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Maine's Mid-Coast

By Reid Bramblett
January 12, 2022
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Even for non-fishermen, life on the Maine seashore revolves around the water—and you don't need a lighthouse to find a view worth marveling at.

I've always hated lobster. My memories of childhood vacations in Maine are clouded by recollections of sitting grumpily at the picnic table of lobster shacks, morosely longing for a hamburger. My girlfriend, Frances, was of another mind. She prepared for our drive up Maine's Mid-Coast--from Portland to Penobscot Bay--by trying to work out ways to incorporate lobster into every meal, including breakfast.

I was far more eager to revisit the Maine I loved from my past: offshore islands, Victorian fishing villages, the gargantuan L.L. Bean flagship store, and meandering drives along the narrow peninsulas. As for my feelings about lobster, I have to admit I became a begrudging convert: By the end of our trip it was me--claw cracker in one hand, plastic cup of Maine microbrew in the other--eyeing the largest guy in the tank.

Day 1: Portland to Westport Island

Our first order of business heading north out of Portland on Route 1 was a visit to DeLorme headquarters in Yarmouth. I had borrowed my dad's DeLorme map of the state. He'd highlighted his favorite drives, circled memorable towns, and scrawled notes all over. It was as good a resource as any guidebook, but this was to be my trip, and I wanted my own blank slate.

DeLorme's lobby houses the world's largest spinning globe--130 feet around, over 41 feet high. At one-millionth scale, the massive globe has all the world's topographical information, but leaves out political borders. It's Earth as the astronauts see it--all I could think was how huge the Pacific Ocean actually is.

We stopped next at the Desert of Maine, a kitschy 40-acre plot of miniature sand dunes. The site formed in the 1880s when over-farming depleted the soil covering a glacial sand deposit. Along with the striking dunes, the Desert of Maine complex has a train to cart you around, plastic camels for photo-ops, and a nature trail through a pine forest that promised remarkable wildlife wonders such as "trees and birds."

In Freeport, I got to business trying on travel slacks at L.L. Bean. The town is one of the nation's most popular outlet shopping villages, with more than 150 stores. And it all started in 1917 when avid outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean opened his shop, now a 140,000-square-foot flagship. Frances had to drag me out of a dressing room to find lunch. Half a block down Main Street, we grabbed a table on the brick patio of the Lobster Cooker, a homespun version of a fast-food joint. It was my first lobster roll of the trip, and it was better than I remembered them to be. The soft, chewy bun and the mayonnaisey lobster were delicious.

Squire Tarbox Inn, a 1763 farmhouse turned B&B, was so secluded that to find it we had to stop twice to consult the map. Owner Roni De Pietro, a retired flight attendant, showed us around the building and up an outdoor staircase to our room. Rough wooden beams lined the ceiling, and there was a lovely view over gardens sloping to a meadow with a pond. After settling in, we returned downstairs to the inn's little living room to snack on goat cheese, crackers, olives, and red wine from the honor bar, where we noted what we drank for our bill.

Squire Tarbox is as well known for its meals as its rooms. Roni's Swiss husband, Mario--a veteran of top New York kitchens including The Four Seasons restaurant--prepared a dinner of chicken curry soup, grilled salmon, and potato-crusted haddock with a side of glazed carrots from the inn's organic garden.

Back in our room, I left the door open awhile to take in the quiet and the darkness. A fluffy cat sauntered in, hopped up onto the bed's duvet, and settled down with us for the night.

Day One

Lodging

  • Squire Tarbox Inn1181 Main Rd., Westport Island, 207/882-7693, squiretarboxinn.com, rooms from $99, dinner from $32.50

Food

  • Lobster Cooker39 Main St., Freeport, 207/865-4349, lobster roll $14

Attractions

  • DeLorme 2 DeLorme Dr., Yarmouth, 207/846-7100
  • Desert of Maine 95 Desert Rd., Freeport, 207/865-6962, $7.75

Shopping

  • L.L. Bean 95 Main St., Freeport, 800/559-0747

Day 2: Westport Island to Waldoboro

To say the town of Bath (pop. 9,266) is in the shipbuilding industry is a bit of an understatement; nearly half of the employees at Bath Iron Works are from the greater Bath area. And during the past 117 years, BIW has built more than 400 big boats, from tugs to missile destroyers. Down the road from BIW, the defunct Percy & Small Shipyard has been turned into the Maine Maritime Museum. I expected it to be dull, but was proven wrong by an intriguing mix of seafaring lore and shipbuilding secrets. An exhibit on lobstermen listed some common superstitions: They will not paint their boats blue, wear black, turn baskets or barrels upside down, or say the word "pig" while on board.

