Bars are, in some ways, defined by what the staff is doing while the patrons drink. Are they chitchatting, mixologizing, tot-tatering or tossing shakers behind their backs to entertain coeds?
At Hamlet (232 NW 12th Ave., 241-4009, hamletpdx.com), there's a man in a bandanna carefully working a long, slender knife through a leg of on-hoof ham. It's entertaining sidework to observe at Cathy Whims' ham-themed bar around the corner from her Pearl District pizzeria, a small, tall space with black tile and wood-paneled coolers.
The food menu is mostly hammy, topping out with "the best ham on the planet," acorn-fed Spanish Iberico de Bellota that's $18 an ounce, just slightly above grocery store prices. One of my companions described it as "terrifyingly good," though I was partial to a La Quercia prosciutto piccante, just $5 an ounce during happy hour.
Phoenix's innocuous Parisian pop plays from the speakers and a row of round lamps glows above. The house red, a Portuguese import, is just $6 before 7 pm, and remarkably round. Cocktails were all well-made, though perhaps a little on the dry side and just $8 during happy hour—cocktails jump up to $12 after that, however. (There's a not-secret secret seven-page cocktail menu of obscure classics like the Vesper and the Bronx.)
For me, all that makes Hamlet an unlikely utility bar. If you've got dinner plans in the Pearl or West End, stop in for small portions of very nice ham and modestly priced wine. Then, go on with your night.