Based on their appearance alone, it’d be hard to tell that Pearl District cocktail bars Pink Rabbit and Fools and Horses come from the mind of the same man, Collin Nicholas. The former is all sherbet oranges and pinks in an energetic environment; on the weekends, the space is almost always packed with stylish regulars knocking back slushies and fruity shaken cocktails. Next door, Fools and Horses is a sultrier affair, its pressed tin backbar gleaming as dates sip spirit-forward drinks and martinis with house-pickled apples.
Nicholas’s third bar — opening Tuesday, March 21 across the river, on East Burnside — will land somewhere in the middle. Dirty Pretty, taking over the former Bar Dune space, is going for a “whimsical but moody” vibe, in Nicholas’s words, playing off the through lines of all his bars: creative cocktails incorporating culinary elements, warm and thoughtful hospitality, and an inventive food menu from chef Alex Wong.
“Creating a full, well-rounded sensory experience is hugely important to me,” Nicholas says, “from the moment our guests walk through the door from the time that they leave — the way they engage and experience, from an aesthetic standpoint, from a flow standpoint, but also in food and beverage.”
For Nicholas, that starts with the interiors of the bar. Wooden beaded curtains flank the windows in the front of Dirty Pretty, evocative of the 1970s. “It sets a tone from the minute you walk in,” Nicholas says. “They don’t obstruct your view, but they create this divide. It creates this sense of crossing through, from being on Burnside to entering this welcoming space.” Inside, camel-colored banquettes and dark woods give the space an earthy tone, while a custom patterned wallpaper jolts the space with energy. Lonesome Pictopia handled the wallpaper, which, on further inspection, resembles hands emerging from a pod.
The cocktail menu, like the menus at all of Nicholas’s spots, are evocative of his many years in restaurants and culinary school, adding kitchen pantry items and a wide range of produce to the bar. A hyper-elevated take on a screwdriver combines kumquat, orange, saffron, and vanilla with its vodka base. A botanical-heavy gin and Cocchi Americano cocktail gets a sort of fat wash with pho, which plays off the aromatics of the spirit and aperitif while adding a silkier texture to the drink as a whole. A take on a mezcal margarita uses a falernum with star anise and clove notes, backed with a basil-infused aperitif; its sweetness comes from a kiwi shrub and pineapple. “It’d be easy to just add citrus and a sweetening agent to a spirit,” Nicholas says. “But adding things like spices, saline or salt, adding unique ingredients to that recipe, just like the culinary world, it’s effectively the seasoning that really brings those flavors to the forefront.”
The cocktail menu comes from beverage director Ben Purvis, who started as a bar back at Pink Rabbit. “We have really been able to share a vision and approach and technique,” Nicholas says of Purvis. “He has quickly grown and elevated up into many roles behind the bar, and is really leading the charge as the bar director.”
Similarly, chef Alex Wong has become the executive chef of all three bars, and just as Dirty Pretty’s aesthetics land somewhere between Fools and Horses and Pink Rabbit, so does the food menu. While the kitchen at Pink Rabbit slings fun bar snacks like wonton nachos and furikake fries, the menu at Fools and Horses is a deeper dive into Hawaiian Paniolo culture, with dishes like coconut-encrusted mahi mahi and pipikaula, a cured beef short rib dish.
The menu at Dirty Pretty walks the line between the two, leaning on Wong’s Hawaiian background but also landing squarely in casual bar snack territory. Dishes include scallion pancakes stuffed with Shaoxing pork, fried saimin (a Hawaiian fried noodle dish with fish cakes), and jojos dressed with shoyu, furikake, and spicy mayo. One particularly fun dish is a nod to Nicholas’s other bar: Love Story to a Pink Rabbit, a rabbit confit spring roll.
“[Wong’s] experience has provided a ton of range that he’s been able to tap into from a culinary standpoint and a story standpoint,” Nicholas says. “Obviously working through the menu with him, and seeing all the food in its final form, it’s one of the menus I’m most excited about, and really speaks to who Alex is.”
Dirty Pretty will be Nicholas’s first foray outside of the Pearl District as a bar owner, but he feels prepared to leave the neighborhood. For him, it’s not about doing something he hasn’t been able to achieve at the other bars; rather, it’s an opportunity to grow the team as a whole, and access a new corner of the city.
“it’s more for me about respecting and being observant of the landscape that is the Portland food and beverage scene,” he says. “It’s about giving people an experience, taking the successes of the last two projects and continuing to see that growth.”
Nicholas views his bars in a very cerebral way — the name of his latest bar is a reference to an underground poetry movement — but still, it’s about the visitor’s experience, in a very unfussy way.
“At the end of the day, it’s about fun,” he says. “Fun is an important part of this puzzle.”
Dirty Pretty opens Tuesday, March 21, at 638 E Burnside Street.