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

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
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
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

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker