Hipster magic in Portland

Eccentric attractions mean the city's offbeat reputation is well-earned, says Mark C O'Flaherty

One day, travel writers will write about Portland, Oregon, without mentioning Portlandia. Today is not that day, however. If you've never seen it, Portlandia is the TV sketch show that riffs on the perception of the city's crafty, farm-to-table, hippy redux obsessions. "Put a bird on it!" and "We can pickle that!" are two of the show's catchphrases – references to local artisans' obsessions with all things artsy, Etsy and – well – pickling stuff.

Even if customers in restaurants don't, in reality, demand to know the name of the chicken they are considering ordering from the menu, Portland is still a city with a real-life vegan strip joint. It's also a verdant, friendly, indie-orientated mixture of guitar bands, checked shirts, tattoo parlours, animal rescues, coffee snobbery, Pinot, thrift stores and food trucks. It's a pioneer town, way out on the north-west fringes of the USA. As Gus Van Sant, a long-time resident says: "It's a place that's isolated from the rest of the country, so everyone feels abandoned together."

Portland's culture is unique, although elements of it echo through the cooler neighbourhoods of the world, from Bushwick to Dalston. It's a place where being a salumist – that is, the chap who recommends what salami you should be ordering – is seen as a solid career option. And everyone seems to be in a band.

I happened to be in town in September for Feast, the city's first food festival. I discovered which local Pinot Noir goes best with which pork products, courtesy of the team who run Olympic Provisions (one of the city's favourite delis), and also just how well foie gras goes with chocolate, courtesy of Xocolatl's David Briggs, who makes "foietella cups", and what might just be the most amazing confectionery item I've ever eaten: chocolate with flakes of sourdough toast and salt. "I also make a bar with parmesan," he told me, during a tasting session. "It's my version of milk chocolate." I came home with stacks of his bars from Cacao, the ultimate chocolate lover's boutique, which also stocks edible, gilded religious icons.

People do things in their own, maverick way in Portland, from chefs to designers. Ann Sacks, one of the biggest names in interior design in the USA, recently founded Fetch Eyewear, a company producing a range of chic eyewear, donating all profits to animal rescue. "We wanted to create a pet-friendly footprint in the community," she says.

Another very vocal member of the animal welfare community in Portland is Paige Powell, who is something of a legend in the international art world. She was Warhol's publisher and confidante in New York in the 1980s, and remains very much the glamorous It girl, striding around her native Portland in vintage Pucci, with long hair, fake fur and thigh-high boots. She's also one of the biggest cheerleaders for all things local.

I met her drinking latte out of a jam jar, which is how they do these things at Courier Coffee. This new café is adjacent to Powell's Books, the largest used-and-new bookstore in the world. "I think these guys make the best coffee in the city," she said. "I had an exhibition of some of my photographs from the New York art scene here for their opening. There were pictures of Andy [Warhol] watching breakdancers. Someone came up to me and asked me who Jean-Michel Basquiat was."

Two streets from Courier Coffee is the city's most celebrated hotel. I've checked in to some of the fanciest places in the world in my time, but The Ace Hotel in Portland – with its charismatic brand of rough luxe – is the only place I've wanted to live in. Back when this building was a flophouse, Gus Van Sant filmed Drugstore Cowboy here; now, after an industrial chic makeover, with some army green calico and surplus brown blankets, a lot of whitewash, rough wood and cubes of black soap in the bathrooms, and turntables and vinyl in the bedrooms, it feels like the epicentre of all things hip in the city.

The West End streets around the Ace, just a few blocks from downtown but with a funkier feel, have come to life with galleries and boutiques. The cluster of stores around the corner of Southwest Stark and West Burnside include Cacao and Tanner, which is fast becoming America's most prestigious leather brand among fashion insiders. Meanwhile, Radish Underground, directly opposite the Ace, represents an array of local product, from letterpress cards to hoop earrings made out of recycled skateboard wheels.

I spent several afternoons grazing on food from the massed ranks of food trucks that line the squares between Southwest Washington and Southwest Alder. The local favourite is the chicken and rice at Nong's Khao Man Gai. Likewise, the city's most cherished chef is Vitaly Paley. I ate at his original restaurant, Paley's Place, years ago, and had a transcendental experience via bacon ("It's all about getting the right local pig – the ones we use are a certain size and live on hazelnuts," he told me). Downtown, he's just opened Imperial, which harks back to historical cooking techniques and ingredients. I had some lush duck meatballs with prunes and orange, fried rabbit with semolina corn cake and far too much Matello Pinot Noir.

The West End of the city is next to the arty Pearl District with its warehouses converted into restaurants and galleries. The leafy, monied, Northwest District, with its pretty late-Victorian townhouses and brunch spots, is about half an hour away. There's always a queue outside Besaw's on a Saturday morning, and with good reason. I waited nearly an hour, but it was worth it for the most indulgent eggs Benedict I've ever eaten. The meal wasn't nearly as excessive as the next day's brunch over on the east side of the city, however, at Tasty * Sons: chocolate potato doughnuts in crème anglaise, followed by a fried egg and cheddar biscuit sandwich, with fried chicken and extra cheese. Apparently Tasty * Sons is a favourite brunch spot of Carrie Brownstein – singer with Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, and co-creator of Portlandia.

There are some obviously up-and-coming neighbourhoods in Portland right now. I noticed huge changes in Chinatown, thanks largely to the efforts of restaurateurs and creative masterminds John and Janet Jay, who are working on what will be the coolest youth hostel on Earth, right around the corner from their restaurant, Ping. Across town, in the Northwest District, the eastern stretch of Northeast Alberta Street remains one of the buzziest areas to walk around. It's also home to what might be The Most Portland Shop there is: Monograph Bookwerks sells expensive art tomes, prints, and other generally lovely things. There, on a shelf, next to a vintage camera, interestingly shaped pieces of wood and quirky ceramics, is a row of apothecary-style bottles. Each comes with a price tag: with handwritten details of the bottles contents: "$16 – Squirrel Highway Walnut Ink, 2012: homemade walnut ink from a Portland heritage tree." Very Portlandia. The only thing missing was a bird on the bottle.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK to Portland. The writer flew Heathrow-Dallas on BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and connected to Portland on American Airlines.

Staying there

The Ace Hotel, 1022 SW Stark St, Portland (001 503 228 2277; acehotel.com/portland) has doubles from $165 (£97).

Visiting there

More information

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup