Portland, alternative capital of the American Northwest

What do Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, director Gus Van Sant, charismatic singer Beth Ditto from Gossip and the independent rock band The Decemberists have in common? None other than that they have all lived or are still living in Portland, which is probably not unrelated to their uniqueness in the American cultural landscape. Imaginative, non-conformist and “arty”, Oregon’s main city is ahead of its time and cultivates a certain way of life based on sustainable development, solidarity economy and cultural vitality. As for gastronomy, it is simply one of the most famous in the country. Welcome in Portland!

Portland

From grey to green

The first impression is sometimes misleading: if we consider the dozen or so metal bridges with spider structures that span the Willamette River and the absence of grace in the buildings that make up the city centre, we can easily imagine an industrial and unattractive city. Far from it….

While the city of origin lived from the processing industry and remains a major centre of trade and transportation, today’s Portland, with the growth of high-tech companies, has seen its economy diversify dramatically. Columbia Sportswear Company and Nike were both established in Oregon and Adidas’ U.S. headquarters are located in Portland.

Portland has been best known as a model of urban planning since 1972, when its downtown program defined the guidelines for development, architecture and public transportation. Wishing to become the greenest city in the country, Portland, like the Scandinavian countries, is embarking on colossal eco-neighbourhood projects, with buildings that are self-sufficient in water and energy, built using local materials and respecting environmental standards. For example, there may be a building heated by a pizza oven on the ground floor or elevators operated by wind turbines installed on the roof of a building. Another ambitious and proactive approach, the city has decided to impose the construction of green roofs on all new building constructions (offices and housing).

While in these eco-neighbourhoods, priority is given to electric cars and public transport, it is nevertheless the bicycle that is the subject of a true religion. It has become a real art of living, just like organic, tattoos and independent rock.

Locavore always, organic if possible….

The inhabitants of Portland convey such an image of cool, natural, tattooed and alternative locavores in the rest of the country, obsessed with their food hygiene, that they are the subject of a series (gently) mocking their daily lives, Portlandia, broadcast on the IFC channel. It is not surprising that one of the city’s mottos is: Local, always, organic whenever possible. Fast food restaurants have been banned from the city centre and the only chain present, Burgerville, offers burgers made with local products.

Portland hosts several local farmers’ markets between early spring and late fall. The most important are located in the Cultural District. About a hundred exhibitors sell fresh produce from the Greater Portland area. Enjoy the family atmosphere, slumped on the grass, listening to live jazz, blues or rock music and savouring delicious prepared dishes. Along the aisles, you will discover white truffle stands, cold cuts, cheeses, homemade pastries, fresh fruit juices (cranberry), fragrant and colourful fruits and vegetables, and hazelnuts, of which Oregon is a major producer. If fruit and vegetable stalls are so popular, it is because many Portland residents claim to be veggie: it is therefore common to see mention on real estate ads: “Seeking a friendly and vegetarian tenant”!

The trend is also towards homemade beer! Together with Cologne, in Germany, the city, nicknamed “Beervana”, has the most microbreweries (53 at the beginning of 2014). These are mainly based on local resources: organic barley and hops and natural spring water.

In the kingdom of food carts

Symbol of the uniqueness of the city, the food carts are a local crossroads of the caravan and the French fry shack. Today, no less than 600 colourful and thematic trucks offer a culinary world tour. From Argentina to Korea, Scotland, Georgia or South Africa, individual initiatives flourish thanks to the simplified installation procedures established by the municipality. Far from junk food, many of them have been awarded for the quality of their cuisine and several renowned chefs have started their careers in the narrow kitchen of one of these food carts. At lunchtime, long queues form in front of the most famous ones. The dishes, served on recyclable or compostable plates, are eaten on site. While there are some all over the city, the best places to taste this cuisine are the pods (often public car parks), where there is an impressive concentration of stands.

Independent rock and alternative cultures

If the slogan Keep Portland Weird is proudly displayed on the city walls, rest assured, Portland is sane. Refuting the so-called mainstream culture, the city has become the cradle of a certain American counter-culture. It is perhaps in the musical field that this is most tangible. Unlike Seattle, which has seen its notoriety jump thanks to the grunge movement that was born there, Portland, outside of any current, has been able to seduce above all thanks to low rents and a local ecosystem conducive to emulation. Many artists have settled there, leading in their wake to the multiplication of clubs and concert halls (Mississippi Studios, Wonder Ballroom and Crystal Ballroom) and the development of independent labels. In a city with an average age of 29 years, the basements of houses have been converted into recording studios, events have multiplied and creative exchanges have challenged commercial logic. Among the natives, exiles and converts, we can mention, among others, The Shins, Gossip and its singer Beth Ditto, Elliot Smith, The Decemberists, Pink Martini, The Dandy Warhols, Fleet Foxes.

