Portland has a lot of bars. Our seams are bursting with them. Some are dives. Some are clubs. And some have strippers. But many bars, if not most, are places where we often gather to catch up with friends, separating ourselves from other groups, our tables dotting the room like islands of nation states.
This norm is decidedly not the norm when it comes to visiting neighborhood bars, especially the smaller ones. Because, while you can have those quiet conversations with your sweetheart or bestie, chances are, in a small bar, you'll be willingly drawn into the bar's collective conversation, because small bars know no borders.
Neighborhood Notes recently visited six small locales, all of which seat about 20 to 30 of you. Here's not just what we found, but who we found.
Northwest District, Slabtown
This dimly lit and lively crêperie is located in the shadow of the 405. It's been around for more than a decade and continues to draw Portlanders of all stripes—high school students, sixtysomethings on a date, families with young children. Owned by Portlander John Brodie, a painter and all-around promoter of the arts and the people who make them, Le Happy is a quiet, yet bustling place to pair a glass of French red, a craft brew, or a signature cocktail with a sweet or savory crêpe. Plus, Le Happy has a leisurely feel so it's a good place to play—literally, there are board games in the back. Just wander back, grab one and play while you wait for your food or finish your drinks.
Seats: About 30
Eats: Salads, steaks and crêpes, of course!
Le Happy, 1011 NW 16th Ave., 503.226.1258
Northwest District, Nob Hill
If you were to dream up the ideal model for a neighborhood drinkery, your mind would paint a picture that closely resembles Jeremy Campbell's M Bar. It's candlelit, it's got a carefully selected wine and beer list, and it's open till 2:30 a.m. every day of the year—making it a favorite spot for service industry vets. But, it's remained a neighborhood go-to mostly because, as bartender Anna Klement says, "Somebody will always need a drink." Yet more than anything, it's a great place to meet people (you'll find they're probably just neighbors you haven't met yet) in an environment that's safe and comforting. In fact, it would be uncommon not to be drawn into the room's conversation. The reserve wine list includes several bottles of very distinguished Champagnes, reds and whites, but if that weren't enough, M Bar's draft Guinness might be the best you've ever had. Klement explains that because the line that runs from the keg to the tap is the shortest—and therefore, the cleanest—in the city, M Bar pours a Guinness with a dark body and creamy head that’s probably the best in town.
Seats: 20, but, with plenty of outdoor seating, that number jumps dramatically when the weather's warm.
Eats: None, but the bartenders will let you bring in outside food—just ask them which places they recommend.
M Bar, 417 NW 21st Ave., 503.228.6614
Kir Wine Bar
When you drop by Kir, you're not just going out for drinks—you're going out to be entertained. Really, it feels like more dropping in on friends who are hosting a small get-together—with them hopping from one group of friends to the next to make sure everyone's glass is full—than it does going out. The only dilemma is choosing something to drink—Kir offers about 50 old world glass pours made by small wineries that have been designated as all-natural, organic, biodynamic, and sustainable producers. Owner Amalie Roberts says her regulars love Kir for its "vast rotating wine list that always has something fun and interesting to try." And she says newbies love it because the staff will guide them, offering samples of the wines on the list until the "perfect pour" is found. If you’re lucky, you’ll go on a night when Russell Smith is tending bar because he’s as much of a master of ceremonies as he is a guide. Whether you're a regular or a first-timer, you'll find that more than anything, you feel right at home. Which is the idea.
Eats: Soups, salads, cheeses, mussels and tarts.
