Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, an iconic 40-year-old cafe inside a house in the Buckman neighborhood, embodies a certain tired interpretation about the oddness of the city it calls home. Three mechanical tables on the ground floor famously rotate, or rise up and down, or shake randomly just for kicks. (The official story, of course, is that the place is haunted.) The bathroom features mannequin parts dangling from the ceiling and sitting in a kayak; more than once, I’ve heard an uninitiated guest’s startled scream upon entering. Diners are encouraged to leave notes and ephemera underneath the glass tabletops, which now hold histories of relationships and discoveries and declarations that “I was here.” The entire experience has been described as “casually threatening,” a phrase that the spot, frankly, should print on T-shirts (I’ll take two).
Rimsky’s coffeehouse status is right there in its punny name, a reference to Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But in the decade-plus I’ve been going to Rimsky’s — since before I’d even moved to Portland — I’ve never once ordered coffee there. Sure, its menu features its share of whipped- or cinnamon-topped mochas and flavored cappuccinos and boring old Americanos. But in a city obsessed with coffee, Rimsky’s is a coffeehouse where the actual coffee has never mattered.
Instead, it’s a coffeehouse in its almost primitive form, a place for people to just exist within. Its theatrics ensure that it becomes the conversation topic — the room itself is the draw. I’ve taken an untold number of out-of-towners there, with the room acting as an icebreaker for our reunion after some time apart. It’s the perfect place for an adult-feeling conversation without getting too drunk or worrying about other drunks. (There’s no alcohol, making it a great place to meet sober friends, or eye tables of local teens being teens.) Its intentionally bizarre interior encourages spontaneity, making few actions feel out of place: People wander over to the corner piano and play, brilliantly or otherwise, when there’s no live music. I don’t know if they’re outright banned, but I’ve never seen a laptop in Rimsky’s dining room.
Nine years after Rimsky’s opened, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase “third place” to describe sites for social gathering separate from the private space of home and the public space of an office. Starbucks would later embrace the “third place” as part of its corporate mantra, famously designing many of its early stores around that philosophy. Ever since, the third place idea has been strongly tied to coffee shops. But in recent years — pre-pandemic, anyway — that third place has edged into the fully public realm of the workplace. When I hear the word “coffeeshop,” I usually envision a comfortable elsewhere I can work at for hours in front of my laptop; a public meeting site for an informational interview; or an excuse to grab a fleeting mid-morning respite from the office by taking a walk to get an iced Americano. For me, getting a cup of coffee is the means through which something else gets done, and the coffeehouse itself is shorthand for a planned meeting, tied to accomplishing something specific — even if that something was to read a book anywhere but my own living room. Third places have become sites for productivity instead of social occasioning.
Rimsky’s was always the antidote to the coffeeshop-workplace. And 14 months into a pandemic lockdown that’s largely limited coffeeshops to takeout-only service, I’ve realized what I miss are not coffeeshops as I once used them the most. I miss the idealized Rimsky’s version that gives you permission to do nothing but sit and observe. The ideal third place is one where people meet to experience something together; to talk over ice cream sundaes or pots of tea; to indoctrinate someone new to a place that they can then share.
Rimsky’s is also the type of establishment that even before the pandemic felt most in danger of closing down permanently. Third places now boast of their super-fast Wi-Fi, their third-wave roasts, their stunty colorful lattes that pop on Instagram. Despite its dramatic environs, Rimsky’s wouldn’t exactly appeal to the average Instagram aesthete. Of the hundreds of places that will permanently close as the result of this pandemic, it’s ones like Rimsky’s that are the most precarious, despite being the type of space that cities claim as uniquely of their fiber: Bars like Liberty Glass and Beech Street Parlor, dives like Crackerjacks, and neighborhood breakfast spots like Arleta Library have all closed. Portland’s iconic coffeehouses — the Pied Cows, the Anna Bananas, and the Rimsky’s — remain open for now, but it’s hard to say what world they’ll reopen in, or how they’ll survive when lingering anywhere may feel more precarious than it ever has before.
I hope Rimsky’s, and the places like it, hold on. During a recent visit, the house felt sealed off like a fortress; on the warm night, the front door wasn’t even cracked open to welcome any breeze. Instead, a sign on the closed door instructed guests to call in their orders and stand by. When my dessert arrived, the masked server handed me the carefully packaged takeout box, but closed the door again completely while grabbing my change. A group of three friends chatted at one of three tables on the front porch, masks off. But for a coffee shop so much about the sense of place, it felt almost eerie (if expected) to be fully shut out of that dining room, denied even an open-door glimpse of what it might look like right now.
The idea of eating on that closed-door front porch felt sort of melancholy, so I took my dessert to the car, where I dug in with the windows down. Only after a few moments did I realize that, once again and true to form, I’d neglected to order a coffee.