Portland’s Old Town-Chinatown presents a dizzying array of shopping, sights, eats and events as well as characters and characteristics, from serenely traditional to outlandishly artistic to rambunctiously drunken. Historically home to significant emigrant populations of Chinese and Japanese, today’s Asian influence is mostly surface only as just a handful of gift shops, importers and restaurants remain in the neighborhood.
Yet, the impressive Chinatown Gate over Fourth Avenue still welcomes visitors to NW Portland with two imposing bronze lions sitting on their haunches. Iconic red lamp posts line the streets north of Burnside and the re-erected Hung Far Low sign endures just two blocks past the gate.
Amongst all the activity and weekend merrymaking, there’s a seedier side—strip clubs and an adult theater—and a blunt reality to the area where a significant homeless population lives and human services abound.
Nevertheless, a few things are guaranteed every night of the week: The echo of live music always hangs in the air as does the aroma of deep-fried dough and crystallized sugar, each welcoming you to your destination even before it’s in sight.
DO: Tour By Foot or Bike
Jump in an orange PDX Pedicab for a 45-minute tour guided by an audio recording, or set your own pace with the Old Town-Chinatown walking tour. While each will take you by many of the major historical sites of “Portland's oldest neighborhood,” according to the Old Town-Chinatown Neighborhood Association, there are two more stops you can add to your list: Take a stroll up the north side of the Burnside Bridge and turn around once you’re over the water to view the neon White Stag sign, which welcomes you to Old Town as you drive across the river; and then head down to what remains of the oddity-filled 24 Hour Church of Elvis, on NW Couch Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, to push the buttons of the coin-op kiosk, which offers fortune-telling and marriage ceremonies.
24 Hour Church of Elvis, 408 NW Couch St., 503.226.3671
SHOP: The Open-Air Emporium
Every Saturday and Sunday from March through December, the Portland Saturday Market sets up shop in its modern annex in Waterfront Park along the Willamette River and across Naito Parkway in the old Ankeny Square. “The largest continually operating outdoor arts and crafts market in the nation,” according to its website, there are innumerable vendors selling locally handcrafted goods, art of every imaginable medium, and a variety of food, including a Rogue Ales booth. When you need a break from the handicrafts, take a stroll along the Willamette enjoying views of the east side or venture up SW Ankeny Street to the historic Skidmore Fountain as well as the arches and ornamental, white colonnades of the New Market Block where the MAX line runs along the cobblestones.
Waterfront Park and Ankeny Square in historic Old Town-Chinatown
DO: Steep Yourself in Asian Culture
An isolated piece of tranquility in the center of a hectic neighborhood, Lan Su Chinese Garden occupies an entire city block and houses hundreds of unique and unusual native Chinese plant species as well as the five elements of a Chinese garden—rocks, water, plants, architecture and literary inscriptions—harmoniously blended together inside its walls. Striving “to recreate an ideal landscape in miniature,” the garden is a peaceful place to wander or take tea while you ponder an ancient culture or just get lost in your own thoughts. For more Asian art, culture and history, visit the Japanese American History Museum at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, which houses exhibits and archives as well as hosts classes and events, all aimed at preserving and sharing the history and culture of the Japanese American community. And in case you’re wondering, Nikkei here does not refer to the Japanese stock market but rather the Japanese diaspora, including emigrants and their descendants that now live abroad.
Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 NW Everett St., 503.228.8131
Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, 121 NW 2nd Ave., 503.224.1458
SHOP: The Comic-Artistic-Music Collective
Beyond the walls and bookcases filled with a curated selection of comics as well as art books and magazines that span the topics of graphic design, illustration, animation, music and film, Floating World Comics has become a collaborative space focused on providing readers and artists with quality publications and inspirational discoveries. To this end, FWC shares the space with Landfill Rescue Unit, purveyors of new and rare punk, metal, psych, funk, soul, and rap on vinyl, and Grass Hut, a collective of artists that run a gallery/shop/studio selling art, crafts, indie zines, clothing, and “random other stuff.” Enjoy the generous discharge of fluorescent paint commonly adorning the canvases, which are often cartoonish, plastic toys.
Floating World Comics, Grass Hut, Landfill Rescue Unit, 400 NW Couch St., 503.241.0227
EAT: Take a Seat at the Greek Table
Completely nondescript from the exterior, the cavernous, family-owned Alexis Restaurant is Old Town-Chinatown’s beloved providers of traditional Greek cuisine and culture in its whitewashed taverna. You’ll likely be greeted warmly by Alexis’ host Gerasimos “Gerry” Tsirimiagos upon entering, and a shared sampling of an Alexis Platter (hummus, tzatziki, lamb souvlaki, octopus, dolmathes, spanakopita, feta cheese, olives and more—also available individually) is recommended while sipping on a glass of ouzo or Greek wine. In addition to serving you at your table, the restaurant’s namesake, Alexis Bakouros, also runs a wholesale food importing and distribution business, which notably includes many of the Greek specialties found on the menu, made daily and available in other eateries and grocery stores around town, like New Seasons.