Maine's Mid-Coast looks somewhat like a stumpy hand with more than a dozen long, scraggly fingers. The fingers are peninsulas and islands, most of which are connected by bridges. From Bath, we drove down one peninsula and onto Bailey Island, a small fishing village. At the docks, Cook's Lobster House was a near-perfect lobster shack. I had baked lobster stuffed with Ritz crackers. The baking dried out the lobster meat, but copious amounts of melted butter went a long way to making up for it.

At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, we visited the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, a collection of Arctic arcana. (Did you know caribou hair is hollow?) The place was named for two alumni explorers, the more famous of whom--Robert Edwin Peary--became the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909.

We retraced our way south to Georgetown Island with one goal: to take a picture of me next to the sign for Reid State Park. After a lifetime of searching in vain for my name on a miniature license plate, this was something of a victory. The park also won me over with one of Maine's best beaches--a mile and a half of wide sand backed by marshy tide pools and a freshwater pond. Though summer temperatures around here average in the mid-70s, the water in the ocean never rises much past 60 degrees. Only the hardiest swimmers opt for the ocean, and it was too cold for us to contemplate either.

In Waldoboro, a neon sign welcomed us to Moody's Diner, a classic joint with two neat rows of white clapboard cabins on a hill behind it. We relaxed for a few moments on our little screened porch before hopping back in the car to backtrack down Rte. 1 for dinner in Damariscotta. The town, which curls around a harbor, has a white church steeple poking above the trees. At King Eider's Pub, we had cold pints of local microbrew Kennebec River Magic Hole IPA, along with fresh, meaty river oysters and a hunter's soup of beef, sausage, potatoes, and veggies in a spicy broth. It warmed us up nicely.

Day Two

Lodging

  • Moody's MotelRoute 1, Waldoboro, 207/832-5362, $43

Food

  • Cook's Lobster HouseBailey Island, 207/833-2818, lobster $25
  • King Eider's Pub2 Elm St., Damariscotta, 207/563-6008, half-dozen river oysters $11

Attractions

  • Maine Maritime Museum243 Washington St., Bath, 207/443-1316, $10
  • Peary-MacMillan Arctic MuseumHubbard Hall, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, 207/725-3416
  • Reid State Park375 Seguinland Rd., Georgetown, 207/371-2303, $4.50

Day 3: Waldoboro to Vinalhaven

We fortified ourselves for the day with eggs, pancakes, and bacon at Moody's Diner before visiting Pemaquid Point. There's a real land's-end feel to the protruding finger of granite, which is eroded in the most gorgeous way. An 1827 lighthouse at the top of the outcropping is the same one pictured on the back of Maine's state quarters. Frances and I whiled away two hours scrambling over the rocks, peering at tiny crabs in tide pools. Just up the road we found a place that beat Cook's Lobster House, at least in terms of atmosphere. Shaw's Fish & Lobster Wharf is a one-room outfit with a sunny deck built out over a cove bobbing with boats. It was quiet accompaniment to yet another delicious lobster.

The oddest souvenir shop I've ever seen, the Maine State Prison Showroom near Rockland, is stocked with woodwork made by inmates from the state pen up the road in Warren. Prices are low: oak bookcases for $139, intricate ship models from $55. I'm still kicking myself for not buying a Maine State Prison birdhouse resembling a jail, with little bars on the windows. It was a bit disconcerting, however, to browse a store staffed by convicts (plus a guard).

Moving higher up the art scale, we stopped at the Farnsworth Art Museum in downtown Rockland to admire the work of 19th-century American painters, including Thomas Eakins and the Wyeth clan. Andrew Wyeth's father, N.C., started the family's habit of summering in Maine in the 1930s in nearby Port Clyde. After taking our sweet time at the museum, we parked down by the docks and boarded the ferry for the 75-minute ride to Vinalhaven Island. In the center of town, the Tidewater Motel is built right on top of a fast, narrow tidal channel. Our room opened onto a small deck over the water. From the window, we could look at the harbor, flecked with dozens of white boats.

Owner Phil Crossman lent us a couple of bikes, and we rode a few miles out of town to Booths Quarry, a popular swimming hole. It was sunny but chilly, and the water felt freezing. Some teenage girls were splashing around, so I tried--unsuccessfully--to convince Frances to jump in with me. What I failed to consider was that these girls had been tempered by Maine winters. The second I hit the water, I catapulted back out of it with a yelp and sprinted back along the surface to shore. Frances found this hilarious.

We biked back for dinner at the Harbor Gawker, an unpretentious restaurant looking out on a pond. The crab roll and clam chowder were simple and just right.

