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

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