THE SPEAKEASY CONCEPT, at this point, will probably produce a visceral reaction in people, ranging from elitist! to derivative!, but most frequently (and ever so boringly), hipster!
Let's get this one out of the way. Central is dark. It's small. It caters to an urbane clientele. The décor features exposed bricks, beams, and a giant elk head. It plays music that Pitchfork has signed off on. The food is French. You can't watch football. There's no sign out front, and it's tucked away behind a little crêperie, Perierra. And yes, you have to walk through a black curtain to get in. If this is a turnoff, okay—stay home. I'll be having a really great drink on a weeknight with your parents.
Sure, I've seen beautiful young people dressed in vintage clothes and thick glasses. I've also seen a table of podiatrists that just came from the theater. For all the OregonLive commentators bitching about hipsters! drinking! in downtown Portland!, whenever I've visited Central—the new bar from Perierra Crêperie's Dustin Knox—the crowd has never been nauseatingly hip, or youthful. It's cool, yes. But cool is fickle. More important, to your podiatrist parents and me, is that Central is making great cocktails and great crêpes, in a great atmosphere... this is hardly an alarming trend.
The knee-jerk reaction probably stems from a list of rules that awaits customers when they walk in the door, the first of which is "No standing room." This means, when the bar is crowded, you have to wait for a seat (you know, like every restaurant you've ever been to). Maybe denying entry or making people wait is, as some have proposed, a way to lord a sense of coolness over potential patrons—I haven't consulted Knox's analyst, maybe that's true. The result, however, is a pleasant place to have a drink in a neighborhood where such a thing is rare (I love Valentine's next door, but it's still a needle in a haystack of Thirsty Lions). Maybe don't go on weekends if that's a concern—I probably won't—but there are a lot of bars I avoid on Friday nights.
But I will go back, primarily for head bartender Lydia Reissmueller's stellar cocktails. While the menu nods to a few other mixologists, most of the recipes are from Reissmueller's own arsenal. Formerly of Please Don't Tell (the East Village's own much-told-about speakeasy), Reissmueller creates classic cocktails that, like Central's concept, hearken back to Prohibition. I'd be fine writing it off as a gimmick if she weren't so damn good at it. From her beakers and shakers, I can enjoy sweeter drinks I'd never be able to stomach from most bars (egg whites go a long way in downplaying sugars and citruses). Her liberal use of Fernet, Campari, and Herbsaint will make more than a few converts to the dustier bottles at the bar. Reissmueller is a welcome addition to Portland's bartending elite—expect her name to be mentioned often in the same breath as Kevin Ludwig and Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
If you can't get past the culture war (or the black curtain), it's still worth trying a crêpe from Perierra's window that opens out onto SW Ankeny. I'm not sure what changed when they crossed the river from their cart's home on SE 12th and Hawthorne—maybe just quality control—but they've taken things up a notch. The crêpes are neither too thick nor too crispy, as I've heard people complain in the Cartopia lot. My favorite so far is the baked eggs, sopressata, Gruyère, spinach, and Sriracha (or "cock sauce"). Most of the savory crêpes feature some kind of flesh, but I think vegetarians will be satisfied with the butternut squash and kale option (just ask for it sans bacon). The sweet crêpes range from standards like Nutella and banana to the less typical combinations, like dulce de leche with plantains.
It's probably worth noting that you're not exactly paying street-food prices here—most crêpes are in the $8-10 range (though, when you're dining in, savory crêpes come with a small green salad tossed with olive oil and citrus, and topped with sliced pears). The signature cocktails are on the pricier end as well—in fact, most run you about the same as what your food will cost—but simpler options go for $6... that is, if you consider absinthe and root beer simple.
Come spring, Knox will start serving brunch out of Central's dining room. If your anti-elitist sentiments are too staunch to check out the bar, that's when you can see what you've been missing.