North and east of the Willamette River — No Tourists Need Apply.
Portland is a city of neighborhoods, each one unique. The Alberta district is home to artists and musicians, while Sellwood is known for antiques. Hawthorne has the hippies, and Belmont has the young, hipster crowds. Finally, Portland’s downtown and Pearl districts cater to the tourists and the moneyed set. While the latter areas are the slice of Portland that most visitors see (and there are many great restaurants and bars there,) it is the spots on the east and north sides of the Willamette River that hold the most allure for me. These are the establishments where the locals rule. You aren’t likely to run into many tourists in these spots but if you cross the Willamette and belly up to the bar you’ll find truly unique Portland experiences.
It’s a cool spring evening at Northeast Portland’s Free House Bar (1325 NE Fremont Street) where bar manager Ansel Vickery is busy juggling conversations and making cocktails. I sit at the bar watching the action and occasionally glance up at the TV to catch the score for some game that I care nothing about. To my right, a businessman unwinds after a long day, shrugging off his jacket and loosening his tie as he sips his beer; across the bar, two friends discuss the merits of tequila. On a back table, a large group of friends are throwing an impromptu wake for a fallen friend. They have begun telling jokes and reminiscing about the departed, no doubt comforted by fellowship — and no small amount of Jameson Irish whiskey. Sounds of laughter begin to roll in from the outside patio as the late afternoon turns to evening and the hours begin their slow, steady march to last call.
Free House Bar is the classic local watering hole with a twist. Located just across the Willamette River in inner Northeast Portland, Free House is easily accessible from downtown or the Mississippi district. Instead run-of-the-mill cocktails, Vickery and crew produce high quality, approachable drinks and offer an affordably curated spirits selection in addition to elevated bar food featuring selections from Portland’s Olympia Provisions.
“What we set out to do is to be a neighborhood bar and to provide the whole experience just turned up one or two notches,” explains Vickery.
“Everything we provide, you’ve had before, it’s just a little more thought out.” This is the type of place where one can order something as sophisticated as the Eggtooth (Bacardi 8 rum, Campari, Angostura Amaro, pineapple and lime juice,) or sit and sip a tallboy of Old German lager in a quiet corner. “What gets me amped is that people come here to have fun,” continues Vickery. “I would rather that they come here for the experience than for the cocktail in their hand.” Free House achieves that goal and is the perfect place for both serious cocktail aficionados and casual drinkers to enjoy themselves.
Old Salt Marketplace (5027 NE 42nd Avenue) doesn’t look like a typical neighborhood restaurant and bar because it isn’t. Housing a working butcher shop, restaurant, and bar all under one roof, Old Salt is the perfect place to explore the food and drink scene of Portland in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The bar offers a small but unique cocktail list.
Two favorites are the Old Salt Old Fashioned with a brown butter bourbon, and the Crystal Anthem made with Portland’s own Union Gin. Not a fan of gin? Ask the bartender to substitute local favorite DL Franklin vodka instead. Don’t miss the bar menu, with a house-made Slim Jim and my personal favorite, the ham and biscuit served with freshly whipped butter. After a few drinks, ask to move into the dining room where Chef Ben Schade is cooking some of the best food in the city.
Head south to Burnside street, which bisects Portland into its different quadrants (Northeast, Southwest, etc.) and you’ll find Laurelhurst Market. This beloved steakhouse-inspired brasserie has recently taken another step up the quality ladder with the additions of Chef Ben Bettinger and Bar Manager Kevin Ludwig. Formerly paired at Ludwig’s award-winning Beaker and Flask restaurant several years ago, both Bettinger and Ludwig have taken the strong suits of the restaurant and elevated them to greater heights.
While the cocktail list still includes such Laurelhurst classics as the Smoke Signals (a drink featuring smoked ice from original bar manager Evan Zimmerman,) new additions such as the Dock Ellis (a blend of whiskey, Cynar and Dolin Blanc vermouth) solidify an already impressive cocktail menu. Ask Ludwig to make his modern classic New Vieux, a riff on the New Orleans classic Vieux Carre, with rye whiskey, apricot brandy and Benedictine to see a true master at work. If you get hungry, Laurelhurst’s steak frites is well-regarded as the best steak for the money in Portland restaurant circles.
Up in North Portland, the Old Gold exemplifies the neighborhood’s laid-back vibe. “We’re like downtown but cheaper, and no one wears their hat backwards. And it’s just as hard to get a cab here as downtown,” notes owner Ezra Caraeff.
Old Gold, bar manager Andrew Finkelman admits, “For a neighborhood bar we’re pretty creative and loose with our program. While you can get a stellar Old Fashioned with a fine wheated bourbon, we’ve also included house cocktails that use everything from Kombucha [and] Absinthe gelées, to a cold-press made entirely out of whiskey and coffee. Our entire bar staff contributes and we constantly rotate our cocktail selection based on our clientele, the weather, and just general restlessness behind the bar.”
The results are impressive. An extensive whiskey list fills a floor-to-ceiling blackboard, and cocktails like the Herb E. Hancock (Aviation gin, fresh lime, muddled basil, thyme syrup and lavender bitters) as well as paired whiskey and beer combinations add up to more than just a neighborhood watering hole. Add in Finkelman’s regular whiskey classes, as well as the Old Gold’s take on creative but honest comfort food, and it’s no wonder that the spot draws a loyal following of both neighbors and service industry veterans.
Perhaps the best description of Portland’s bar scene comes from Old Gold’s Caraeff. “Portland has a fantastic bar scene,” he observes.
“More casual than pretentious, and with plenty of great bars tucked away throughout town. There is definitely a difference, but it seems like finding a good cocktail is an easy task, no matter the quadrant.”
I couldn’t agree more. While bars and restaurants like Free House Bar, the Old Gold, Laurelhurst Market, and Old Salt Marketplace represent the best of Portland’s “other” side, they make a great starting place to discover the drinks and hospitality throughout the city.