In 1933, right after the repeal of Prohibition, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt — also known as Donn Beach — opened Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, California, often called the world’s first tiki bar. He decorated the space in knickknacks and art “inspired” by his travels in the South Pacific and Caribbean. Tiki has been critiqued for its exoticizing and otherizing treatment of Caribbean and Pacific Islanders; in response, a group of bartenders around the country has been trying to reckon with tiki’s history — “hang on to the fun and the orgeat, just without the appropriation,” in the words of food writer Alicia Kennedy.
In Portland, the newly open Prescott cocktail lounge Cereus isn’t a tiki bar. There are no wooden masks, no torches, no scorpion bowls. But owner Bradley Stephens, Oregon Bartenders Guild board chair, wanted to use Donn Beach’s model and deconstruct it, positioning it as a jumping-off point for approaching the genre in a different way. “It was just a few weeks after Prohibition that he opened Don the Beachcomber,” he says. “It gave people this idea of escape. They couldn’t afford to go traveling, but they could afford to go out to eat.”
That was Stephens’s pitch: After years of a pandemic, during which time many bars shuttered and people avoided travel, Cereus would provide the escapism, pulling influence from his travels around the world, but without reducing the cultures he encountered into tacky design elements, or “fake iconography,” in his words. If he served a cocktail developed at a different bar, he would name the bar on the menu, as well as the bartender, if possible. “There’s a way we can create beautiful environments with local ideas and international ideas without stealing from somebody,” Stephens says.
Like Beach, Stephens spent much of his career before opening his bar traveling. He studied in Tokyo, lived in Finland, bartended in Mexico, worked events in South America. Years ago, Suki’s owner Phil Chung reached out to Stephens about moving back to Portland to open a cocktail bar with him. He arrived in January 2020 to start working on the bar, which, for obvious reasons, became a slow process.
Due to the pandemic-related delays, however, the team had time to flesh out Cereus’s menus — not just for cocktails, but also for food. Chung tapped Colombian chef Diego Cortes to run the kitchen at Cereus; Chung visited Cortes, a former cook at Suki’s, while in Colombia, and discovered he owned two restaurants in Bogotá. Chung persuaded Cortes to move back to Portland, where he developed a menu of South American snacks to accompany Stephens’s cocktails. Cereus’s opening menu offers a variety of patacones, arepas, empanadas, tiraditos, and ceviches, all incorporating a transcultural lens. Patacones can arrive topped with chile-seasoned pulled pork, but also hummus and avocado; arepas come stuffed with shredded beef and plantains, but also creamy pesto tofu or grilled chicken with caramelized onions.
As promised, the cocktail menu is similarly far-reaching in its approach. Split into “classics and borrowed” and “originals,” the first half of the menu includes standards like Vespers, pisco sours, and sidecars. For instance, Stephens is particularly happy with his Lonkero, a Finnish spiked seltzer made with gin. “It’s essentially what White Claw wants to be,” he says.
The second half of the menu includes Stephens’s original recipes, including his American Troubadour cocktail, a blend of bourbon, Grand Marnier, Branca Menta, and cold brew. “I’ve adjusted and tweaked it over the years,” he says. “American whiskey, Italian bitters, Colombian coffee, taking flavors from around the world and combining them into one beverage.” And of course, in a nod to tiki, the bar serves a mai tai, with a blend of Appleton and Rhum JM.
Cereus is now open at 1465 NE Prescott Street.