LynnAnn Hyde remembers the low-slung ceilings, little cocktail tables and oppressively dark ambience—punctured by tiny strings of Christmas lights (year round, it seemed)—of the storied, now-defunct Rabbit Hole. "It definitely looked like Al Capone's vault," the harmonica-blowin' roots musician says.
Though it's been almost a decade since she last played there, Hyde recalls all the tricks and trappings of the old Hole—a restaurant, bar and performance space that held down the street-level corner at 203 SE Grand Ave. from the late '90s to the early aughts.
Hyde isn't the only member of Portland's older music guard to remember the Rabbit Hole with nostalgia: Local luminary Pete Krebs (of Hazel fame) held down a regular gig there. Near-forgotten bands like indie-goth outfit Once In the Sun and the folkier Big Orange Splot attracted an egalitarian crowd. Several current Decemberists name-drop the spot as a social mecca during its songwriter-centric heyday. To this day, folk/rock songwriter Leigh Marble credits Rabbit Hole karaoke nights as a supportive environment that helped him find his voice and hone performance skills.
So when DJ Vinyl Richie spins out an opening tune this Saturday night at the East End—the newest business to inhabit the space—it will be something like poetic justice. The bar/restaurant/performance and music venue, opening Dec. 1, will burst out from its hallowed old space with a raucous weekend of local vis-arts, food, DJs and live music—much of it spiked with '70s-era psychedelia.
And the trio of wunderkinder behind East End is pure Portland scrappy ambition: all lowbrow sophistication and hometown pride and "connections." The leader of the pack is 31-year-old Gabe Lageson—latterly of retro power-pop outfit the Nice Boys, and a booker for Dante's. Lageson shook his head of big blond curls with enthusiasm while walking me through the new venue. No, not a venue, a bar. No, not just a bar—a "social place."
Lageson expounds on his all-reaching vision for East End: "The first priority is to be a great social place—a place to hang out," he says. "This is not gonna be just another bar on this street. There's going to be a strong local vibe. It's going to be its own big thing, soon."
"Soon" means soon for Lageson, as he and East End co-conspirators Michelle McDonnell of the Fashion Design Camp (like a clothing-biz version of the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls) and Anthony Mengis, a soon-to-be-erstwhile Virginia Cafe bartender with inky black hair and a slippery smile, just took ownership of the space on Nov. 1. They've basically been living in the space—"8 am to 2 am every day," the go-go styled McDonnell says—to complete the transformation in a month's time. Props lie about that attest to their efforts: oversized speakers piled in a corner, dusty couches retrieved from the recently defunct Coach Hotel, a half-eaten bag of peach rings.
Lageson wears a peacoat and perfectly disarrayed scarf to conceal paint stains on his plaid shirt. In fact, he's been up to his ears in gold paint: The upstairs walls alone took six coats of school-bus yellow to cover dance-club Noir's previous, goth-friendly look. "That was a surprise," Lageson says. "But everything that doesn't work out, the surprise is way better ."
Two of his better discoveries have been local artist/designers Pete Heim and Thor Drake. They've dug through and chopped up all sorts of metal and wood to piece together handsome new bars for the space. In honor of their efforts, a drink named "Thor's Flirtini" will adorn the menu. "There's a total sense of community here," McDonnell says.
From upcoming acts like folkie Kele Goodwin to "powerpop legend" and personal friend Wreckless Eric, from local vis-artists Jake Cartwright and Corey Smith to a resident chef nicknamed "Mattress," East End is a decidedly close-knit affair. Hyde, who hasn't returned to the space since around 2000, thinks the evolution is promising: "There was always a really diverse crowd there, and great music," she says. "If they can bring it back, then God, that's so cool."
East End, located at 203 SE Grand Ave., opens Saturday, Dec. 1. Visit eastendpdx.com for more info and upcoming shows. Photo: Michelle McDonnell, Gabe Lageson and Anthony Mengis (left to right), taken by Leah Nash.