Alexis Restaurant, 215 W Burnside St., 503.224.8577
PLAY: Game On at the Arcade Bar
Founded by lifelong pinball and classic video game enthusiasts, Ground Kontrol “celebrates and preserves arcade gaming's ‘golden age’ by operating over 100 of the best video games and pinball machines from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s,” according to its website, as well as offering a full bar and snacks, which you can put away while seated at glowing tables. Bask in the warmth of buzzing, chiming machines and the luminescence of the retro-futuristic, TRON-inspired interior where white- and indigo-hued fiber-optic lighting and LEDs line the stairs and archways as DJs spin a fresh variety every night. The long-running Rock Band Tuesdays, dubbed “karaoke for gamers,” will allow you to pick up plastic instruments and rock out using pro gear (microphones, guitar and keyboard controllers, drum mod), lights and sound (PA system, audio monitors), but before you head home for the night, be sure to make your way to the restrooms to check out the floor mosaics—Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, respectively.
Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, 511 NW Couch St., 503.796.9364
SEE: "Female Impersonators," As Billed Tonight (and Every Night)
An Old Town institution run by a living Portland legend, Darcelle (aka Walter Cole) has run her Las Vegas-style cabaret revues of “Glitz, Glamour and Comedy” since 1967, earning the title of “the nation’s longest consecutively running drag cabaret.” With the eye makeup liberally applied and the fake lashes affixed, settle down with a stiff drink as the drag queens take over Darcelle XV’s stage for lip-synched dance routines. Leave your earmuffs at home as the octogenarian Darcelle provides the crass humor herself. So, unwind and let the feather boas tickle your funny bone... er, just enjoy yourself.
Darcelle XV Showplace, 208 NW 3rd Ave., 503.222.5338
DO: Art and PBR
First Thursday in Old Town-Chinatown is definitely less debonair and chic, and more lively, than the well-known activities in the adjacent Pearl. Offering plentiful galleries—like the block around the Everett Station Lofts, which also includes studio spaces and a record label—and affordable (as well as eccentric) art, there’s action to be found at many of the already mentioned locales where new shows open each First Thursday of the month. And seeing as the district houses so many bars and dance clubs, the revelry casually evolves into a party that carries on into the night.
Everett Station Lofts & Galleries, 625 NW Everett St., 503.222.3425
EAT + DRINK: Imbibe and Consume, Outdoors and In
Taking a page out of the old town playbook of Europe, Portland closed off SW Ankeny Street between Second to Third Avenues to traffic in 2011, effectively creating a communal, open-air space where the surrounding bars and restaurants set up picnic tables. Sit outside with your bright pink Voodoo Doughnut box while mulling over the stained glass likeness of a bacon maple bar and the faces of Voodoo’s owners, as well as the late Ted Papaioannou, owner of neighboring bar Berbati and music venue Ted's, and then wash down that cereal-, cookie- or candy-covered sweet with a drink from the uber-hip art space Valentines, or a craft libation from Central as you watch the chef work a compact kitchen through the restaurant’s one alleyway window. The dim recesses of the new-ish industrial chic, speakeasy-style bar may be blocked by a curtain, but the large windows of next door's 105-year-old Dan & Louis Oyster Bar—Portland’s “oldest family-owned restaurant”—reveal shucked oysters and nautical paraphernalia, like a massive wooden ship's wheel that hangs above the bar in the The Old Shucking Room.
Voodoo Doughnut, 22 SW 3rd Ave., 503.241.4704
Ted’s Berbati’s Pan, 221 SW Ankeny St., 503.226.2122
Valentines, 232 SW Ankeny St., 503.248.1600
Central, 220 SW Ankeny St., 503.719.7918
Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, 208 SW Ankeney St., 503.227.5906
Berbati, 19 SW 2nd Ave., 503.248.4579
DO: Variety is the Spice of Live Music
Some of the bigger names in live music come to the Roseland Theater, but within a three-block radius of this Portland mainstay are four other intimate venues with their own unique identities and attitudes. Literally across the street from the Roseland is the narrow, newly reopened Star Theater, a 100-year-old venue—now run by the same team as Dante’s—that has been commended for its sound. Down the Burnside block is the aforementioned Dante’s, a sweaty, hard-rocking, Pabst-soaked venue that’s known for a healthy offering of rock ’n’ roll and metal as well as the weekly Sunday Sinferno Cabaret burlesque show (with fire dancers, live snakes, jugglers and magicians) and plenty in between, like comedy and karaoke backed by a live band. If the burly, tattooed and pierced bouncers that guard the door intimidate you, take a stroll back across Burnside and catch an all-ages show at Backspace, a venue that truly accommodates underage concertgoers, allowing drinkers and minors to mingle in the same space, sans the divisive alcohol barrier that separates most of the major Portland clubs. Plus, Backspace is a coffee shop, Internet cafe, computer gaming space, and art gallery by day, displaying and selling local art and serving Stumptown Coffee. The nighttime entertainment options are also quite eclectic as are the offerings at the neighboring Someday Lounge, a 21-and-over counterpart that features innovative performances and was started by the same pair of brothers (along with some help) that envisioned Backspace.
Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., 971.230.0033
Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., 503.248.4700
Dante’s, 350 W Burnside St., 503.226.6630
Backspace, 115 NW 5th Ave., 503.248.2900
Someday Lounge, 125 NW 5th Ave., 503.248.1030
Want to learn more about Portland's Old Town-Chinatown neighborhood? Visit the Old Town-Chinatown page on Neighborhood Notes for events, photos and a local business directory. If you live or work in Old Town-Chinatown, helpful notifications like land use notices and liquor license applications are also included.
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