On North Killingsworth, an orange and pink neon sign pierces through the misty night. Decals in the windows read “Here for You.” Upon entry, glowing panels light the front section of a bar filled with the deepest ocean-blue vinyl booths and stools. This is Sad Valley, Portland’s lavish new funeral parlor-themed bar with a completely unique vibration and a divey, arty heart.
One might expect a bar evoking houses of death to have a depressed quality–perhaps dark wood walls and a whiff of formaldehyde–but Sad Valley is much more funky than formal.
Housed in the previous Dynasty space from the team behind Neon Boots in Seattle, Sad Valley’s aesthetic reflects owner Jeremy Alexander’s past pretty literally: he’s an art school kid whose mom used to work in a funeral home. Old clocks, dark bouquets, and miniature stained windows decorate the walls. An Italian horror movie plays on a corner television. An enormous train of flowers trails across the ceiling, leading to a white coffin flung open to reveal a spotlit disco ball.
Ordering a drink here feels like doing so in a Beetlejuice-style waiting room to purgatory. Umbrella-adorned cocktails are strong and made simply (sometimes too simply to match the extravagance of the décor) like the Persephone ($10)—a mix of vodka and POG juice in a mule glass—or the Brave Marion ($12), an unimpressionable marionberry margarita.
In other cases, basic is best. The Weird Paloma ($9) is a nice example of cheeky execution done right: blanco tequila and lime, served in a Mexican Squirt bottle is carefully balanced, tart as hell, and just so fun. The Cryin’ Swaggart ($12) had the most personality of all—rye and passion fruit liqueur are a light, sweet and silky smooth pairing, with orange blossom water singing through the center.
The Cuddles Kovinsky ($12), named after Edith Massey’s character in John Waters’ Polyester, combines gin, apricot liqueur, lime and orange bitters. This is capital-C Cocktail. Like, in the way that on a 21st birthday, one would say, “One cocktail please,” and this is what one would receive. It’s ground zero. It’s 101.
The food is solid. It feels somewhat dangerous to even offer a burger across the street from Tulip Shop Tavern, which serves one of Portland’s best. Instead of trying to outdo TST or go big, Sad Valley opts for simple and untrendy with a diner-style LTO “Classical Cheeseburger” ($14). Beef is local and salted well, iceberg cold and crunchy, the optional bacon addition for $2 is well rendered. The key is serving it on a Dos Hermanos sesame brioche bun and slathering an amount of mayo that made me exclaim, “AMERICA!” A really good burger is a really good burger.
Hand-breaded, buttermilk-brined chicken “tendies” ($13) are fried crispy and juicy as heck—a rare case where you can actually tell they were brined—and served on a millennial-pink plate with honey mustard, barbecue sauce and lemony ranch. They’re giving Popeyes in the best way. Macaroni & Cheese de la Abuela ($12), here more of a queso-noodle casserole due to the inclusion of jalapeño, jack cheese, and fried onions, is just too rich and loaded for a cocktail bar. The addition of bacon in this one is a misstep, with big pieces becoming flabby in the creamy sauce. One of my dining companions said that this dish smelled like a dive bar in western Maine, which felt hard to shake when attempting another bite.
Murals painted inside little picture windows on a far wall depict men on their knees surrounded by beer can angels or floating to heaven next to a yellow hearse in a liquor store parking lot. Portland is an uncanny town full of uncanny places—it’s always a treat when a new one rises from the grave.
DRINK: Sad Valley, 832 N Killingsworth St., 503-432-8053, sadvalley.com. 4 pm–1 am Sunday–Thursday, 4 pm–2 am Friday–Saturday.
Correction: This story originally named a chef who is no longer affiliated with the restaurant. The recipes for chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese and the burger have all since been updated. WW regrets the error.