With its towering ceilings and expensive ticket prices, the Portland Center for the Performing Arts (PCPA) exudes an intimidating odor of wealth and power, which means unless you're attending a performance, you have little reason to drop by for the sole purpose of consuming vittles. And yet the PCPA's recently revamped ArtBar & Bistro (formerly the much less poorly named Backstage Café) is open 4:30 pm-midnight every night of the week and is a full-on restaurant with a comprehensive dinner menu.
If you, like me, crave fresh nightlife in the wasteland we call downtown Portland, I tell you this: ArtBar, for all its high and mighty ambience, is actually a pretty cool place to get shitfaced. Its alcohol menu is stunning, featuring pages and pages of specialty beverages, beer, liquor, and wine options. The bar itself is beautiful, with elegant bluish lighting, comfy armchairs scattered to and fro, friendly bartenders, and surprisingly reasonable prices on the non-top shelf stuff. Just don't arrive hungry; the food is to be avoided at all costs.
Chock full of baffling ingredient fusions, ArtBar's menu is as wildly haphazard as its restaurant area's décor. Set apart from the bar, the dining area sports an offensive mixture of airport-style carpeting and mysterious translucent sheets that hang from the ceiling like ghosts. Menu options include a spiced lentil cake (yes, a lentil cake) with smoked trout, green apple puree (!?) and yogurt (!!!?), a chopped Asian-style cabbage salad, and a yellow curry bowl with butternut squash and tofu.
Not content to simply have a startlingly weird menu, ArtBar's preparation of its cuisine is downright neglectful. On an off night at the theater, my date and I were entirely alone, and yet the food was so hastily made you would have thought the place was packed. Our cabbage salad was food processor-chopped, with a dressing not far removed from Thousand Island. The spiced lentil cake was worse than we feared; the cake a dry, tasteless thing, the trout overcooked and bland. Our bruschetta appetizer featured stale bread and an olive spread with a gut-wrenching blend of salt and garlic, as if the cooks didn't know what else to season it with. The final touch was the spicy sesame udon noodle bowl with pickled ginger; a limp pile of wet, fat carbohydrates tossed in tasteless oil. Such a dismal culinary display might be acceptable at a Denny's in Oregon City, but in the heart of a teeming urban arts and culture center, it's a travesty. Aren't the wealthy and cultured used to better food than this?
The good news is that ArtBar just added a happy hour (4:30-6 pm, and after 9:30) with drink specials and appetizers; its outreach to the masses is commendable. But if it really wants to bring everyone into the fold, it's going to have to do something far more revolutionary first: make something worth eating.