…

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