Day Three

Lodging

Food

  • Shaw's Fish & Lobster WharfRoute 32, New Harbor, 207/ 677-2200, lobster $14
  • Harbor GawkerMain St., Vinalhaven, 207/863-9365, crab roll and clam chowder $10.75

Attractions

  • Pemaquid Point207/563-6246, parking $2
  • Farnsworth Art Museum16 Museum St., Rockland, 207/596-6457, $9

Shopping

  • Maine State Prison Showroom358 Main St. (Rte. 1), Thomaston, 207/354-9237

Transportation

  • Maine State Ferry ServiceRockland, 207/596-2202, round-trip $12

Day 4: Vinalhaven to Portland

In a little shopping center next to the docks, a back deck leads to the Surfside, a restaurant popular with fishermen, who roll in for breakfast as early as 4 a.m. Well after that hour, I wolfed down two eggs with kielbasa, crispy home fries, and thick slices of bread made from cornmeal and molasses, and Frances had blueberry pancakes. All the while, owner Donna Webster and her staff teased the other clients--friends who had come in to discuss The Bold & the Beautiful, and skateboarders declaring the food "wicked good."

A ferry to the mainland dropped us back at our car, and we took a quick drive north to Camden. Giant old Victorians line the streets, a little river spills over a waterfall into the harbor, and fun shops fill brick buildings along Chestnut, Main, and Elm Streets. It all felt very Norman Rockwell.

Camden was the end of the road for us. But before shooting back down to Portland, we picked up some turkey sandwiches at the Camden Deli for one more activity, a mile-and-a-half climb to the top of Mount Battie, outside of town. Just below the mountaintop, we found a sunny boulder to sit on, and pulled out our picnic. We took turns reading to each other from "Renascence," the 1912 poem that launched the literary career of local high school student Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem was evidently inspired by this very view of Camden, the perfect Maine town, overlooking the perfect island-dotted harbor.

Day Four

Food

  • Surfside RestaurantWest Main St., Vinalhaven, 207/863-2767
  • Camden Deli37 Main St., Camden, 207/236-8343

Attractions

  • Mount BattieCamden Hills State Park, 280 Belfast Rd., Camden, 207/236-3109

Finding Your Way

The ideal time for this trip is in high summer, when temperatures reach the mid-70s, and everything's sure to be open. Driving these parts requires a lot of jogging up and down Route 1; the goal isn't to get from Point A to Point B, but to detour into all the inlets. The exits on Interstates 295 and 95 were renumbered in Maine in early 2004, so be sure to use 2005 guidebooks and maps. A few notes: 1) The Squire Tarbox Inn is easy to miss. From Bath on Route 1, Route 144 sneaks up after the Montsweag brook crossing. 2) The ferry to Vinalhaven leaves out of Rockland. 3) The fastest route back to Portland from Camden is inland, via Route 90 to Route 17 to Augusta, then I-95 to I-295 south.

