By BEN STONE and TYLER PELL
It's been dark since noon. Outdoor basketball courts have become lakes. Trivia Tuesday comes but one night a week, and all the bowling alleys are closed.
During the cold months, there's only one way to stave off loneliness, to sweat and to drink simultaneously. In Portland, winter is pingpong season. Open tables litter bars in every neighborhood in town. But not all of them are playable—a good pingpong bar is one that balances uncluttered space and bright lighting with the atmosphere needed to invite friendly competition.
So we went out and found the bars that have cracked the code most effectively. For our purposes here, we shift focus away from the elephant in the room—the glossy Pips & Bounce on Southeast Belmont Street, which has justifiably received a lot of exposure—and onto Portland's lesser-known pingpong havens.
Most Spacious: Piedmont Place
736 N Lombard St., 503-286-7520. 11-2:30 am daily.
Upon entry to Piedmont Place, you're greeted by a surreal, barren, open space in the mold of the Twin Peaks Red Room—red walls, checkered linoleum, with a pingpong table in the middle of it all. As you walk through this front hall, an archetypal low-traffic North Lombard dive bar reveals itself, complete with video poker, pool tables, gumball machines and strangely upbeat barkeeps. But the pingpong ballroom is what sets this bar apart from those surrounding it. If you and your buddy are looking for a spot to enjoy an uninterrupted seven-set marathon match, or simply to rally without a soul in sight except the tropical plants lining the walls, Piedmont Place is a pingpong Shangri-La.
Best Place to Go Alone: The Nest
2715 SE Belmont St., 503-764-9023. 3 pm-2:30 am daily.
While the pingpong scene at the Belmont location is a shadow of the former Nest on Northeast Alberta Street, this one offers something only a few bars in Portland can—an honest-to-God pickup scene. On a busy night, the table probably already has a line of people who've called "next." The level of play isn't the highest, and serves rarely, if ever, go the USA Table Tennis-prescribed 6 inches above the palm of the servers' hand. The Nest scores low on space and lighting, but those shortcomings also make it a more appealing late-night haunt, which in turn make for a more fertile environment for impromptu games. We didn't take a poll, but we'd wager most people didn't show up with premeditated plans to play and were inspired to grab a paddle only in the moment.
Best Built-In Excuse for Losing: Rontoms
There are seemingly infinite things to blame a loss on at Rontoms—the floor is brutally uneven and the bumpin' ambience dissolves both concentration and verbal communication between players. Any win comes freighted with the knowledge your opponent couldn't track a third of the balls you hit to him under the muted lighting. Rontoms' pingpong table is like a New Seasons baguette at a potluck: You tried, but did you actually try?
Most Intimate: Skyline Tavern
Nestled among the trees along Skyline Boulevard, Skyline Tavern is romantic as hell, and has been around since 1923. Skyline's table sits out on a covered wooden deck, scrunched in between cute tables dressed in floral tablecloths. There's not quite enough room here to spread your wings and burn calories. Games resemble the ones you played in your friend's overcrowded basement as a kid—that's not a bad thing. The pingpong provides a structure for conversation. You can rehash your unanswered texts to your ex over a score-free game of soft, arching shots.
Most Inclusive: Sellwood Public House
Ascending the cherry-red stairs into the second-story Sellwood Public House feels like traveling several years back in time. It combines the poker-night atmosphere of an Elks lodge with the earnest energy of a Christian teen center, and the clientele is a touch older than that in other bars on this list. The pingpong zone—carefully lit and shielded from glare—isn't center stage here, but that serves to make the wide-open space more egalitarian. Pingpong players cohabitate with pool players, shuffleboarders and spectating Blazer fans. The competition is friendly, but be wary of the Thursday-night dart players, who like to fold up the table to make room to throw.
Most High-Octane: Silver Dollar Pizza Co.
501 NW 21st Ave., 503-227-1103. Noon-2:30 am Monday-Saturday, 10-2:30 am Sunday.
Walking into Silver Dollar, you can feel bargoers fighting every impulse to throw down a triangle of Solo party cups and yell out rules for how many reracks should be allowed. The three tables here are very close together, so expect game play spatially limited to the baseline. Also expect an atmosphere resembling a Windows 98 screensaver maze, created by the psychedelic walls of plasma screens tuned to ESPN. For the tables and pickup scene alone, though, this bro-centric environment is worth stomaching.
Most Luxe: Marie's
8727 N Lombard St., 503-283-0494. 11-2:30 am daily.
Even the best pingpong tables require some light diagnostic work before you start playing: Nets need to be fiddled with, overhead lights need to be brightened, the table's surface needs an occasional wipedown. Not at Marie's. This hole-in-the-wall former strip club has a tournament-quality table sitting in a carpeted, pink-walled room lined by soft scalloped booths and illuminated by an elegant chandelier set. Depending on the time and day of the week, the cast of regulars here will almost surely make you realize you're not as good at pingpong as you think. It's the kind of place where you'll suddenly find yourself playing against a headband-wearing, spring-shoed baby boomer whose fast, topspin-heavy game speaks to yours.