Unlike in a lot of other American cities, opening a strip club in Portland is relatively easy. Standing out is the hard part.
In practically every other state in the country, the complex laws aimed at sexually oriented businesses make just getting the doors open a struggle. New Orleans has been engaged in a long battle to cap the number of strip clubs in the French Quarter—a raid that shuttered a number of clubs last year sent dancers into the streets in protest. In Detroit, vice cops hand out tickets to dancers and patrons for violating no-contact laws. But in Oregon, because nude dancing is considered protected speech, many of the tactics used to drive strip clubs out of other cities—like, say, Rudy Giuliani's New York—would be ruled unconstitutional. And really, there's just not a local appetite for targeting people trying to make an honest living.
That's given rise to one of the most robust strip club scenes in the U.S.—and also one of the most competitive. And not everyone makes it.
Downtown Portland has seen a number of casualties in recent years. Cabaret on West Burnside closed in 2011 after having its liquor license canceled and accusations of tax fraud against its owner. Old Town favorite Magic Gardens closed in 2014, its building turned into tech office space. While the Paris Theatre went from hosting hentai theme nights to throwing concerts a few years ago, its calendar still included a smattering of adult-themed events until it abruptly closed this fall.
Obviously, speech protections can only help so much. But in the past year, things have started to trend up again for the downtown strip club scene. Club SinRock, a chain that started in Alaska before opening a location on Northeast Glisan, has been posting hiring ads on Instagram for several months in advance of opening a second spot in the former Alexis Greek Restaurant space, and according to state liquor license records, a business called Diamonds Gentlemen's Club is coming to Southwest 3rd Avenue. And that's in addition to two new clubs that are already up and running.
With downtown going through a strip club mini-renaissance, we visited the newest pair of clubs that are currently open—Whiskey Club and X Ultra Lounge—to see which, if any, are worth your hard-earned singles.
818 SW 1st Ave., 503-894-9059, whiskeyclubpdx.com. 6 pm-2:30 am Monday-Saturday.
In Portland, naked flesh alone isn't going to cut it as a business model. You've got to have a hook, whether that's being "the vegan strip club" or "the strip club with karaoke" or "the strip club where the dancers accessorize with glittering butt plugs."
At the Whiskey Club, which opened last fall, the gimmick is obvious: It's "the strip club with a ton of whiskey." Playing up its pseudo-speakeasy vibe with a lack of explicit signage out front about what kind of business you're entering, the dancers also don't hard-sell stage tips or private dances. On a recent night, a handful of customers sat at the bar while a petite dancer in pigtails and sneakers performed on the center stage. Two TVs at either side showed sports while the DJ ran the show from a corner of the bar.
"It's somewhat of a social club," a bartender told us on a recent visit. "I like to say 'gentlemen's lounge.' As you can see, here the atmosphere is different."
It's certainly much brighter than most strip clubs, with an open layout and lighter flooring and walls than the norm. Even rarer, there's a skylight above the VIP couches, meaning, depending on the time of day, patrons can either see natural light or the stars while getting a private dance.
The club has a jazz happy hour from 6 to 7 pm nightly, during which there aren't stage performances but dancers might hang out for a pre-show drink. On Thursdays, the club has live music for part of the night, which may or may not feature dancers alongside, depending on what kind of band is performing. If the two don't go together, dancers perform in the upstairs part of the club.
While it might be a little too low-key for groups looking to party, Whiskey Club is perfect for anyone looking for a mellower strip club experience—it's the rare club that encourages you to grab a drink and chill a while.
X Ultra Lounge
15 SW 2nd Ave., 503-790-9090, xultralounge.com. 9 pm-2:30 am Sunday-Wednesday, 7 pm-2:30 am Thursday-Friday.
Opened in spring by the owners of the cabaret-focused Kit Kat Club, in the former Bar XV space, X Ultra Lounge is more of a straightforward strip club, with servers and bartenders dressed in sparkly zip-front corsets and black booty shorts and curtained VIP cabanas with bottle service. The walls and ceilings are all black, with padded leather booths lining the walls in the front room. It's still definitely a Portland establishment, though: The dressing room was formerly used for storage by the neighboring church. Now it's a bright space that includes a rack holding dancer outfits for sale by Sophia Karenina Designs, a local line made by a dancer.
X has several different rooms. There's the front bar, where patrons enter through a door immediately to the left of the stage, a back barroom with another stage, and an elevated VIP area that features its own pole in the midst of individual booths. On the front stage, a slender blonde climbed the pole in a caterpillar crawl to Screamin' Jay Hawkins and the Eagles while a fog machine emitted scented fog.
There's still a residual Bar XV crowd that comes into the club—on our visit, one group of tourists with their shopping bags in hand wandered in and decided to stay. It really isn't trying to have a gimmick beyond "upscale gentlemen's club." Recommended for those who want to split the difference between Portland and Vegas.