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Inspiration

Reno, Nevada

After too many 80-hour weeks at a San Francisco technology firm, Meredith Tanzer was ready for a change. On regular skiing trips to Lake Tahoe, she'd started exploring the surrounding area, including the city of Reno, Nev., 40 miles away. Reno was just what she'd been looking for: It was smaller than San Francisco, but with some of the same appealing vibe. When she came upon the annual Great Reno Balloon Race, when hundreds of hot-air pilots play bizarre racing games in the sky, she knew she'd found her new home. In 2003, Tanzer and her partner, Dawn Lewis, opened La Bussola, a boutique selling craftsy objets and shabby chic furniture. "My family and friends practically disowned me," she recalls. "They said, 'You're moving where?!' " It's hard to blame them: Reno had always been known as The Biggest Little City in the World, a place where divorcées bided their time waiting for the papers to clear. And the home of the National Bowling Stadium, of course. But while Vegas was being reinvented every year, an explosion at a time, Reno stayed off most people's radar--and like an archaeological cache, it benefited by being ignored. Many of the city's great thrift stores, dive bars, and casinos remain intact. In one of the cocktail lounges at the Peppermill, a casino awash in blue neon, young couples on dates congregate around a bubbling firepit-- a fountain with flames shooting out of it. At Mr. O's, a quintessential dive bar that's open 24 hours, the jukebox is heavy on Rat Pack favorites. The Liberty Belle Saloon, which fights for the title of Reno's oldest restaurant, serves mean prime rib platters. Even better, it's an informal--and free--gallery of vintage slot machines: Owner Marshall Fey, whose grandfather invented the classic three-reel slot machine, has a collection of slots upstairs, including one that pays out in packs of gum. Reno's population--now 200,000--has swelled by 30 percent in the past decade; according to census data, 10,220 residents moved to the area in 2003 alone. Whether folks are coming for affordable living or the fantastic old-time kitsch, they're coming--and bringing businesses with them. Tanzer used to get the cold shoulder when she'd put out calls to artists, trying to stock up her store. "They figured their stuff would be sold in a barn or from the back of a truck," she remembers. Now, she says, she's more likely to hear, "Oh my god, I love Reno!" Around the same time that Tanzer opened La Bussola, Tara Fisher, another San Francisco transplant, opened a boutique called The Attic, where she sells designer denim, handmade jewelry, and clutches. And there's a thriving art scene--one that the city is eager to encourage. In 2003, an arts commission dedicated $20,000 to install Kinetic Banners--60 steel pinwheels that spin around streetlamps downtown. This month marks the 10th anniversary of Artown, an annual festival held each July. When the first one was planned, organizers never would have dreamed of getting Mikhail Baryshnikov and Branford Marsalis, who've both recently been on the bill. Before Tim Healion opened the town's first coffeehouse, Deux Gros Nez, in 1985, the restaurants tended to be all-you-can-eat buffets. "Dining wasn't an experience," he says. "You went in, got your food, and left." That's just fine at a hangover clinic like Peg's Glorified Ham & Eggs, known for its massive skillet breakfasts. But the new arrivals wanted the gourmet foodstuffs they had grown accustomed to, and now they can find crème fraîche and mâche on supermarket shelves. Naturally, wine culture has made inroads. The third Saturday of every month, the Wine Walk leads people along a footpath on the Truckee River; participants stop at more than 20 boutiques, cafés, and galleries to refill their glasses. There's no organized Beer Walk, but there should be, given the recent crop of hip bars. Two years ago, Jessica Kleiderman and Noel Judal were drawn to town from California--anyone sense a trend?-- for the nearby snowboarding. Bummed by the lack of chic nightlife, the two friends created a retro lounge, Satellite, for emerging indie bands. "There was nothing like it," says Kleiderman. "Now it's not so unique." The Green Room is a bar with a 1950s-style rec room in front and a performance space in back. On Tuesdays, arthouse movies are screened for free, and on other nights, jazz combos perform. They're getting more competition all the time: The Chocolate Bar, a modern cocktail and dessert lounge, opened in April. Embedded in the bar are sleek LCD screens showing Charlie Chaplin films and Betty Boop cartoons-- a witty, contemporary-yet-retro nod to a more familiar Reno staple: video poker screens. Lodging   Peppermill Hotel Casino 2707 S. Virginia St., 866/821-9996, from $80 Food   The Liberty Belle Saloon 4250 S. Virginia St., 775/825-1776, prime rib special $12   Deux Gros Nez 249 California Ave., 775/786-9400   Peg's Glorified Ham & Eggs 420 S. Sierra St., 775/329-2600, bacon and eggs $7 Nightlife   Mr. O's 1495 S. Virginia St., 775/323-4244   Satellite 188 California Ave., 775/786-3536   The Green Room 144 West St., 775/324-1224   Chocolate Bar 475 S. Arlington Ave., 775/337-1122 Attractions   Great Reno Balloon Race 775/826-1181, renoballoon.com   Truckee River Wine Walk 775/348-8858, renoriver.org, $10, includes map and glass   Artown 775/322-1538 renoisartown.com, most events free Shopping   La Bussola 211 W. 1st St., 775/348-8858   The Attic 542 Plumas St., 775/337-8999

Inspiration

'We Love New Things, the Weirder the Better'

