In the 160 years since its founding, Portland, Oregon, has been many cities—a frontier settlement, a booming timber town and, more recently, the epicenter of the nation's microbrew revival. These days Portland is a wine and food town, and a serious one.
Portland is the gateway to the Willamette Valley winegrowing region, and the rest of Oregon wine country, but that's not the only attraction. The city's culinary roots run deep: James Beard was born here, and in his 1964 book Delights and Prejudices he wrote that "good food abounded" in what he called a "food-conscious city." With a population of about 500,000, Portland seems to have more than its share of fine dining establishments.
There is something quite urbane about Portland—not surprising considering its history. As one of the West Coast's major shipping ports, the city is accustomed to having the world at its doorstep. Yet it's still distinctly American.
The Heathman Hotel is one of Portland’s finest and oldest.
Portland's human-scale neighborhoods center around cafés and parks. Downtown, with its historic buildings and old bridges spanning the Willamette River, recalls old river towns and port cities of America's East Coast, places like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. At the same time, Portland is surrounded by the sort of dramatic countryside that the Pacific Northwest uniquely provides. The 11,000-foot summit of Mount Hood, just east of the city, is visible on a clear day.
And there are occasionally clear days. Portland is notorious for its overcast weather, although it receives less rain annually than Seattle, Atlanta or Baltimore. The weather is not unlike that of San Francisco—even in summer the evenings are cool, although Portland's summer daytime temperatures are generally higher than the City by the Bay's, reaching into the low 80s.
Portland is like San Francisco in another way—both are progressive cities with a strong sense of local character and pride. It is a city of many neighborhoods—small communities, really—and each seems to have its own wine and food personality.
Bluehour brings exciting food and wine to Portland's trendy Pearl District.
Downtown has many of the old guard restaurants, including the restaurant at the Heathman Hotel and Higgins. Most of the top hotels are there as well, including The Paramount and the Heathman. There's also high-end shopping downtown, with Nordstrom, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton and Saks Fifth Avenue on Pioneer Square.
The Pearl District is Portland's SoHo, where former warehouses have been converted into upscale condos, shops and restaurants, attracting a young and well-to-do crowd. The trendy Bluehour restaurant is typical of the neighborhood.
With its old Victorian houses, shops and restaurants, Nob Hill is Portland's quaint neighborhood. It's also home to one of the city's best restaurants, Wildwood.
On the bohemian outskirts of the upscale Laurelhurst neighborhood in east Portland is the hip side of the food-and-wine scene, including Tabla Mediterranean Bistro.
Higgins restaurant focuses on providing its diners with fresh, local ingredients and a wine list strong in Oregon bottlings.
And, as you might imagine, Portlanders are devoted to the wines of Oregon and Washington. Fifty-two percent of Oregon's wines are sold in-state, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and much of that is consumed in Portland. As a whole, the wine lists of the city reflect a passionate yet straightforward approach to wine. With a handful of exceptions (such as the list at the Heathman), most of the lists include a few dozen newly released wines from around the world at generally modest prices. Still, it isn't hard to find a stimulating bottle to have with dinner.
While Portland's restaurant scene represents a wide range of cuisines, many specialize in what is generally called Pacific Northwestern cuisine. Like California cooking, it is largely defined by the use of local and seasonal ingredients. The Heathman Restaurant has been the city's longstanding advocate of Pacific Northwest food, but today chef Philippe Boulot blends in a touch of France. Cory Schreiber at Wildwood and Greg Higgins at his signature restaurant have each spent over 10 years perfecting their treatment of the excellent raw materials available to them.
In the end, "raw abundance" may be a good description for the city itself. Portland has all the sophistication of a city several times its size, but also the laidback attitude of a storied old town straddling a couple of rivers.