Some of you noobs may hear us old-timers wax nostalgic about how great this town was before you came and sanitized it with your energy-efficient scooters and pristine terrarium shops. It’s hard to clearly define Old Portland, but we do know that its death coincided with the new millennium, and was very different 20 years ago. It was less shiny and more real (whatever “real” means), but lucky for you, some of it still exists!
Our tour begins in the birthplace of Old Portland, where nearly nothing has changed in 150 years. Even though the X-Ray Cafe and Ozone Records are long gone, from stem to stern West Burnside, our original skid row, is still blessedly raw. East Burnside is also still a pretty good representation—at least until about 20th Avenue, when everything good and pure bleeds out into condoland.
Right in the beating heart of downtown is Cameron’s Books & Magazines (336 SW 3rd), the bizarro Old Portland analog to Powell’s, where porn comes the way God intended: in print. Get more of the same across the river at Armchair Books (3205 SE Milwaukie), just a stone’s throw from the Aladdin. Throughout the 1980s, when it was no longer a reputable theater and not yet a hip music venue, the Aladdin’s marquee read “XXX Mature Audiences Only.” Deep Throat ran there for nearly eight years! Fortunately, Oregon Theater (3530 SE Division) has managed to stay open in spite of that street’s ham-fisted attempts to gentrify it into oblivion—a defiant reminder that no matter what Salt & Straw has to say about it, Old Portland isn’t going anywhere.
Bougie ice cream and culinary tourism may have precipitated the demise of Old Portland, but mark my words: You can have our very average food when you pry it from our cold, dead hands. Zefiro is often touted as the restaurant that brought Portland out of the dark ages, and that spot only made it 10 years, closing in 2000. While its death rattle heralded the birth of New Portland, Caro Amico (3606 SW Barbur), Amalfi’s (4703 NE Fremont), and DeNicola’s (3520 SE Powell) have remained stalwart, decades-old reminders that not all of our pizza need come from wood-fired ovens, nor our pasta handmade. And sure, New Portland has Danwei Canting and XLB—but in Old Portland we’ve got stiff drinks and chow mein at the Republic Cafe (222 NW 4th), Canton Grill (2610 SE 82nd), and the Wishing Well (8800 N Lombard), and the terrible Yelp user photos to prove it.
But Old Portland wasn’t just gritty, it was also crunchy, and Paradox Cafe (3439 SE Belmont) brought us vegan biscuits and gravy when we didn’t even know we needed them. While nowadays they stick to coffee and hummus—a winning combination!—King Harvest (1502 SE Morrison) has been hooking up vegetarians for more than 40 years. (I’m still crestfallen that they’ve stopped making my high school lunch staple: carrot juice and the Grinning “Chicken” Tofu Curry pita pocket sandwich.)
Dots (2521 SE Clinton) and Le Bistro Montage (301 SE Morrison) haven’t changed one bit in more than 25 years (except for when the Montage added its kid sister/annex, La Merde). These places are beautiful, grungy time capsules, but no tour of Old Portland would be complete without a visit to the Spare Room (4830 NE 42nd) or the Slammer (500 SE 8th), two well-worn neighborhood dives, each enjoying a loyal following.
Say what you will about cigarette-burned carpets and strong police presence, but the Unicorn Inn motel (3040 SE 82nd) is the crown jewel of 82nd Avenue. The website is a hilarious mélange of stock photos from nicer, more spa-like lodgings (one looks like it’s in Germany!). “Dismal is being generous,” reads the headline of my favorite review, which gives it a 1/5 rating for every criterion except, to my amused bewilderment, the location.
Oregon Art Beat has been on the air for 20 years on OPB and not once in those two decades has it given a single fuck about updating its look. With its Bauhaus Blippo Black logo and continued use of Curtis Salgado and Nu Shooz as pledge drive headliners, Oregon Art Beat has maintained one foot firmly (yet charmingly) in the Portland of yore. And while you’re exposing yourself to art, go visit the mural Gus Van Sant painted in the back patio of Chez Machin (3553 SE Hawthorne) when that joint was still a Macheesmo Mouse (another place for which longtime Portlanders’ hearts ache).
Back in Old Portland, it was more than just cheap rent and Fareless Square. The Pearl District was anchored by a gay goth nightclub and truly sketchy thrift shops, and we felt gleefully imperiled walking around there at night. Hawthorne was all dive bars, head shops, and drag-racing Camaro heshers, and it was fucking glorious. But if you know where to look, you can still catch glimpses of this side of Portland—the side that some of us feel is the true heart of the city.