At first glance, the Reazers seem like an average family. Ed and Laura have three kids (Ben, 16; Emily, 13; and Elizabeth, 10) and live in Cleona, a small town in rural Pennsylvania. They're big fans of the ocean, and many of their top vacation memories involve water--snorkeling in Kauai, whale watching in Maine, island-hopping in the Florida Keys. As we quickly learned while planning the family's trip to the West Coast, however, the Reazers are far from conventional, and proud of it. "We're an odd, motley bunch," Laura told us. "I've never seen people like us in your magazine, or any magazine really." Ever since Laura realized it would take Ben an hour on the bus to get to kindergarten, all the Reazer children have been homeschooled. Laura supplements at-home learning with trips to museums and historic sites. The children also do volunteer work, sending gift bags to kids with cancer. The girls both love animals; Emily even mucks stalls at a horse farm in exchange for riding lessons. And then there's Ben, who provided the excuse for the trip. Ben has long hair, dresses all in black, and is really into music--The Doors, Johnny Cash, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, you name it. He plays his guitar at every opportunity, even sitting in regularly with a group of middle-aged guys strumming bluegrass. Ben's interested in attending the University of California at Berkeley next year. With three weeks free in September, the Reazers will fly into Seattle and drive down the coast, visiting the Cal campus along the way, before catching a flight home from San Diego. (One of the advantages of homeschooling is that families don't have to take vacations in the summer, convenient considering the Reazers hate crowds.) They asked us to help plan the trip, taking into account they didn't want theme parks or other tourist standards. "We'd like to try alternative accommodations: yurts, hostels, and so forth," Laura wrote to us. "They sound so cool, and we are trying to keep costs low." One interest shared by the whole family is food. "We all love eating and trying new things, the weirder the better," said Laura. Seattle's Pike Place Market, while not exactly undiscovered, is where out-of-towners and neighborhood regulars buy fresh fish, flowers, and fruit. Rainier cherries, a sweet local variety, make a great walking snack. For lodging, we recommended the Ace Hotel, just north of downtown. Most hotels charge extra for a hip look, but the spare, elegant rooms at the Ace are affordable for Seattle (under $200 a night for two rooms). "My son wants to see Jimi Hendrix's grave," said Laura. Hendrix, born and raised in Seattle, is buried southeast of the city in Renton, where music lovers leave flowers or personal notes (jimihendrixmemorial.com). Seattle's Experience Music Project, a huge museum founded by Microsoft guru (and Hendrix fan) Paul Allen, is probably worth a visit. Inside are costumes and instruments used by rock legends, and in September they're showing concert footage of Hendrix every hour. Self-described "beach freaks," the Reazers' next stop is three hours' south of Seattle at Cape Disappointment State Park. The waters are always rough and cold, but the dramatic cliffs make for wonderful scenery. Emily gets excited about puppies, much less wild animals, so she should enjoy spotting seals and whales. The park rents cabins and yurts for $40 a night. Another three hours in the car brings the family to Portland, Ore., a town we obviously like (see p.88). One place not mentioned in that story is Edgefield. Just outside the city, it's a 200-year-old farm that's been converted into a movie theater, restaurant, golf course, and hotel. Elizabeth and Emily are looking forward to collecting sand dollars, the flat shells of the spiny sea creatures called echinoids. They'll be able to find them, as well as seals and sea otters, at Cape Lookout State Park, due west of Portland. From there, the Reazers have a choice: Stick to the coast all the way to California or head inland for some of Oregon's mountains, lakes, and trees. We recommended heading east from Florence to Eugene, a college town in tune with Berkeley's hippie past, continuing into the pristine Cascade mountains. Near the state border is an unusual overnight experience: the Out'N'About Treehouse Treesort rents cabins built into the trees. In California, the Reazers' first stop is in Crescent City at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, where they'll learn how injured