Despite Portland’s reputation as a drinkers’ paradise famously stuffed with mixology parlors and artisanal honky-tonks, large swaths of the city limp along without proper cocktail service. But every so often, a sort of workaround exists—establishments that don’t want to become a saloon, but just so happen to boast a few stools and a bartender almost as if they were accessories.
We’ve rounded up some of the city’s most unexpected watering holes, throwing out venues like spas and salons that offer clients complimentary beverages, social clubs (Elks, Eagles) that are basically dives with dues, and any business that treats alcohol as a loss leader for foolish expenditures (gambling dens, golf courses, hotels).
The remaining grab bag of shadow taverns have been judged by the usual criteria: crowd, look, utility, drinks. These businesses likely wouldn’t show up as “closest bar” in a Google Maps search, and neither patrons nor employees would describe the places that way. However, sometimes it’s good to know there is a hidden oasis with alcohol waiting just around the corner if you happen to know where to look.
New Seasons Market–Woodstock
4500 SE Woodstock Blvd., 503-771-9663, newseasonsmarket.com/our-stores/woodstock. Noon-8 pm Friday-Sunday.
Optionality: Take a peek, the sign says, halfway up the first landing. The best is yet to come, promises the next set of stairs. As one turns onto the third landing, the staircase explodes with a vibrant Treehouse Bar and Lounge ad hawking the wonders to be found just a few feet farther.
Ambience: An honored citizen takes his time finishing a cup of soup in the corner of an otherwise vacant deli turned break room leading onto an expansive if generic rooftop patio.
Service: At 6 pm on a Saturday night, a hastily scrawled sign apologizes for any inconvenience but the bar has closed. Another note, directly above but written by a different hand, announces a two-drink maximum. It truly seems for a moment as if the bar has 86′d itself.
Intoxicants: Beer, beer everywhere and not a soul to pour.
Sociability: A pair of New Seasons staffers sent upstairs to clean explained that citywide staffing shortages have been especially problematic for the grocer, where most employees carrying an alcohol service permit had split.
Studio One Theaters
3945 SE Powell Blvd., 971-271-8142, studioonetheater.com. 2:30-11 pm Monday-Friday, 9 am-10 pm Saturday, 9 am-11 pm Sunday.
Optionality: Hiding a boutique multiplex behind a Les Schwab and an O’Reilly Auto Parts store on the dreariest stretch of Portland’s ugliest boulevard isn’t the best way to drum up foot traffic. But this area is starved for anything resembling the date-night lounge Studio One tries so hard to be.
Ambience: As the name somewhat obliquely suggests, the founders imagineered each of their seven auditoriums to resemble penthouses in far-flung destinations like Istanbul, Rome and Tokyo. It’s a distracting way to watch a movie; however, state-of-the-art A/V technology ensures you quickly become immersed in the film.
Service: Whether or not they understand the whole of the joke, the rangy young bartenders are laughing—at me, at you, and most certainly at the surroundings.
Intoxicants: A dozen taps, more than 50 wines by the glass, and healthy pours of top-shelf liquor—and gourmet popcorn that nearly justifies the operation.
Sociability: Interactions tend toward the awkward frisson of second dates, curdling movie night banter between faded friends, and lonely guys arriving early—like, y’know, a theater lobby.
Artbar & Bistro
1111 SW Broadway, 503-432-2964, portland5.com/artbar. Open for most evening events at the Newmark, Winningstad, and Brunish theaters and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Optionality: The small army of volunteers demanding tickets here are purely administrative support. They didn’t have any information about Artbar and seemed genuinely surprised by its presence. It does, indeed, tend to blend in with the lobby, and presumably, the powers behind Portland’5 Center for the Arts open the lounge in accordance with some counterintuitive algorithm based on date, act and Lord only knows what else.
Ambience: The legitimate theater’s always a bit more garish and slapdash than remembered, but a few outsized flourishes—a ginormous vacant throne carved from the lap of a headless demon, pagan figures offering sacrifices on both sides of a massive stone fireplace—keep things interesting.
Service: Had we visited an hour earlier or later, I’m certain the transaction would’ve been conducted within moments. The bartender, when we finally approached, was a model of brisk efficiency. Unfortunately, arriving at a show’s intermission meant a line quickly formed and snaked out of view.
Intoxicants: $12 for a hearty slug of well (Old Forester) whiskey.
