I have a summertime bone to pick with this city. Portland is notably beautiful: Forest Park, multiple volcanic peaks, a modest amount of tall buildings, and two major rivers. We also have a great, innovative, fun, and largely responsible drinking culture. And yet the number of truly scenic bars—rooftop, riverside, or otherwise—is shockingly low.
Part of that may be that the riverside bars we do have are on the Columbia. Such a fuss is made about the Willamette, with its iconic bridges and beautiful waterfront parks, that the metropolitan Columbia—inarguably the bigger, more dramatic, more gorge-ous river—doesn’t get its fair share of attention.
And that’s a shame, especially on these new-normal summer days, with mountain views and rooftops smothered in wildfire smoke, a riverside bar (if you’re healthy enough to be out and about) is about the only place to sit in the breeze with a cocktail or a gob of fried fish in hand to enjoy what amounts to an apocalyptic, but still pretty view.
You might as well start early: brunch, preferably at Salty’s, especially if you’re vastly wealthy and/or haven’t eaten in a few days. The $50+ per person brunch buffet is an exercise in excess, but except for a banquet scene in a Disney movie, there’s no other feeling like it. That said, if you’d just like to have a drink and a small bite, while enjoying the panoramic views of the river and the way the other half lives, a daily happy hour sees plenty of drinks and snacks in the sub-$10 range.
If the view from Salty’s is still too low-flying-birds-eye for you, you can head west on Marine Drive and join the ducks and herons in the marina at the Deck, the seasonal floating restaurant at the Marine Drive Moorage location of McCuddy’s Marina. Surrounded by floating homes and boats, the Deck bobs and sways with the water, which may alienate the more delicately balanced and stomached, but which I find immensely comforting—though not quite as comforting as a $9.95 bucket of ice-cold Coronitas and an ahi tuna steak sandwich. Catch some rays and watch the sun set over Hayden Island, home of our next stop.
I used to work at Jantzen Beach, at a coffee shop where many of the regulars were island folk who never seemed to cross over to the mainland. Sometimes they showed up at 5 am, still tipsy from a night that may have started at the Island Café.
The Island Café is in yet another McCuddy’s Marina, and faces south, offering views, more or less, of regular boats and houseboats. The vibe is very boardwalk cabana, with straw umbrellas and various slushy cocktails, each sweeter than the last and brimming with liquor. Just don’t get so distracted playing “Mainlander or Islander?” that you miss the on-point oyster basket and curried mac salad.
Now, say what you will about Vancouver, but they’ve got us beat (in quantity, at least) on Columbia riverfront bars.
A Joe’s Crab Shack is visible from the I-5 bridge, next to what was clearly once a Chinese restaurant and is now a Californian-owned Mexican place called Who-Song and Larry’s Restaurant and Cantina. But just west, in a dilapidated-looking Red Lion, is Warehouse 23.
The first thing you’ll notice is that though it’s named for a cavernous landlocked structure, Warehouse 23 is decorated like both the inside and outside of a boat (there are literally giant masts with sails in the restaurant) and has a vibe otherwise exclusively found on cruise ships: a corner with shuffleboard, Jenga, and giant wall-mounted Scrabble which requires you, inexplicably and somewhat ominously, to be 21 to play; midweek piano music (a Ben Folds-ish singer/songwriter type who takes song-length breaks between each number and performs an unnecessary and in almost all ways borderline Louis Armstrong impression of “What a Wonderful World”); and servers who seem to be required to ask your name and tell you theirs, which is uncomfortable at sea and unfathomable on land.
The star, food-wise, is a “knife and fork chowder” of breaded and fried clams on a bed of scalloped potatoes, with bacon in a lobster cream. It’s as rich and heavy as it sounds—if this were a boat, you could use a bowl of this chowder for an anchor.
Warehouse 23 is a sister restaurant to Beaches, which—who knew?—is not only found in the Portland airport. No, Beaches is a longstanding waterfront attraction, just a short skip east of downtown Vancouver. And yes, the multilevel, many-windowed interior feels like a blown-up version of the airport bar. The menu cover features an inscrutable cloud of words like “brewsandbites,” “smile,” “verve,” and “hundopguests.” The words pop up inside the menu, too, like on a list of appetizers and salads foregrounded over the lightly threatening combo of “RELATIONSHIPS” and “LOYALTY.” If you’re hungry, go for the Shameless Burger, piled with the usual fixin’s plus cheese, pulled pork, a fried egg, and fried onions. It’s especially shameful because the servers not only pull the same “What’s your name so I can act like we’re old friends?” trick, but even deliver the check in a “comment book,” which you’ll be tempted to just write “H.A.G.S.” in, but you might as well write, “Dear Sarah, I’m sorry I ordered that Shameless burger. I never meant to implicate you in my heart disease, but here we are. Yours very temporarily, the monster at Table 12.”
But to end the night right, we have to head back across the river into Portland, not far as the heron flies—and in fact probably visible from Beaches, on a clear night—to the Sextant.
We end with the Sextant because, of all the spots on the Columbia, it is most clearly and delightfully a bar. It’s not, as its sign points out, a strip club, but a classic Northeast-style working class semi-dive. Yes, it has a spacious deck overlooking the river, but it also has a parking lot that often looks like an impromptu classic car show, and inside, a homey neon brightness illuminates raised booths, a pool table, banks of video lottery, and endless cans of Narragansett (the classic Rhode Island lager you might know from scenes in Jaws), great for washing down table snacks like mixed nuts and jerky or heartier fare. It’s both a classic American bar and a scenic stop on a big, big river—a breath of fresh air and a cold can of beer. If there’s a finer way to spend a summer evening, I don’t want to hear about it.