Kir Wine Bar, 22 NE 7th Ave., 503.232.3063
Buckman, Central Eastside Industrial
Everybody knows that Portland's a beer town. But, it's increasingly becoming a wine town with bottle shops and urban wineries popping up like crocuses in February. Still, you don't often find a wine bar that focuses solely on one kind of wine—and sparkling wine at that. Sommelier David Speer's well-lit, cozy, little space is named for the tiny village in the north of France that produces some of the world's finest Champagnes. And Ambonnay's menu is primarily made of authentic Champagnes (about 60), some from the village itself with a few Spanish, German and Austrian sparklings rounding it out. At present, the space is a mecca for food and drink tourists from all over the world, and it appeals to enthusiastic locals whom Speer calls "dedicated" devotees. But if you don't know bubbles, don't worry. Let Speer escort you. Swing by before or after dinner to celebrate your new promotion, new baby, wedding anniversary, or the new friends you're sure to make at the neighboring table. And remember, Champagne isn’t just something we toast with, it’s something you can enjoy regularly too. Speers is here to help you rethink how you think about bubbles.
Eats: Artisanal cheeses, olives with fennel, and truffle oil popcorn.
Ambonnay, 107 SE Washington St., 503.575.4861
Buckman, Central Eastside Industrial
If you're looking to learn more about wine, you come to Sauvage. For lots of us, wine remains inaccessible because understanding it can be intimidating. But owner and winemaker Jesse Skiles and his crew are trying to change that by starting a conversation that examines how we think about wine, providing historical context to help us reconnect to and better grasp it. Sauvage doesn’t seat many people, but you can stretch out in the space while rubbing elbows with strangers (and future friends) at its lengthy, 16-seat, family-style table as you admire the decorative stuffed birds and wood casks filled with wine that Skiles and his Fausse Piste urban winery team produce on-site. The space is causal, the service is sincere, and the wine education is presented humbly and generously. In addition to Fausse Piste pours, Sauvage also has a list that includes Portland wines as well as old world, sustainable, natural, organic, and biodynamic wines—including some that seem almost randomly selected, like a Macedonian white. But trust us, they're not. Each wine is carefully chosen to accompany the food that Skiles—who's also the enopub’s executive chef—and his kitchen prepare. And if wine still perplexes your palate, there are a few bottled beers too. But go for the wine, because your distinct, unique palate is something Skiles and his team have faith in. So sit back, sip, eat, and prepare to experience wine in ways that are accessible, exciting and—to use a word you don't often hear in wine circles—fun.
Eats: The menu changes every other week, but everything is as local and organic as possible, down to the microgreens Skiles harvests from his parent’s home garden. And if you’re adventurous, Skiles and his team will prepare you a mystery dinner, in which they pair the flavors of several courses with the tasting notes of specifically chosen wines.
Sauvage, 537 SE Ash St., Ste. 102, 971.258.5829
Downtown, West End
Kask is a small, intimately designed, hip place to be, which is why it's a post-work favorite of downtown office workers and a late-evening destination for Portlanders looking for pre-prandial cocktails or nightcaps. But you're not coming here for the design—you’re coming for the cocktails. And Kask's menu is full of them—30 in all, including a creative selection of signature drinks, like six seasonal ones and at least two daily specials. For something uniquely complex, try bartender Nathan Gerdes' Hanoi Strip Wintered Sour (Bombay Sapphire gin, St. Germain, lime juice, cinnamon tincture), which he mixes with a dynamic phở syrup (jalapeño, basil, ginger) that won him Most Imaginative Bartender honors from the U.S. Bartenders Guild and earned him a spot on the cover of GQ. It's tart, refreshing, inventive and—don't worry—tastes nothing like phở. Rather, Gerdes explains, he wants his syrup to recreate that comforting, steamy, aromatic experience you get when a bowl of the stuff is set before you. Breathing in those scents before digging in, Gerdes says, has a way of melting away your problems. And, he's hoping to capture that fleeting experience in the cocktail so that your problems, after a long workday, melt away too.
Seats: 24 comfortably, 45 if everyone squeezes in tight. If you show up when it’s busy—and it does get busy—you might be standing with that drink.
Eats: Olives, pickles, almonds, meats, cheeses and chocolates.
Kask, 1215 SW Alder St., 503.241.7163