Has Portland been disappointing you lately? Want to jump in a time machine back to the good old Portland of 1999, before you even moved here? In the old Oso space on Southeast Grand, the owners of Lantern (726 SE Grand Ave., 503-232-1532, lanternpdx.com) have built a surprisingly functional wayback device.
Back in millennial Portland, the westside nightclub district and waning Chinatown were dominated by red-lit, clubby, loosely Asian-inflected bars like Tiger Bar, Saucebox, and East Chinatown Lounge—or, in a much different spirit, Shanghai Tunnel. Now on the Central Eastside, French-Vietnamese Lantern—founded by a group from Lake Oswego—captures that former Old Town vibe so strongly it gave me eerie flashbacks to those days, a red-neon tunnel of lounge feeling lit up by red paper lanterns and fueled by pleasant ginger-lemongrass cognac cocktails ($12) and $9 cardamom-lotus-leaf gimlets called "How Long?"
Nonetheless, there's a very welcome modern touch at Lantern: The service has been impeccable on two visits, with bartenders very willing to guide guests in food pairings among the cocktails, recommending refreshing chuggers or flavor-dense sippers. The food so far is up and down, however. I don't recommend the pasty bao plate or its oversweet sauce, but the "tuna three ways" dish, essentially a sampler of obscure-spiced poke with unexpected flavors like bitter melon, is a world of welcome flavor for $11, one of my favorite bar snacks I've had this year.
And the mood at Lantern hits the right notes, filling an upscale chillwave void in its surrounding 'hood. Judging from current clientele, it's soon to be occupied by a lot of 20-somethings on early dates. "This place is going to be the sleeper bar of the summer," said my drinking buddy on a recent Friday, looking out at a rare Portland weekend crowd containing more young women than men. "Just wait for it."