In other artistic fields, celebrities contribute to the city’s creative bubble: writers (Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club), filmmakers (Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes), scriptwriters (Matt Groening, the Simpson father).

Our good plans

Getting around

Rent a bike: To live like a real Portlander, there’s nothing like a bike. In Portland, the cyclist is king and reserved lanes allow him to travel easily (320 km of bike paths), even in the middle of Downtown. In addition, it is a pleasant way to stroll along the Willamette River and explore the outlying areas. The tourist office issues a free map of the cycle paths. You will find bicycles for rent in many hotels or in specialized stores such as Waterfront Bicycles (10 S.W. Ash St., in Old Town/Chinatown).

Accommodation

Jupiter Hotel – 800 E. Burnside St. – t 503 230 9200 and 877 800 0004
The revisited version of the American-style motel: vintage decoration very 1950s, rooms with minimalist and refined decoration but nevertheless carefully designed. All of Portland summarized in this style, chic but discreet. A very friendly rock n’ roll atmosphere at the Doug Fir Lounge bar-restaurant and concert hall, a kind of large log cabin with retro furniture that offers many concerts by local rock bands. Bicycle rental.

To book your accomodation in Portland, visit Findhotel.

Eating out

Organic Markets: Cultural District – between S.W. Park Ave. and S.W. Salmon St. – merc. 10am-2pm, especially at Portland State University (S.W. Park Ave. and S.W. Montgomery St. – March-Oct. : Sat. 8:30am-2pm; Nov-Feb. : Sat. 9am-2pm)

Food carts: in Downtown – at the corner of S.W. 10th St. and Washington St., S.W. 3rd St. and Starck St. and S.W. 5th St. and Starck St.).

Restaurants : The Pigeon – 738 E. Burnside St. – tel. 503 546 8796 Gabriel
Rucker was one of the first chefs to arouse the enthusiasm of American food critics for a Portland restaurant. His success has taken the complexity out of many of his colleagues who make Portland a gourmet destination. In this small room with its rustic-chic décor and open kitchen, you will enjoy profiterolles with foie gras, lamb, beef bourguignon and offal, served with local vegetables. Beautiful work.

Drink a drink

Hair of the Dog – 61 S.E. Yamhill St. – tel. 503 232 6585Microbrewery
, but huge space amplified by high ceilings and large wooden beams. Interesting variety of homemade beers and some specials worth a visit: Otto from the Wood, a blend of peach and cherry beer, and an imperial stout aged 15 months in bourbon casks! Terrace on sunny days.

Multnomah Whiskey Library – 1124 S.W. Alder St. – t 503 954 1381
A Portland must-see. Incredible wall of delicately lit bottles behind an old wooden bar, Chesterfield armchairs, bricks and tapestries. Service of absolute professionalism. A small restaurant whose quality perfectly matches the elegance of the place. A chic and distinguished address in which you feel particularly comfortable.

Southeast Wine Collective – 2425 S.E. 35th Place – tel. 503 208 2061 In the
heart of the vibrant Division district, this wine estate run by the young Kate and Tom is complemented by a tasting room with large bay windows overlooking the cellar. You can discover the very good wines of the estate and those that Southeast Wine Collective represents, coming from small producers in Oregon working as craftsmen. Small fine restaurant very well elaborated, friendly atmosphere. An excellent address.

Going out

Mississippi Studios – 3939 N. Mississippi Ave. – Tel. 503 288 3895
This temple of independent music is a bar, restaurant and concert hall. You can really breathe in Portland’s non-conformist spirit and immerse yourself in the contagious energy of the northeastern neighbourhoods. Quite advanced programming (rock, pop folk) and a relaxed atmosphere.

Gourmet weekend in Portland

The centre of Portland is warm, welcoming and absolutely charming with its red brick buildings, its docks projecting into Casco Bay and its fishing boats.

Marked by a major locavore wave and described as “Foodiest small town in America” in 2009 by Bon Appetit, Portland is irresistible for food lovers.

Overview of a long and tasty weekend.

For the pleasure of brunching

Becky’s Diner.

Pay attention! As you drive through the streets of Portland, you’ll see more than one car with the “Becky’s Diner, Nothin’ Finah” sticker on it! “Becky’s Diner is an institution in Portland. Locals and visitors crowd along the counter or on the beautiful terrace on the second floor to enjoy their famous blueberry pancakes above the docks, overlooking the bay (390 Commercial Street).

Marcy’s Diner.
Friendly dinner with a varied menu, including omelettes as thin as a pancake to garnish to your taste. For an omelette that goes off the beaten track, top it with their slightly spicy meat chili and cheese. All served with thick crispy roasts (47 Oak Street).

Porthole Restaurant.
Located directly on the Portland docks since 1929, Le Porthole is a charming establishment where you can eat lobster at brunch. Lunches and dinners are also served. In good weather, you can enjoy its terrace along the quays. (20 Custom House Wharf).

