Portland: Just Like the TV Show, Only Better, Part 1

Susannah Kelly (left) and Neil Perry, co-owners of Antler

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.

I had barely arrived in Portland, Ore., when I experienced my first Portlandia-worthy moment. In a scene reminiscent of the quirky IFC comedy series, a small man with a long beard and his fresh-faced female companion beckoned through their storefront window along the main drag of the city’s Alberta Arts District.

Neil Perry and Susannah Kelly had just opened a gallery space about the size of a walk-in closet that somehow managed to stock the work of more than 10 artists. In the TV version, these two might have been portrayed by Portlandia series co-creators and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, who play multiple characters on the show.

The real duo hails from Northern England (Perry) and Santa Barbara, Calif., (Kelly) and eagerly chatted up my friends and me about their fledgling business called Antler; their favorite spots to eat and drink; and most of all –– their love of Portland.

This encounter proved to be the first of many such camera-ready moments with the real characters populating this Northwestern city of nearly 600,000. I went to Portland to find out if the actual place would live up to the politically-correct, artisan-nurturing, locavore’s paradise both celebrated –– and sent up –– by the show.

But I didn’t want to simply retrace the steps of the series, which is filmed entirely on location. Instead, I aimed to star in my own version of Portlandia. When one of the downtown landmarks is a mural exhorting people to “Keep Portland Weird,” I suspected I would find plenty of material –– and I was right.

Photos by Robert DiGiacomo

Episode 1: Hipster HQ

For my hotel, I chose the Ace –– a boutique property that figures prominently as The Deuce in a Season 1 episode of Portlandia and rightly so: The hotel has a retro, lived in look, pairing vintage-style downscale furniture with upscale amenities.

Imagine an SRO hotel with high thread-count sheets, a trendy restaurant-bar with mixology-inspired cocktails and a cafe serving a local favorite coffee, Stumptown.

I quickly discovered one of the qualities that sets Portland apart from so many cities with farm-to-table restaurants, small batch beer and spirits producers and boutiques brimming with locally-sourced products.

In Portland, the hipsters who work at the Ace and the other restaurants and shops I visited seemed genuinely friendly and mostly free of the bad attitude typical of their brethren –– a quality my travel companions and I dubbed “Portland-nice.”

As in the show, however, those who stray from Portland’s mostly easygoing script might be met with a vexed look, and a cross word, but rarely a raised voice.

When another guest interrupted my check in at the Ace to ask the front desk clerk a question, he wrinkled his brow at the offending party, while politely fielding her query.

He then apologized to me for the disruption, which hadn’t even registered with my Northeastern sensibility.

“That is so rude,” he said, shaking his head ruefully.

Episode 2: Book lover’s delight

From the Ace, it’s an easy walk or bike ride –– free rentals are available from the hotel–– to explore the downtown or nearby Pearl District, a gentrified area with loft-style apartments, restaurants, boutiques and increasingly chain stores like West Elm. Portland also offers an extensive public transportation system, with free rides on streetcars and trams throughout most of the downtown.

My first stop upon leaving the hotel is a pilgrimage every book lover must make: Powell’s City of Books, whose name hints at the delights for the bibliophile inside this local chain’s flagship store..

This sprawling, multi-floor warren stocks over 1 million new and used titles, and also recently installed an on-demand press that can instantly print rare, out of circulation books in the public domain or a would-be author’s manifesto. With so many books, I couldn’t imagine having to request one to be printed, but it’s good to have options.

There are sale tables all over the place, with prices slashed by half or more, curated lists of staff picks, lots of nooks for perusing, and a corner cafe that’s a great place to plop down with a book or three.

Naturally, this being Portland, there was a street busker outside Powell’s dressed like a leprechaun.

In Part 2, I eat my way around Portland’s celebrated restaurant scene, and discover where to put a bird on it.