seals, dolphins, and whales are nurtured back to health. Afterward, Ed Reazer's one request--seeing some giant California redwoods--will be addressed. South of Crescent City are the 300-foot-tall trees of Redwood National Park, where there's a hostel with ocean views. Down the coast is Arcata, a town whose counterculture roots are still very much apparent. We suggested the Saturday-morning farmers market, if the timing works. The tie-dyed locals make for great people watching, and there's plenty of organic produce to sample. The Reazers should keep an eye out for farmers selling peppers in every imaginable color, shape, and degree of spiciness. Also worth a look is the historic Samoa Cookhouse, an all-you-can-eat restaurant that used to feed loggers in the area. For lodging in San Francisco, we suggested trying a lowball bid at Priceline (using biddingfortravel.com as a guide) or booking a couple of private rooms at Hostelling International at Fisherman's Wharf. The hostel is in a national park, offers views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and includes free breakfast. Highlights in the city include driving up and down the crazy hills, mingling with the punks in the Haight-Ashbury district, and heading to the Mission District to chow on burritos at Taquería Cancún or chicken shawerma from Truly Mediterranean. To get Ben in the right mood before his campus visit, we told him to tune into KALX 90.7, the student station that plays new bands, forgotten gems, and genuine oddities. Cal gives tours of the campus seven days a week, but it might be more important to scope out the nearby coffeehouses, shops, and hangouts on Telegraph Avenue. We're sure Ben could spend several hours at Amoeba Music, which overflows with vinyl LPs. Next we recommended a leisurely drive down the coast, with great photo ops at Big Sur's dramatic cliffs, and perhaps a night or two in the Santa Barbara area at Rancho Oso, which rents covered wagons with army cots. Eventually the Reazers will wind up in Los Angeles to hit Venice Beach, with its circus of skateboarders, jugglers on roller skates, break-dancers, and weight lifters. They should grab a sausage sandwich at Jody Maroni's, home of the "haut dog," and watch the parade. Before flying home from San Diego, the Reazers should take a final opportunity to commune with the Pacific and go snorkeling at La Jolla Cove, where they'll find fish in every color of the rainbow, along with a seal or two. There's too much to see in a single vacation to the West Coast, and there's no reason the Reazers should try to do it all. If Ben winds up becoming a Cal Golden Bear, the family can always tack on more sightseeing trips when they visit him. How was your trip? In our March issue, we coached Andrea and Richard Farrow on a vacation in Italy. "My husband spoiled me, and we grew much closer on this trip," said Andrea. "One night, wandering Rome's streets, we turned a corner to see the Pantheon all lit up. It was just beautiful. Richard's favorite was Pompeii. He said he could almost see the people living there, going through their daily routines. Cinque Terre was awesome. We stayed an extra night because we couldn't get enough of the views and the people." Surprise! Mina Harker, who claims to have been banished to the U.S. by Count Dracula himself, has offered to give the Reazers a free private version of her San Francisco Vampire Tour. It's a unique tour for a unique family. Lodging Ace Hotel 2423 First Ave., Seattle, 206/448-4721, theacehotel.com, from $75 Cape Disappointment State Park 888/226-7688, parks.wa.gov, $40 Edgefield 2126 SW Halsey St., Troutdale, Ore., 800/669-8610, mcmenamins.com, family rooms from $150 Cape Lookout State Park Tillamook, Ore., 503/842-4981, oregonstateparks.org, yurts $27 Out'N'About Treesort Cave Junction, Ore., 541/592-2208, treehouses.com, lodging for five from $125 Redwood NP Hostel 800/295-1905, norcalhostels.org, $16 adults, $9 kids HI-Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco, 415/771-7277, sfhostels.com, private rooms from $69 Rancho Oso 3750 Paradise Rd., Santa Barbara, 805/683-5686, rancho-oso.com, wagons from $59 HI-Los Angeles/Santa Monica 1436 2nd St., 310/393-9913, hilosangeles.org, doubles from $62 Food Samoa Cookhouse 79 Cookhouse Ln., Samoa, Calif., 707/442-1659, all-you-can-eat dinner $14 Taquería Cancún 2288 Mission St., San Francisco, 415/252-9560, burrito $4 Truly Mediterranean 3109 16th St., San Francisco, 415/252-7482, chicken shawerma $6.75

