In the fall of 2018, Portlanders were invited past a nearly hidden door in the Pearl down a flight of stone steps. Beyond it, the stylish, subterranean cocktail lounge Botanist (also known as Botanist House) served cocktails from a gin-heavy menu that often brought ingredients from the kitchen to the drinks, and vice versa. Nooks built into the stone walls held rare and obscure liquors, and beverage director and co-owner Robbie Wilson, often donning a kitty-superhero apron, would share some of his favorite new concoctions, maybe something with a fat-washed spirit, or locally harvested honey. But almost exactly three years later, Botanist has closed its doors for good.
Like so many others, Botanist struggled in the face of the pandemic, and its intimate underground space was all but inhabitable given the nature of the COVID-19 virus. Nevertheless, it persevered with numerous pivots, often stepping in as a policy advocate and mutual aid resource. In the early days of the pandemic, the bar set up a robust delivery system to get meals into the hands of out-of-work industry employees and others around the city, serving nearly 40,000 meals and employing 20 people. Then, it joined voices like Beast’s Naomi Pomeroy in championing legislation to allow takeout cocktails, even going so far as to announce it would be selling them, with or without government approval.
Eventually, the bar moved from its underground dwelling to the sprawling rooftop patio previously home to On Deck. In the summer of 2020 it served a streamlined cocktail menu alongside food from Havana Cafe and hosted concerts, drag shows, and other performances.
That pivot helped some, but didn’t answer every problem and created its own — especially, in Wilson’s own words, an overworked staff during an already difficult time. Initially the bar was “always understaffed, pushing staff to the extremes,” and once things started to settle down and he was able to hire more employees, the team dealt with other catastrophes shutting down outdoor dining, like wildfire smoke and heat domes. Winter weather didn’t help, as diners and drinkers often stayed home or went elsewhere.
The move to the roof also fundamentally changed the identity of the cool, secretive cocktail lounge. While the team hoped to move back down and reclaim its earlier style, that turned out to be unrealistic: Profit margins were already thin enough to begin with, and given the unreliability of staying open during the continued pandemic, it didn’t feel viable. Wilson doubts that the old way of doing business, pre-pandemic, is viable at all. “Going forward we restaurants have to be better, do better for our staff, our team, ourselves, but also as a financial business,” he says.
Down the road, Portland might seen a new bar from Wilson, but for now he’ll be serving drinks at Amaterra Winery in the West Hills. As for his time at the Botanist, he’s grateful for the experience. “This whole thing has been a struggle for everyone, but... we do this for the community and the people around,” he says. “It was an honor to serve the Portland community through Botanist.”