At the origin of Sandy Boulevard, a tiny microcosm of Portland’s beverage scene hums on the weekend. The street slices through the Buckman neighborhood until it hits Couch, and on either side, bars lure patrons in with a very specific niche — union shills peruse the library bookshelves of the Worker’s Tap, Guinness in hand; twentysomethings in expensive sneakers wait outside Jackie’s for their spot within. Farther west, My Father’s Place remains a watering hole for the old-school Portlanders seeking shots and beers with their liver and onions. Up north, the lush back patio at Rontoms becomes a rowdy rock venue during its Sunday sessions.
Portland’s bars are as multifaceted as its restaurants. It’s a city where cocktail lounges have exceptional dinner menus and dive bars churn out nationally celebrated fried chicken. But of all its neighborhoods, Buckman may encapsulate Portland’s drinking culture the most: a place that has the best of the high-end cocktail bar-restaurant, the ultra-cool subterranean lounge, the unpretentious industry bar with dialed-in drinks, the beloved dive with PBR on tap. The crawl below is an ideal out-of-towner or Portland newbie introduction, a crash-course in cocktail consumption within one of the city’s most underrated neighborhoods. This crawl is not for the faint of heart, however — drink responsibly, skip the last stop if necessary, and don’t hesitate to spring for a Lyft on the way home.
Stop 1: Scotch Lodge
The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission requires bars to offer “five different meals available at all times,” which means kitchens at the city’s cocktail lounges often go beyond the typical jalapeño poppers and tots. Even so, Scotch Lodge is the only bar on Eater Portland’s map of essential restaurants, with good reason: The food is simply some of the best in the city. (If the cocktails were any less good, it would overshadow them.) The menu shifts occasionally, but ever-present are the killer fried brie sticks, encased in a crunchy shell of pumpernickel crumbs drizzled with verjus like honey. Pastas here are some of the city’s finest — a recent visit included pappardelle tossed with a rich seaweed butter, candied duck speckling its curves like lardons. Depending on the size of the crowd, add a salad or two, like a chile-crisp-covered tomato or cucumbers tossed with yuzu kosho.
As for drinks, it’s hard to go wrong at Scotch Lodge; the award-winning bartenders have developed an exceptional list of mixed drinks, and owner Tommy Klus has built out what is likely the city’s largest and best selection of Scotch. Ask for a recommendation, or maybe opt for a luscious sour variant called the Lotus Espirit, Japanese candy sweet on the nose thanks to the lotus seed orgeat, with a savory, earthy undertone of genmaicha. You’ll want to get a reservation here, unless you’re planning on popping in solo right when it opens.
Stop 2: Sousòl
Getting a reservation at the James Beard Award-winning Haitian restaurant Kann is a bloodsport. Thankfully, chef and owner Gregory Gourdet’s cocktail bar is both under the restaurant and under the radar. Around the corner from Kann’s entrance, a bouncer lets visitors in, directing them down a flight of stairs to a maroon curtain. The space is dark and loud and undeniably sexy. Modern R&B and hip hop plays among the excited chatter of couples, leaning in close along the pink satin banquettes that line the space. Mounted lamps illuminate the fruit tree wallpaper like moonlight.
The Caribbean diaspora informs both the food and beverage menus here — dishes and drinks incorporate tropical fruits, spices, ginger. The Jungle Phoenix, a clarified coconut milk punch, greets its drinker with the funk of a Caribbean rum blend; on the palate, the fat of the coconut milk provides silkiness and depth, its sweetness tempered by Campari. Those who are still hungry can order snacks like Trinidadian doubles or one of Gourdet’s lovely salads; at the very least, opt for a dessert, like the cinnamon and star anise-spicy pineapple popsicles.
Stop 3: Rum Club
Sticking with the Caribbean theme, stroll down to Sandy to visit this low-lit slice of a bar beloved by industry vets. Rum Club has the relaxed nature of a Wednesday night bar and a good handle on a balanced cocktail. Naturally, this is the place for a sugarcane spirit, whether it’s paired with guava and pineapple juice or combined with vermouth and Maraschino over a large ice cube. Here, go for a classic: The Rum Club daiquiri is closer to a Hemingway daiquiri in approach, with the funk of an añejo rum and a whisper of absinthe on the back. In the summer, grab one of the “blendies,” essentially a frozen daiquiri made with in-season fruit. In the winter, the specials board may include some fun toddies or warm drinks.
Portland bartenders have long sworn by the kitchen at Rum Club, often neglected in favor of the cocktail menu — soak up your drink with a medianoche sandwich with ham and pickles, or pomegranate-beet pickled and deviled eggs. A slice of coconut cake with a rotating ice cream is a sweet finish to a stop here.
Stop 4: Slammer Tavern
Those of us who have grown sensitive in our old age may need to throw in the towel after Rum Club. That’s perfectly respectable. For those yearning for their dirtbag youth — say, a pint and a cigarette in the after-midnight cold — the year-round Christmas lights of Slammer Tavern beckon. This is not a place for fussy cocktails; this is barely a place for fussy beers. It is, more than anything, a place for a PBR or a shot that tastes like a caramel apple lollipop. If you’re lucky, the Skee-Ball machine will be open. Portland, after all, is as earnestly in love with its dives as it is with its cocktail bars. There’s room for all here.