They have renovated since my visit. The scenery is no longer as picturesque (I liked the pale blue wall and the old posters). Nevertheless, it is still a choice address.

A lunch at the DuckFat

Chef Rob Evans is one of the chefs who helped establish the Locavore philosophy in Portland. Its renowned Hugo’s restaurant (88 Middle Street) is one of the most famous in the city. Whether you have the chance to dine there or not, you have to plan a lunch at the Duckfat, Chief Evans’ high-end delirium.

As its name suggests, duck is in the spotlight, both in their salads or paninis with duck confit and in their famous chips cooked in duck fat (which can be served with homemade ketchup with truffles, among other things). For dessert, we buy a Tahiti vanilla milkshake, a tasty and refreshing treat (43 Middle Street).

Unavoidable Lobster rolls

What would a stay in Maine be without Lobster roll?

While they are easy to find (they are on the menu in many restaurants), they are not always satisfactory. Who’s interested in a mayonnaise sandwich with shredded lobster on top? Instead, we want a roll generously filled with beautiful large pieces of lobster, nothing less! Here are some establishments where the Lobster rolls will not disappoint you.

Portland Lobster Co.
Very little, if any, mayonnaise, the Lobster roll from Portland Lobster Co is a sure bet in the heart of the city centre. To be enjoyed at the outdoor counter, with your feet hanging at the end of the platform! (180 Commercial Street).

The Lobster Shack at Two Lights.
You have to leave Portland and drive about 15 minutes south to Cape Elizabeth and taste the delicious Lobster rolls of the Lobster Shack at Two Lights. A true institution, be prepared to line up if you go there on a sunny summer’s day.

But this little wait is worth its weight in lobster; well toasted bread, generous topping, mayonnaise “next door” to control the amount added… but above all, taste it all with a view of the sea, it’s priceless! (225 Two Lights Road, Cape Elizabeth).

3 suggestions for dinner

Fore Street.
Booking a table at Fore Street should be a reflex as soon as you plan to move to Portland! With chef Evans (Hugo’s and Duckfat), Fore Street chef Sam Hayward is among the city’s most renowned chefs. Its motto: local and organic as much as possible. Moreover, as you enter the restaurant, you can see on the right the pretty glass room where the fruits and vegetables of the day are placed, and where the cooks will draw during the evening. We know this, because the kitchen is open to the dining room, so you can enjoy the show of busy cooks in front of the wood-burning ovens throughout the evening.

It is difficult to talk about the menu with any precision since it changes daily depending on the harvests and arrivals. If you are lucky enough to see it à la carte, the seafood tasting tray (which includes several bites of tartar and ceviche) is a great introduction. On the plate, the scallops were fresh and medium. Even the bread served on Fore Street is a treat in itself.

Such an interesting restaurant that remains unpretentious (the waiters are made of jeans), it really tastes like coming back! (288 Fore Street)

Caiola’s.

A Mediterranean-style cuisine, generous, both chic and franquette. The antipasti tray is very interesting. When they are on the menu, we also taste polenta fries for a little crunch! On beautiful summer evenings, the nicely illuminated wooden terrace creates a charming atmosphere. A little away from the busy streets of the centre, Caiola’s is worth a visit. (58 Pine Street).

Street & co.

More classic, the Street & co offers mainly fish and seafood. Located in the pretty brick-walled dining room, you can enjoy clam pasta, garlic butter lobster, and whole grilled fish. As a starter, the lobster bread pudding was a success. (33 Wharf Street)

Bresca.

To get the chance to eat at this address I heard a lot about during a long weekend in Portland, don‘t do like me and go there on Saturday evening: they are closed on Sundays and Mondays. As for me, better luck next time… (Read: a good excuse to go back!) (111 Middle Street).

Good beers from Maine

Maine, where many microbreweries produce hundreds of beers, is a paradise for beer lovers.

While staying in the Portland locavore, you can choose Shipyard, Allagash, Gritty’s, Geary’s, Sebago, Sea Dog and other beers brewed directly in town or within a few kilometres of it.

To enjoy a local beer on the terrace:

I’m Oyster.Nice establishment on the docks. Ideal for an aperitif, a few oysters and a good beer. The waterfront terrace is charming (5 Portland Pier).

The Thirsty Pig. You can enjoy a local beer with various homemade sausages. Nice terrace at the back (37 Exchange Street).

A sweet note

Two FatCats Bakery.
Behind the yellow facade of Two Fat Cats are a host of old-fashioned pastries, including their famous whoopie pies (mentioned on The Best Thing I Ever Ate on the Food Network, fall 2010). Far from being a pie, these half biscuit half cake treats will fill the sweet tooth of more than one gourmet (47 India Street).