By Jonathan Butler, for Mr and Mrs Smith
Our first clue about Portland’s seamier side comes in the form of a taxi driver we flag down at the airport after a six-hour flight from New York. Of ex-Iron Curtain extraction, wearing little more than a mini skirt, high heels, and schoolgirl sweater, she seems outfitted for the nocturnal activities we’ve heard Portland is famous for. Eyebrows arched, Mrs Smith and I smile at each other in the backseat. It’s our 13th wedding anniversary weekend. Anything goes, no?
There’s a synergy between Portland and Brooklyn, and foodies, rockers, and unkempt creative types are said to feel equally at home in both. With N.Y.’s most populous borough not only our home but my professional focus, a few well-placed tweets and status updates have sorted out our entire restaurant itinerary and yielded an invitation to an underground rock show. All our tipsters are unsurprised, in fact a bit jealous, when we reveal our accommodation for the weekend: the edgy Ace Hotel.
Our scantily clad driver deposits us curbside outside the lobby and we amble in past hipsters in various states of recline on couches flicking through copies of Radar, Nylon, and The New York Times. A steampunky receptionist checks us in, then directs us to an elevator where a framed butterfly needlepoint reads, "You’d already be there if you’d taken the stairs." True, but we’re en vacances.
Opening the door to our corner suite, we chuckle at its perfection. When renovating our former crack-den brownstone, Mrs Smith had lobbied hard for a bathtub in our master boudoir, and lost. Here is a gorgeous claw-foot tub just a step up from the bed, with backing vocals from a panoply of Malin + Goetz products. Meanwhile, grabbing the attention of this demographic cliché is a turntable and aged box of vinyl. Records targeted with Google-ad perfection at the aging hipster include Isaac Hayes, Vampire Weekend, and, for that perfect dose of retro irony, Simon & Garfunkel.
After an afternoon a blur of food carts and still-plentiful-in-Portland record stores, we head for a lie-down of sorts. (Stop your blushing — this is our anniversary.) Emerging refreshed, we head on foot for the happening strip of East Burnside Street — Portland’s equivalent of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. We forge on past strip joints and skin flick theatres and tattooed homeless folks with dogs, heading towards the Doug Fir Lounge, a retro-fitted motel with subterranean rock club. (Photo courtesy of Mr and Mrs Smith Hotel Collection)
Here, at this mighty music venue, restaurant, and bar, we buy our new sound-tech friend Joe a drink to salute our boutique break. Over a whiskey, the former Brooklynite reveals Portland has more homeless people and more strip clubs per capita than any other city. "To experience the real Portland, what you gotta do to is go to the Paris Theater," he urges. "It’s a sex club, but no one will bother you in the couples section. You might have someone at the next table doing it though." Gulp.
Curveball though it is, it’s not entirely unwelcome, and visions a tad orgiastic dance in my head as we head off for a distinguished dinner at Le Pigeon. Louche though I sound — isn’t this the point of a Mr & Mrs Smith escape? "At least he didn’t suggest we experience the whole Portland shebang and give up our suite at the Ace to sleep rough," whispers Mrs Smith.
The tweeters were right — Le Pigeon is a delight — as deemed over foie gras bacon, peekytoe crab salad, and braised pork that falls from the bone with a touch of the fork. What better way to end a meal that starts with foie gras than with a round of foie gras profiteroles for dessert? Near comatose, we call a cab. The Paris Theatre is going to have to wait — our corner room at the Ace beckons.
After prodding Mrs Smith out of bed the next morning, downstairs we’re greeted with the welcome smell of fresh-brewed Stumptown Coffee. Early birds that we are, we secure two of the three free bikes available to guests (locks and helmets included) and head north through Nob Hill into the famed Washington Park. It’s a little more exercise than we’re used to, but worth it as we gaze from the elaborate International Rose Test Garden into the city. Somewhere down there, people are still at the 24-hour Paris Theater…
Next up is foodie destination du jour, Pok Pok. Here we devour spicy fish sauce chicken wings and locally brewed kolsch beer. Mrs Smith, once a wings snob, is well and truly converted. Repairing to our sanctuary at the Ace, we take another much-needed forty winks underneath a painted flag and the strapline, "Marlon Brando enjoys being mysterious." Indeed. I’ll bet he’d have made it to the Third Avenue adult movie theater.
After an afternoon of record stores and more big talk of big screens, our appetites drift to dinner. In-house restaurant, Clyde Common, is famous not only for its food, but also genius cocktails. Now, neither Mrs Smith or I are big Sex and the City-style tipple drinkers, preferring a local beer or wine. But since we’re going to a sex club and all… why not?
The Tonga Tonga (a more refined version of the old Martha’s Vineyard standby the Dark and Stormy) and Point Lobos (a dry, tart tequila, marmalade, and egg-white masterpiece) fortify us for dinner and beyond. What follows is spectacular — chorizo and squid, dandelion salad, broccoli rabe with crispy egg and house-made salami, and, according to our waiter, the other pork belly, pig’s cheek, served unexpectedly and brilliantly with a shot of bitters-based Trident.
Cocktailed up, we leave Clyde Common check out a "secret" show at Langano Lounge, a great, dingy basement bar on Southeast Hawthorne. The side project from the Dandy Warhols’ drummer is so good that we stay the entire set, surrounded by vintage-clad girls and long-bearded guys drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. And then, the moment of truth. Taxi to the Paris or home to Marlon Brando, and a freestanding tub in our vinyl-stocked, decked oasis?
Reader, we’ll leave you to guess the outcome — although anyone familiar with how inviting and comfortable a hotel so right for a couple of aging cool kids might be will swiftly predict the denouement. Rock ’n’ roll? Most definitely. Well, at least in its soundtrack…
A former journalist and Wall Street refugee, Jonathan now makes his living publishing Brownstoner.com, a real-estate-focused blog in Brooklyn, and running the Brooklyn Flea, now the most popular flea market in New York City. He's been honored by the Municipal Art Society, Historic Districts Council, and Citizens Union for his work in preservation and activating public spaces. When not making fun of people's renovation choices or praying it doesn't rain at weekends, Jonathan enjoys building Lego with his children and discussing with his wife Kira what renovations they cannot afford to do on their own brownstone property.