The space at Northwest 5th Avenue and Davis Street has lived many lives the past few years.
First, it was the grimy music venue Someday Lounge. After that, it was the Vegas-inspired Fifth Avenue Lounge. Now, for its third and easily weirdest act, the building has been transformed into Barbarella (125 NW 5th Ave., 503-208-2687), a dance club with dirt-cheap drinks, themed parties running from the '50s through the '80s and an overall vibe best described as "a straight person's idea of a gay bar."
Part of a chain of clubs that first launched in Austin, Texas, a decade ago, Barbarella's aesthetic is as delightfully kitschy and low-budget as a bar named after a campy sci-fi cult classic should be. In some ways, it resembles next-door neighbor Ground Kontrol with the games removed. A painting of a topless woman and her flowing, glittery black hair sprawls across the wall of the elevated dance floor, joined by a pair of tributes to Barbarella herself, Jane Fonda—one on the main dance floor's sealed archway and the other by the second-floor restrooms.
There are lava lamps, pinball machines and a loft decorated with gently damaged midcentury living room furniture and a staticky analog TV set that would seem more appropriate if the place were called Poltergeist. The only 21st-century features are the video projections and gently rippling rainbow LED lights behind the pre-existing sheet-metal grates.
On paper, Barbarella should be a sensation, particularly with central eastsiders who rarely deign to cross the river into the Old Town entertainment district. Sure, the lack of specialty drinks feels like a missed opportunity, and even the bartender recommended against ordering food. But with no cover charge and wells at or below $2 each, you'd imagine the place would be packed with people headed to or from the arcade bar, the gay strip club or the scores of other party spots in the neighborhood.
But having just opened on Valentine's Day, Barbarella is still adjusting to Portland's gravity. On a recent Friday night visit, less than two dozen people were hanging out. Then again, this early period in any bar's life is great for anyone wanting to establish themselves as regulars. Get in good with the staff now and, come Pride, you'll be in on the ground floor of one of the city's cheapest dance clubs.