Inspiration

Portland, Oregon: Can a Place Be Too Perfect?

When I first heard Loretta Lynn sing, "Well, Portland, Oregon, and sloe gin fizz / If that ain't love, then tell me what is," I wanted to write her a letter. "Dear Loretta," it would say. "Have you ever considered Havana, Cuba, and a bottle of rum? How about Madrid, Spain, and a lusty Rioja?" As far as I could tell, there was nothing particularly seductive about a city where plug-ins for electric cars were installed nine years ago, where the most prominent new building was made with recycled material, where you'd be hard pressed to find a street without a clearly marked bike lane. There's an admirable, almost intimidating conscientiousness to the way people in Portland live, which has little to do with sensual abandon. Not only does a spotless, fast, and cheap ($1.70) light rail run from the airport to the middle of the city, but there was also a guardian angel posted near the ticket machine to facilitate the process. Forty minutes later, I was on the tree-lined, cobblestoned streets downtown. A policeman on a mountain bike directed me to the Hotel Lucia, where the staff offered me a tart green apple and plied me with maps and restaurant recommendations. Wandering around, I noticed kiosks stocked with brochures. They were manned by sidewalk ambassadors, armed with pocket PCs, posted specifically to answer tourists' questions. It was like Disneyland with more overt politics. But every time I thought I had Portland figured out, something came along and turned my theory upside-down. It can be as arch as it is earnest, as sophisticated as it is folksy, as obsessive as it is easygoing--and although it may lead with its utopian aspirations, it has plenty of dystopian secrets. Portland, I was surprised to learn, has more strip bars per capita than any other U.S. city. Maybe Loretta was on to something. It started, as these things do, with smart planning. Twenty-five years ago, the regional government created an urban growth boundary, confining new development to established neighborhoods in order to minimize sprawl. The result is a city unfettered by strip malls and prefab developments; instead, Portland is a patchwork of neighborhoods, each a sort of self-contained, distinctive ecosystem. The Willamette (rhymes with "Damn it") River snakes through the city, separating the east side from the west; Burnside Street divides north and south. Most of Portland's traditional attractions are on the west side, including its downtown. At lunch hour, Pioneer Square--an amphitheater smack in the city's center--is filled with professionals eating delicious tacos and Ethiopian food sold from hand-painted carts. But unlike so many American cities, downtown Portland continues to live and breathe at night and on weekends. Every other evening in Pioneer Square, weather permitting, there's a symphony or a youth choir or an Italian cultural festival--or at the very least, a street musician banging noisily on plastic buckets. Most of downtown Portland is shiny and new, but there are vestiges of the 19th century, when it was a brawny logging town. In the lobby of the Governor Hotel, leather couches and armchairs cluster around a huge marble fireplace. The hotel restaurant, Jake's Grill, is a classic steakhouse: mosaic floors, stiff martinis, and Frank Sinatra on the sound system. Wilf's, in the city's fin de siècle train station, transports guests to an even earlier era, a time when train stations were associated with passionate farewell kisses. It's a piano bar with flocked wallpaper, chandeliers, and huge velvet banquettes. The night I was there, a woman in cat glasses, accompanied by a pianist and a conga player, crooned torch songs and bossa nova for an eclectic crowd--commuters killing time, couples in their 60s, hipsters titillated by living an anachronism (many of whom she greeted by name). A good number of cast-iron buildings in downtown's Old Town still bear their old signs, mostly for theaters and western outfitters, but inside are some of the city's most interesting shops. Portland may have more vintage clothing stores per capita than any other American city--and one of the best, if the most expensive, is Torso. Michellie, the imperious chatelaine who runs the place, talks as if each piece is a beloved child. "Those darlings won't be with us for long," she purrs, waving a bangled arm toward a row of Dior and Valentino gowns. Around the corner at The Monkey and the Rat, there are antique walking sticks, Indonesian marionettes, gleaming mango-wood vases, and intricately carved Thai spirit houses. In one more instance of Portland's good intentions, the owner tells me that he prices his Asian imports as reasonably as he can, since he gets such good deals on them abroad. On the elm-shaded streets southwest of Pioneer Square, known as the South Park Blocks, young couples, high on the joys of nesting, drift through the organic blackberries and fresh-roasted hazelnuts at the Portland Farmers Market. Families buy wholesome picnic lunches, then settle on the lawn, serenaded by a musician or four; and every week there's a cooking demonstration by chefs from some of the city's best restaurants. Portlanders take the politics of food very seriously. They want to know the provenance of their tomatoes and coffee and goat cheese. Consequently, food here tends to have a lot of modifiers. "Organic" is a given unless you're at McDonald's; "handcrafted" comes in a very close second; products are also "sustainably grown" or "fairly traded," particularly if they're from the developing world. This reigning ethos means that not only does the owner of local chain Hot Lips Pizza buy his organic vegetables from local farmers, but he can also explain in great detail about the method used to grow the wheat in his crust. The uncompromising ethos about food production struck me as particularly Portland, as did the bearded volunteer at the entrance to the Classical Chinese Garden that afternoon. He suggested I remove my shoes upon entering--not for reasons of protocol, but because the stone paths, patterned like slashing raindrops, give a great foot massage. If I lived in Portland, I'd return again and again just to sit in the teahouse, an airy, two-story wooden pavilion with keyhole windows and latticed shutters, and a fountain trickling in the background. By now, I had come to expect esoterica from any menu, and I wasn't disappointed. It informed me that the needles for silver needle tea had to be plucked within 48 hours of sprouting; and that the leaves for jade flower tea are roasted in a wok, then sewn into a flower that resembles a sea anemone. Jade flowers are so labor-intensive, tea farmers