SOMETHING STRANGE is happening in Northwest Portland: It’s getting cool again. Under pretenses of celebrating the Slabtown neighborhood’s working-class history, apartment buildings like the LL Hawkins are going up (next to a New Seasons, no less). And even those of us who can’t afford a studio have to admit the Hawkins is kind of a looker. (Didn’t we agree that all new buildings must be eyesores so Portlanders could keep carping?)
One neighborhood staple, Cana Flug’s Portland classic Besaw’s, lost its spot on NW 23rd last year and adapted by relocating and rebranding, moving to the LL Hawkins. And now Besaw’s has a sister in the next-door Solo Club. The colorful, bi-level café and bar has a focus that’s just about as Portland-cool as it gets: excellent coffee in the morning, amaro- and bitters-focused cocktails in the evening, and a Southeast-Asian inspired menu all day long.
The Solo Club opens at 6 am (7 on weekends) and stays that way until at least midnight, so you could conceivably eat every meal at the place. In fact, I recommend it. If you’re the minimal breakfast type, a matcha donut won’t disappoint, but there are heartier options. Every time Solo Club Executive Chef (and co-owner) Dustin Clark designs a menu, Portland waits with baited breath... to see where he’ll sneak in some American cheese. He doesn’t disappoint with the Solo Club breakfast sandwich, an English muffin stuffed with egg, kimchi, and our national food, American cheese. It’s $5, but for an extra $2 or $3, you can add extra protein like miso bacon or housemade bologna. If this was the only item on the menu, I’d still come in every day.
The daytime menu rolls on until 3 pm with some lunchier options including a Burmese chicken salad with a snap of cabbage, crunch of peanut, and cool breeze of mint that’s so light and fresh I can only compare it to the way Gatorade wants you to think athletes feel when they drink Gatorade. Luckily, this dish is one of few on the daytime, happy hour, and dinner menus ($8 daytime and dinner, $5 on HH).
That refreshing feeling doesn’t stop there. Virtually the entire bar is dedicated to a classification of alcoholic beverage loved by fewer cities more than by Portland: Amari, bitters, and vermouth make up easily three quarters of the bar. The oddball bitter liquors and liqueurs star in every cocktail—almost all of which are made in Europe from complex/proprietary/secret recipes of herbs and whatnot as pre- or post-dinner utilitarian gut-settlers.
This is third co-owner Mark Bitterman’s influence—you may remember him from literally writing the book on the subject, Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari. The drinks let these unique sippers do the heavy lifting; as one of the bartenders put it, “Our drinks aren’t complicated, but the ingredients are.” There are eight $12 cocktails: short drinks, each with five or fewer ingredients. Of these, the mezcal cocktail is a star: smoky agave spirit wrapped up in fortified wine, orange blossom water, and an amaro called Sfumato Rabarbaro, a Chinese rhubarb-based Italian liqueur that’s leafy, smoky, and fruity, like a fine cigar wrapped in fruit leather.
The real fun is the other half of the drink menu: “coolers,” the long sippers that will get you through two or three delicious small plates: an amaro spiked gin and tonic ($10) (try the French aperitif Suze for something a little brighter and mellower), a draft cider with a dash of bitters ($6), or lager with a shot of amaro ($8) (throw a stomach-mollifying Underberg in there if you had one too many orders of crispy duck gizzards with Thai basil ranch).
There’s also an array of fernet and draft cola options ($6). The bar appears to stock every brand of fernet the OLCC buys, but outside the classically bracing Branca, you want the dry, spicy entry from the untouchable Chicago distillers at Letherbee. Fernet and cola is the actual best drink in the world, though it is a bit disappointing that Solo Club’s house cola is caffeine free, so you can’t depend on that keel-evening upper/downer quality you get from Coke.
I suppose there are nits to pick, if you really try: Does the decor seem a little chintzy? Are the pickles better in dishes like the crispy frog wings than they are on the pickle plate? And the radlers (lager and fruit soda) are a little sweet, but they always are when the ingredients are real.
With lofted upstairs seating and a view of the Fremont bridge—until another new development inevitably goes up next door—it offers great people-watching, too. Honestly, I just hope that when I’ve finally been priced out to a dungeon studio in St. Helens or Vancouver, I’ll still be able to visit the Solo Club and see how the other half lives.