3356 SE Belmont St., 503-235-6041, aaltolounge.com. 5 pm-2:30 am daily. Happy hour 5-7 pm daily: $3 cocktails and snacks.
Seventeen years ago, the sudden installation of fussily hip Aalto Lounge felt less like gentrification of moldering Southeast Belmont Street than settlement by aliens. The Aalto hasn't played clubhouse to whirling throngs of the trendsetting elite for some time, but the old girl still attracts an enviable coterie of stylish regulars. In its way, retirement from the demands of ruthlessly au courant regulars has helped the bar blossom. There are fewer celebs working the decks (cough, Malkmus, cough), but rock-star DJs always suck anyways. The citywide smoking ban opened up a lovely back patio, and, absent the ever-present fog of tobacco, the back room's wall-spanning vintage cigarette ad appears somehow more triumphant.
If cocktails seem steeped in sugar and whimsy—the Eye in the Sky (bourbon, lemon, house raspberry and vanilla syrups; $9) juggles sidecar and parfait—there's a refreshing kick to even the daftest blends. Treating Jell-O shots with unprecedented seriousness, on the other hand, has brought forth the faintly genius notion of trad cocktails (the paloma, say; $3) writ in gelatin and served in highball glass with spoon. About their legendary happy hour menu, we'll say only that the grilled cheese and tomato soup ($3) would seem cheap at triple the price. Bars of the moment may thrive upon an aggressively championed reputation for good taste. They endure by serving things that taste good.
Bar story: Contrary to popular rumors linking Aalto to New Orleans hip-hopper BBass, the bar actually takes it name from a different sort of artist altogether: Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was an enormously influential Finnish architect and sculptor arguably best known for the Aalto lounge chair. Designed to ease the breathing of tuberculosis patients in the Paimio Sanitorium, the structural marvel consists of a thin plywood sheet undulating between two closed rhomboid loops of laminated birch, and slightly resembles a Bluetooth earpiece.