Sociability: In theory, circumstances should blend the easy familiarity and charged atmosphere of pre-concert drinks with First Thursday’s aspirational gladhanding. The actuality of routine drudgery complicated by relationship dynamics roiling under heightened time pressure equals the worst elements of holiday travel and fourth-quarter restroom trips.
Lloyd Athletic Club
815 NE Halsey St., 503-287-4594, lloydathleticclub.com. 5:30 am-9:30 pm Monday-Friday, 7 am-8 pm Saturday-Sunday.
Optionality: This particular stretch of Northeast Portland has no shortage of fluorescent-lit taverns showing sports, but the potential for finagling an early morning hair of the dog intrigues.
Ambience: Almost pointedly dated yet obsessively maintained, well-scrubbed furnishings bracket a disused conversation pit. The overlit tableau feels like a set for a Reagan-era sitcom.
Service: If you’re a newcomer touring the facility, you’ll be helplessly swept along by the ingratiating spell of an aggressively helpful young associate as he points out the showers, sauna and workout area all in an effort to push membership, of course. The practiced camaraderie and flattering undercurrent aren’t unlike the patter of a maître d’ showing you to your table. Just expect to be shown a ton of penises along the way.
Intoxicants: Four craft beers are on tap at $6.50 a pour. I inquired, in my role as exercise-prone gym shopper, if they’d thought about a full liquor license, but the athletic club, alone among all the spots visited, might have reason to fear members lingering too long at the bar. What if some of the old boys finish up a game of squash at 5 pm and never leave? “Five’s fine,” said my tour guide, the salesman’s veneer momentarily darkening. “Nine am, you run into problems.”
Sociability: As the fresh-faced young desk clerk tidied the area around the taps, a slow succession of thick-necked chuckles trundled by for an apres-lift tipple. Each one, no matter the age, rested elbows on the bartop with weight pitched forward in a complicated maneuver that showcased their calves at full flourish. Each one, no matter the size, dithered between pint and glass before selecting pint and immediately regretting the decision. Each one, failing to make further eye contact after the transaction was concluded and the clerk resumed wiping the Formica to high gleam, let nervous tension build and build before blurting out half-questions regarding her fitness that she deftly undercut by switching hands and surfaces midquery. They call this maneuver the clean and jerk, I believe.
345 SE Taylor St., 503-238-4000, ggportland.com. 6-10 pm Monday-Friday, noon-10 pm Saturday, noon-7 pm Sunday.
Optionality: Sure, Portland may be a leader in the video/tabletop/role-playing game bar niche,but even the most geek-oriented business listened to design tips from a hospitality professional. Not so, Guardian Games. The differences beyond lounges that have games and game stores where you can lounge feel like the seachange separating gamers and, well, people?
Ambience: Say what you will about the nerds inheriting the earth, the actuality of a Magic the Gathering tournament hits you like a sweaty soft slap to the face—imagine an impromptu Motel 6 rave for broken fax machines. That said, the storewide alien and demonic statue garden is worth a peek.
Service: Quickest and easiest drink I’d have all night. Open the door, straight line down the showroom to a small, central, blessedly uncrowded bar bisecting a few dozen gaming tables.
Intoxicants: The tap list includes a lager, a sour, an IPA, and, obviously, a mead that tastes the way off-brand dish soap smells.
Sociability: At 9 pm on a Friday night, the tables were jam-packed with local Magic fans. None drank, but this was midway through the game with still an hour to go. I asked how many people stuck around after elimination to root on friends, but nobody seemed to understand.
The Velvet Rope
3533 SE César E. Chávez Blvd., 971-271-7064, velvetropepdx.com. 8 pm-3 am Friday-Saturday, 8 pm-2 am Sunday.
Optionality: Oddly enough, the original Portland sex club’s only nearby competition for nightlife dollars lies almost out of sight across the intersection, where the very edge of Studio One’s neon exteriors appear to wink, blush and disappear.
Ambience: Sleazy, yeah, but of an especially denatured, antiseptic, pro forma flavor of original sin. Though a recent-ish remodel updated the interior’s forgiving cobalt glow, the predominant vibe leans into the tired, tawdry ramblings of a gay uncle well past his prime.
Service: See Lloyd Athletic Club.
Intoxicants: Full bar priced a shade more than the locale would suggest, but the prices are low enough to make the whole experience feel kinda seedy.
Sociability: Leave aside the sad, naked men—they’ve grown to expect as much—and you’ll find a clientele that’s more eclectic than rumors suggest: aging sex kittens overemoting performative foreplay, middle-aged swingers, and attractive young guys surprised to learn that sex is not guaranteed at a sex club.