When Multnomah County first reopened, most bars and restaurants in Portland scrambled to adjust to a world still in the grips of a health crisis by expanding outward, placing tables in parking lots and side streets.
Kex, instead, looked up.
The boutique hotel—a spinoff of an upscale hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland, that opened last November on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—is one of those rare gems in the city with a rooftop oasis. In a normal summer, it would almost certainly draw a nightly crowd and a steady line of eager patrons waiting to snag the chairs of anyone who just signaled for the bill.
But even now that COVID-19 has made al fresco dining one of the safest ways to escape our homes—if only for a few hours—Lady of the Mountain should still become one of the most sought-after perches in Portland.
Unlike many of the newly installed sidewalk cafes, Kex's outdoor patio wasn't urgently thrown together with social distancing in mind: Renovations to the 1912 structure, which used to function as apartment housing, always included plans for a rooftop bar. The space was set to debut in spring until the pandemic derailed that timeline.
After taking several months to carefully plan its launch during a global health crisis—including the reopening of Kex's ground-floor restaurant, Dóttir—Lady of the Mountain finally welcomed its first customers earlier this month. The name refers to Iceland's centuries-old tradition of personifying itself as a woman, the best-known representation of which is a mid-19th century painting that looks like Game of Thrones concept art: She wears a needlelike crown that's made of ice yet shoots fire, carries a bejeweled sword, and has a raven resting on one shoulder.
When you emerge from the lobby elevator and step onto the fourth-floor patio, it won't immediately feel as if you've left the Burnside Bridgehead and suddenly slipped into Westeros, or even the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's famous cerulean steam bath. But if you take in the details and fire up your imaginative powers, an evening at Lady of the Mountain can be transportive. Hell, these days, drinks on any sky-high terrace anywhere seem as indulgent as lounging on the sundeck of a privately chartered superyacht.
Thanks to the bar's stature—four stories up is just enough height to provide an attractive view yet still sit below most of the surrounding buildings—it's a bit like being nestled in a fjord made of glass and concrete. From a tidy row of five tables, spaced over 6 feet apart, with a sixth against the wall, you can either sit facing the Fair-Haired Dumbbell's riot of color or take a chair pointed toward the Lloyd District and the Oregon Convention Center's twin spires. From that vantage point, you can also admire the bar, layered in forest green tiles commonly used for bank exteriors in Iceland, with the skyline replacing liquor cabinetry as the backdrop.
What to order? Start with potato chips ($7) brined in vinegar and then finished with a dusting of parsley, paired alongside a thick, tangy dip that's best summed up as "Icelandic yogurt." From there, move on to a plate of deviled eggs ($12), whose whites are now an eye-popping shade of magenta after sharing space in a pickling jar with beets—it was the one dish on every table during our visit.
Consider these the opening acts for the delightfully named "pork eclair" ($14). The puffy, golden-brown pastry has been sliced in half to grasp hold of tender slabs of Canadian bacon sweet as a holiday ham and doused in a feisty birch syrup mustard.
If you take on all three dishes, you've worked your way through much of the snack menu. The list of wine, beer and cocktails stretches much longer. To make things easy, just order the Pimm's Cup ($13). Arriving in a mound of pebble ice that looks like an adult snow cone, the cocktail—made of cucumber-infused gin, lemon, ginger and soda—is the most refreshing thing you could possibly order on a Portland rooftop in August. The glass will be empty in less than five minutes.
The combination of a fizzy drink that shines like the sun and what is essentially a pork doughnut might just seem a little too happy, too carefree, for a summer that's largely been dark and heavy with burden. But that might be the brief break we need to maintain our sanity right now. Lady of the Mountain should leave visitors embracing Iceland's unofficial motto: "Þetta reddast," which roughly translates, "It will all work out OK in the end." You'll believe it to be true—at least for a few gin-soaked hours.
Number of tables: 6
Space between them: 6½ feet
Additional safety measures: Reservations are required to keep crowds to a minimum; a host escorts customers from the street-level lobby check-in to the elevator up to the rooftop bar; menus available via QR code.
Peak hours: 6-8 pm
GO: Lady of the Mountain at Kex Portland, 100 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 971-345-2992, kexhotels.com/eat-drink/ rooftop. 5-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday; last reservations taken at 8:30 pm. Brunch 10 am-1 pm Saturday-Sunday.