Obvious choices for a cafe in a converted drugstore might have been a Johnny Rockets-style fake-retro affair or an ironically medicine-themed hipster joint where your espresso comes in a urine-sample jar. More relieving than prescription-strength ibuprofen, the Nob Hill Old Pharmacy Cafe is neither of these, yet preserves one element of the midcentury soda shop worth hanging on to: that of an easy neighborhood haunt where you can practically take up residence and nobody cares.
The cafe is brand new, but it already feels like a Portland institution. In a way, it is: The previous tenant, old-timey Nob Hill Pharmacy, was immortalized in Gus Van Sant's 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy.
The new Old Pharmacy won't fill your prescription, unless your doctor orders you to eat cheesy sandwiches and pie (in which case, I want a referral). The broad but basic selection of American classics ranges from a zesty, nongreasy Reuben ($6.95) to a rich chocolate torte with fresh raspberries ($4.50), dwarfed by the 14-ounce "small" lattes ($2.50). These aren't the most exquisite culinary creations in town, but they do the job.
Menus spelled out on marquees above the counter lend a classic cafeteria feel, yet self-conscious nostalgia is all but missing: Apart from a leftover sign and peg-board walls, there's no pretense of re-creating a bygone era. The decor eschews design-y sleekness but also steers clear of corporate furniture and lite jazz—common pitfalls of low-concept cafes. The college-dorm-grade classic photo posters and random art on the walls are just generic enough to be ignored.
Here you can loiter without feeling like you're on display. Plugged into laptops and iPods with their Razr cell phones close at hand, patrons barely notice each other's existence. With free Wi-Fi and—hello!—24/7 service, the spot serves as a living room for studio-dwelling twentysomethings, who come in their comfy capris and strew their consumer electronics, nonfat lattes and Trader Joe's crackers about themselves as a sort of nest away from the nest.
This Old Pharmacy isn't hot, cutting-edge or healthy, but that's just what makes it hard to resist. Stop in, order something predictable and install yourself.
Nob Hill Old Pharmacy Cafe, 2100 NW Glisan St., 548-4049. Pastries, salads and sandwiches, 24 hours daily. $ Inexpensive.