New York's First Japanese Speakeasy Restaurant is a Hidden Gem
It didn’t take long for Bit House Saloon to become one of the most popular bars in the city. It’s no wonder: an all-star staff dedicated to hospitality, a handsomely wooded, renovated antique space, and a collaborative cocktail list that brings in each bartender’s unique approach make it one of the most fun and bustling places in the city. The goal was to make a friendly neighborhood bar with an incredible cocktail list, and judging by the constant, varied crowds, BHS has done exactly that.
Just a few blocks from Bit House, Rum Club is the other neighborhood bar that happens to serve some of the best cocktails in the city. The menu elevates rum to its highest potential and gets inventive with other spirits, too, and yet it never feels stuffy or pretentious: while you nurse your craft rum cocktail with house-made bitters and syrups, a bachelorette party is doing ski-shots of well tequila, and "The Imperial March" is blasting on the stereo. If there’s such a thing as a 'dive craft cocktail bar,' Rum Club is it.
Daniel Shoemaker opened Teardrop Lounge in 2007, and it was instrumental in launching the Portland Craft Cocktail Scene™. The city had never had a bar so dedicated to the classic era of cocktails, and while many more followed, TDL has retained its relevance by continuing to provide an outstanding repertoire of cocktails, both modern and classic, original and borrowed. The menu rotates seasonally, and each drink is made with meticulous care by the well-manicured but friendly bar staff. The barware is lovely, curated eclectically but intentionally, and the atmosphere is somewhere between a chic modernist bar and a night club. It’s the OG PDX cocktail bar.
Across the street from the prix fixe icon Beast is its cocktail bar Expatriate, a transportive lounge. Step inside and you’ll feel like you’ve walked into a Prohibition-era bar in Saigon, or maybe an opium den. It’s decked out in golds and reds, with a shrine to Prince along one wall, which works surprisingly well with the rest of the decor. It would be kitschy if it weren’t so sexy. Drink prices run higher than most places in the city, in the $12-$14 range, but they’re excellent, classic, and strong. Along with Shift Drinks, the bar also boasts one of the best wine lists, with helpful descriptions such as "Good Red" and "Better Red."
Though it caters primarily to those in the service industry, with the latest last-call a bar can have and wine to-go until close, Shift Drinks is a great spot for anyone who wants a killer drink or, like Expatriate, a nice glass of wine at a good price with a fun description ('Cheap+White+Delicious,' for $7). The space is can get noisy, but the short yet refined bar menu makes up for it.
Aalto is a Portland classic that’s somehow both underrated and wildly popular at the same time. It’s popular because of its fantastic happy-hour program, stylish mid-century decor, late-night DJs, and hipster-strewn summer patio. It’s underrated because it’s also one of the best, and one of the best-priced, cocktail bars in the city. Just peruse the old-fashioned menu, or try a Smith & Cross Negroni, and you’ll see that Aalto is more than just a stylish date spot.
One of the more recent additions to the Lightning Bar Collective is also one of its most cocktail oriented. Each bar in the group has a good-to-great drink menu, and Jackknife was considered for a long time to be the best cocktail bar of the Collective, but it has since lost out to Victoria. It’s not just that the cocktail program is tops, or that the large, slick, white-tiled bar is a gorgeous touch. Victoria edges out Jackknife because it’s truly a Portland bar, rather than a tourist one. No offense, but we prefer getting our drinks without having to shoulder past tech bros visiting from Seattle or fashion models from the Bay Area.
Another under-the-radar cocktail bar, Free House operates on NE Fremont, away from the hustle and bustle of Downtown or Alberta or inner SE. In this rustic building, you'll find understated and delicious cocktails, alongside an elevated bar menu of sausages, sandwiches, and salads. Best of all, maybe because of its relatively anonymous status, none of the drinks creep over the $10 line, a rarity in this city and becoming even rarer.
Since we’re skipping the restaurants with cocktail bars, we can at least have Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s speakeasy-styled bar. Just around the corner and down a flight of stairs from Clyde Common is Pepe le Moko. There, Jeff and his staff have taken the reviled drinks of the '80s and '90s, like Grasshoppers and Amaretto Sours, and perfected them with high quality ingredients and unexpected twists. It’s a fun alternative to the pre-Prohibition era cocktails that litter every bar menu in the city, and goes to show why Morgenthaler is among the nation’s most celebrated bartenders.
Rum Club may have some of the best craft rum cocktails in the city, but Hale Pele has the best tiki drinks. Gone are the cloying, artificial flavors that defined the tiki movement of the past. They've been replaced by delicious, no less kitschy or boozy, concoctions. Sip the best Mai Tai you’ve had in the Northwest while the volcano on the wall erupts and a thunderstorm rumbles overhead on the speakers. Don’t miss out on the Zombies, strong enough to be limited to two per customer.
It’s odd that The Vintage is as underrated as it is, and maybe residents of Montavilla would like it to stay that way. But this is a secret we can't keep: this bar has been putting out some of the most consistently solid vintage cocktails for some time now, quietly enjoying the "cocktail renaissance" while mostly keeping to itself. The space is pretty much exactly what you would picture, without any frills or twists: a long wooden bar, leather banquette, and backlit shelves. Cocktails are organized by spirit type (think whiskey, agave, sugar cane), and feature both classic and new drinks in equal portion.
South Park Blocks
The Rookery, the upstairs cocktail bar of Raven & Rose, has some twists and house drinks (one of which won GQ's "Inventive Bartender Competition") like any good bar, but mostly it focuses on perfecting the classics. Best are "the single barrel classics," with hand selected single-barrel spirits making these the best articulations of the classics possible.
No spot in Portland blurs the line between restaurant and bar quite like Interurban, the double-decker cocktail bar and gastropub, with an emphasis on seasonal Northwestern/European bistro cuisine, local beers, and pre-Prohibition cocktails. It’s cozier than it is chic, with rich wood and leather chairs. You can easily stop in for a bite to eat and a beer, or a full three-course meal with wine pairings. But you could also sit at the bar or out on the patio and have some drinks; the program is often themed around cocktail books or bartenders (recently, it had a menu devoted to drinks out of The Savoy Cocktail Book), and includes bottled cocktails to share.
N Williams Ave
The Box Social might be the best cocktail bar for dates: it’s intimate, warm, and romantic. It’s a small space, but rarely overcrowded. The small bites are fine, but take a backseat to the excellent cocktail menu. Drinks include the usual mix of classics and originals, all made with aplomb. Box Social also has a great happy hour -- stop in early (4-6pm), or late on weeknights (11pm-close) for cocktail and food specials for an elegant but affordable date night.