235 SW 1st Ave., novacancylounge.com.
If you told Rick Sheinin that No Vacancy Lounge is unlike any Portland club you've ever set foot in, he would take it as a compliment. Sheinin played in Portland punk and hardcore bands in the late '90s and early 2000s, but it wasn't until 2011, when he returned from a trip to Europe, that he decided to investigate the club scene. He did not like what he found.
"The biggest thing clubs lacked was an identity that tied them to Portland," says Sheinin. "They were trying to be like Las Vegas and New York, but it didn't fit. It was cheesy. Some places would have really good music, but then you'd get a drink that tasted like rubbing alcohol, or your feet would stick to the floor. I thought, 'I'd like to come back here, but why?'"
Sheinin's first attempt to answer that question came in 2014, when No Vacancy began in earnest as an after-hours party in the Northwest Portland offices of FOMO Media, the startup where he worked at the time. By cramming in a DJ, a cash bar and 40 friends, Sheinin and co-founder Billy Vinton tried to bring the energy of a club to almost any space while keeping the long lines, surly security and overpriced drinks out of the equation. Portlanders quickly caught on, and a year later No Vacancy had grown from an ersatz office party to a nomadic nightclub experience, with Sheinin and Vinton using their own sound and lighting rigs to transform venues like Holocene, Doug Fir Lounge and Produce Row into temporary homes for their evolving vision of how a nightclub in Portland should look and feel.
Last December, that evolution culminated in No Vacancy Lounge. Housed in a century-old downtown space that until 2009 was McCormick & Schmick's original restaurant, it is the most ambitious club experience the Rose City has seen in years. It's driven by its owners' ideals of how club culture should appear through the lens of Portland, which means its drinks are top-notch, its happy hour is popping, and its operation is as user-friendly as possible. It is, in a sense, a big-city nightclub for people who never knew they'd enjoy such a place.
It's also Willamette Week's 2018 Bar of the Year.
It's easy to imagine some other aspiring club owner turning the 5,100-square-foot space, with its two stories, including a mezzanine and piano loft converted to a DJ booth, into a soulless warehouse with a stage. Sheinin and his partners knew the only way to stand out was to flip the script by focusing on things he felt most other clubs considered incidental when he first dove into the scene.
"There were a lot of places that played really good music, but that was it," says Sheinin. "No one went there for the atmosphere or the experience. I think it should be the other way around, where you know it's Friday night and you like the vibe and the drinks, and it happens to be that the music is also killer."
The first order of business was ambience. Replete with rich, lacquered surfaces, intricate iron work, glistening wood columns and a custom lighting array that can change the room's mood from an amber-hued rave to a neon-soaked discotheque with the flip of a switch, No Vacancy strikes a careful balance between timeless glamor and a futuristic Technicolor utopia. The dance floor is front and center, but a handful of booths are there when revelers want to slink off for a breather and an unhurried sip of a Manhattan.
The next task was creating a bar that was both high-end and efficient. To do this, general manager Marcus Chase and bar manager Zach Edwards created a draft cocktail system that can dispense an amontillado old-fashioned, a vucare or a gin rickey as fast as a beer. Edwards spent hours figuring out how to engineer acids to replace real fruit juices that are likely to spoil and ruin the four-tap system in the process. His efforts pay off handsomely when the club, which has a 350-person capacity, is completely full but drink lines rarely take more than a few minutes to negotiate.
The net result is a club experience that scales easily from a rowdy Friday with a touring DJ from Norway to a mellow weeknight happy hour. On a recent early Thursday evening, a handful of 30-somethings in suits sipped cocktails at tall tables while a group of young women with laptop bags threw back beers and danced to a soundtrack of vintage soul and R&B. Walk in on a Sunday and you might even find a jazz band on the stage. It's a surprising scene to see at a nightclub on the edge of Old Town, but when you consider the lengths No Vacancy went to create an atmosphere that's far from most Portlanders' preconceived notions of a nightclub, it all feels like part of the plan. Sheinin knew some things would be left to chance no matter what, but even the most negative feedback he's received about the club feels like compliments thus far.
"One person complained about how we were overstaffed," says Sheinin. "We've also heard that even though we don't have a dress code, people who come back go out of their way to look nice the second and third times. We don't tell them to, but it really says something that they want to come back all dressed up."