“Seattle and San Francisco were founded by people looking for gold; Portland, by people searching for Eden.”
That quote, by historian Terence O’Donnell, was enough to propel me to Portland, Ore., a small city with an outsized reputation as the capital of cool (beer, bikes, artisan food). So when a friend visited her 30-something daughter for a quick weekend last March, I tagged along — and quickly realized that Portland’s pleasures are simple and infinitely accessible.
Historic and walkable, Portland is in perpetual bloom with rhododendrons the size of dinner plates, camellia blossoms arching along rooftops, roses bursting from sidewalk cracks. Surprisingly, the sun shone daily. We made reservations for dinner and planned nothing more than to follow our whims through gardens, bookstores and boutiques.
As true Midwest women, we began our weekend with afternoon pie. Lauretta Jean’s Pie Bakery is a teeny shop with rolling wooden floors, tippy tables and chunky stoneware. Handsome hand-crimped crusts burst with bubbling fruit or boisterous cream, the vintage display cases were lined with nubby galettes, bronzed biscuits and jars of homemade jams.
Portland’s 600-plus food carts huddle in pods, and the Division/Clinton district packs the best of them into Tidbit Food Farm and Garden. It covers a full city block with picnic tables, a fire pit, a stage for live music and carts selling vintage aprons, pottery, gourmet hot dogs, tacos, ramen, vegan and gluten-free cookies, plus an odd selection of beers, like peanut porter (worth a sip).
The Pearl District — filled with repurposed warehouses, cobbled streets, parks and coffee shops — is home to the city’s first food hall, the Pine Street Market in the historic Carriage & Baggage Building. Under one roof, a collection of award-winning chefs work their respective stoves. Here, Marukin serves the best ramen outside Japan, right next door to Pollo Bravo tapas bar (try the rotisserie cauliflower and the garlic prawn). Don’t resist Wiz Bang’s rhubarb honey frozen yogurt.
With no time to tour nearby vineyards, we stopped at the Southeast Wine Collective, an urban winery with a wine bar. Sitting in the afternoon sun on the patio, we sipped a flight of pinot noir produced by three different vintners on-site, each with slightly different notes of mineral, spice and cherries.
Food and more food
We started our first full day at Little T American Baker, an airy, flour-dusted space with yeasty, toasty aromas. Its motto, “flour, science, hands and heart,” plays out with tangy rye, rich, crumbly scones, old-timey Sally Lunn bread and crusty baguettes.
For lunch, we landed at Maurice, a teeny blue-and-white luncheonette, serving hyper-seasonal dishes. We took stools at the counter and watched the chef toss salad with her hands (to be perfectly dressed). Homemade mustards and pickles lined the shelf, which was tacked with a prep list scratched on brown paper for the day’s chicken pot pie in a puffy crust, Dungeness crab and grapefruit salad, and a delicate black pepper cheesecake.
A famed breakfast and pizza spot, Roman Candle, fills up by 8 a.m. Rustic brother to the Ava Gene’s restaurant next door, it turns out two-fisted egg sandwiches on thickly sliced wood-fired toast enjoyed at the massive wooden communal tables. Its centerpiece is a futuristic La Marzocco espresso machine with copper tubes and chunky bolts that huffs with its steamy work. Roman Candle, like Ava Gene’s, was created by Stumptown’s founder and restaurateur Duane Sorenson.
We hit Ava Gene’s for our first night’s dinner. Roman-inspired, appointed with brass and marble, edgy and elegant, and a menu that reads like a love letter to Italian food. We shared vegetable-centric platters of shaved asparagus and briny bottarga (mullet roe); rye cavatelli, prosciutto and broccoli, spring wheat pasta, mussels and fennel.
On we strolled to Pinolo for hazelnut gelato, and sat under the stars.
Coquine in the quiet Mount Tabor neighborhood began as a popular pop-up and has evolved into an award-winning bistro, thanks to its young chef’s artistry. We shared roasted carrots with sheep’s cheese, barley malt, toasted cashews; the perfect seared halibut, fennel, olives, lovage butter, and couldn’t pass up the warm, soft chocolate-chip cookies with smoke sea salt.
Ned Ludd, an American Craft Kitchen (our last supper) is located in the old-school and up and coming King Neighborhood. Inspired by the British folk hero who eschewed the industrial, the elite and the pretentious, the space resembles a homesteader’s cabin with plants, copper pots and wood stacked throughout. Everything is cooked in the immense wood-fired oven to be smoke-kissed and punctuated with surprise — duck bacon and purslane salad; caraway spaetzle with toasted carrots; whole roasted trout with charred leeks; dense toothy breads.
Books, boutiques and gardens
Powell’s Books, the planet’s largest independent bookstore, covers an entire city block. We grabbed maps and wandered through a warren of color-coded rooms stacked floor to ceiling with new and used books. (I confess to sitting on the floor to page through a stack of 19th-century cookbooks.) If it’s a book, Powell’s has it, just published, most obscure or out of print.
Across the street, Alder & Co. offers a range of beautiful and useful accessories: chunky silver jewelry, hand-dyed scarves, photography books, face creams, nail polish, chocolate truffles and fresh flowers.
As a longtime fan of Mark Bitterman (author of “Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral”), I sought out the Meadow, his shop of essential luxuries. Tucked into the tony Nob Hill neighborhood, it is packed with 150 of the world’s different kinds of salts (pink Hawaiian, Red Sea, Icelandic), 300 different fair-trade chocolates and 140 bitters. The passionate and knowledgeable staff guided our selections with generous samples.
Just over the river, Portland’s Japanese Garden, the most authentic outside Japan, is nestled in the 400 acres of Washington Park. Streams meander to ponds arched with bridges, the only sounds being rustling breezes and gentle waterfalls.
We took in views of Mount Hood on one side, the Willamette River below, and strolled on to the nearby Rose Garden, where 10,000 varieties of blooms burst in giddy array, climbing fences and trellises, fragrant and spectacular.
We savored Portland’s sights, sounds, scents and flavors, packed up our innocent indulgences and picked up a bánh mì from An Xuyen Bakery, and headed for our flight home.
Minneapolis writer Beth Dooley focuses on food. Her most recent book is “Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves From a Northern Kitchen.”