Perhaps as a byproduct of Portland’s feigned obliviousness to the indie rockers living among us, karaoke singing is a far more committed affair here than in other cities—it’s treated almost like a real show, instead of a boozy goof. (Sometimes actual musicians appear on the karaoke stages, and the audience pretends not to notice.) Nowhere is this truer than at Mazatlan Mexican Restaurant (2050 SW Morrison St., 295-1290) and Joe’s Cellar (1332 NW 21st Ave., 223-8825). Neither is a dedicated karaoke bar—Mazatlan limits its singing sessions to Thursday and Saturday nights; Joe’s to Sundays—but that only seems to concentrate the audience’s attentiveness. The crowds here, which tend to appear spontaneously and depart just as suddenly, will lustily applaud a dedicated interpretation of Neil Diamond or “Band of Gold,” though their highest compliment is to begin dancing.
For any-night-of-the-week renditions of Bonnie Tyler, turn around, bright eyes, to the east side. All the Chopsticks locations are popular, though several sources swear by the remote Chopsticks III (535 NE Columbia Blvd., 283-3900) for quick turnarounds between songs, as well as surprisingly good food. I cannot so vouch for the Asian grub at Sandy standbys The Ambassador (4744 NE Sandy Blvd., 280-0330, ambassadorkaraoke.com) or Yen Ha Lounge (this page), but the people-watching at both locations is spectacular. Closer to downtown, the Galaxy Lounge (909 E Burnside St., 234-5003) is belting out its last torch songs before it’s demolished to make way for a ritzier sequel called Trio, while The Boiler Room (228 NW Davis St., 227-5441, boilerroomportland.com) has terrific KJs marred by an infestation of Beavertrons, and The Alibi (page 7) has mesmeric DayGlo tiki decor marred by terrible KJs.
If this all seems too intimidating for your delicate constitution, you might prepare yourself amongst friends in the private rooms of Voicebox Karaoke Lounge (2112 NW Hoyt St., 303-8220, voiceboxpdx.com), which offers the sort of intimate Tokyo-style seclusion and high drink prices experienced by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (existential crisis and Scarlett Johansson not included). The one thing you won’t learn here, however, is the fundamental etiquette of the Portland karaoke bar: Tip your KJ no less than $1 per song. Not because you will move up in line, but because you are not an asshole.