can make only 15 of them in one day. I ordered some strange and delicious snacks, too: roasted watermelon seeds sprinkled with cinnamon and anise; turnip cakes, the consistency of polenta and served with scallions and Chinese pesto; and a boiled egg that had been steeped in soy, star anise, and smoked black tea. Asian culture makes frequent appearances around Portland, among them a long-running exhibition of early Chinese art at the Portland Art Museum, down the street from the Farmers Market. The museum also hosts diverse traveling exhibits, from 17th-century Dutch paintings to a show of photographs and lantern slides from a 1920s expedition to Tibet. Over the past five years or so, Portland has become a breeding ground for young artistic talent, and by October, the museum will have renovated a former Masonic temple to house modern and contemporary art. Some of the most playful--and controversial--work is being done by groups such as Charm Bracelet, notorious for dissing the art world by stuffing a huge vinyl elephant with discarded artists' statements and gallery press releases. Before the 2004 presidential election, Red76 created 25,000 copies of voter information in the form of placemats, which were distributed at diners and truck stops nationwide. Ogle and Gallery 500 showcase emerging artists such as Chandra Bocci, whose recent installation (at Haze Gallery, since closed) featured plastic toy soldiers fighting with tiny pink-and-white pillows, and Matt Proctor and Eric Franklin, who constructed wooden tiki huts and igloos lit by neon tubes (after crawling through them, viewers submitted to an optical exam, and then were sent home with high-end eyeglasses). The Pearl District is to Portland what SoHo was to New York 15 years ago, before it crossed decisively into mall territory. Formerly a neighborhood of sheet-metal warehouses and trucking distribution centers, it's where the blue-chip galleries have staked their claim. There are also high-end boutiques selling French linens, children's clothing fit for an English manor, canine tutus, and so on. The Pearl has a few relics of its former self. At Fuller's Coffee Shop, regulars in feed caps sit around the horseshoe-shaped counter slurping acidic coffee. The menu is a throwback to the days when lo-cal meant a hamburger patty and a scoop of cottage cheese. Piazza Italia remains a sweet, family-owned place that serves outstanding pasta. Overall, however, restaurants in the Pearl have higher production values than elsewhere in Portland. They're more lipsticked and perfumed, more likely to serve cocktails than beer. On weekends, Paragon feels a little like a dance club with no dance floor. The young, single crowd snacks on calamari with apricot jalapeño sauce. To appreciate the fantastic Northwest-fusion food, such as potato-wrapped wild salmon in chive coulis with marinated pear tomatoes and pea tendrils, you're better off going on a quiet weeknight. The quirks of Portland's character are much more evident once you cross over to the east side. The first Thursday of every month, galleries in the Pearl stay open into the evening, and a few lay out platters of grapes and Camembert. On the street corners, accordionists play Edith Piaf songs. Meanwhile, galleries in Northeast Alberta, a neighborhood across the river, stay open late on the last Thursday of every month, and some encourage you to bring your own wine. A troubadour with iron-colored hair rasps Bob Dylan tunes on the stoop of a shuttered store, and folks from the neighborhood drag out card tables to sell homemade brownies and slices of blackberry pie. When I was there, an 8-year-old named Brian set up his own arcade game: For a penny a try, passersby could attempt to flick a plastic frog into a plastic bucket that was probably a few inches too high. The art at Last Thursday didn't really seem like the main point (although there were some lovely paintings at Talisman Gallery). More than half the fun came from dancing to live bluegrass in the parking lot, perusing the shamanic jewelry and artistically arranged junk being hawked by sidewalk vendors, and wandering into the shops on the main drag, also open late. Besides the funky boutique Tumbleweed, where owner Kara Larson sells flowery, home-on-the-range dresses she makes herself, there's a real Mexican carnicería, Don Pancho's, offering not just sides of beef, but also plastic roses and elaborate polyester wedding dresses. When the galleries and shops finally lock their doors, everyone fans out to a handful of restaurants and bars. Tin Shed is, indeed, a corrugated tin building with marigold walls and light fixtures constructed of side-by-side dinner forks. It's quintessentially Portland--effortlessly charming and more sophisticated than it lets on, with wild mushroom ravioli and jalapeño mac and cheese. Portland is blessed with a number of restaurants like this--unassuming, reasonably priced establishments that take food seriously without being uptight. Bread and Ink serves modern interpretations of comfort food in what was once a grocery store. It has the linoleum floors and green leather chairs of a 1950s coffee shop but the white tablecloths and brisk, professional service of a bistro. Another favorite, Pambiche, does gutsy Cuban food--pepper pot stew, garlic shrimp, and taro-root fritters--in a coral-colored building. Even though Oregon makes some of the best wines around these days, beer is accorded equal reverence and described with the same nuance. The city has 34 microbreweries in the metropolitan area. The Lucky Labrador Brew Pub, in an old sheet-metal warehouse, brews a fantastic house ale. The back porch, where customers and their mostly big, mostly friendly dogs hang out at picnic tables, has the folksy feeling of a backyard BBQ. The closest Portland gets to velvet-rope exclusivity is an event-cum-restaurant called Family Supper. It began as a dinner party at the home of Naomi and Michael Hebberoy, a couple that used to run a catering company called Ripe; it evolved into an invitation-only affair; and finally, Family Supper opened its doors to those lucky enough to get a reservation. Unmarked and unlisted, Family Supper is still more like a dinner party than a restaurant. The 40 guests are asked to arrive at 7:30 p.m. They spend the first half hour milling about the herb garden drinking wine or chatting with the chef in the open kitchen. At eight, everyone gathers in assigned seats at two butcher-block tables, and heaping platters of seasonally inspired Italian food are passed around. I had to fight my instinct to ask for a third helping of a rich sweet corn risotto with fresh truffles. For dessert we had blackberry cobbler topped with a cloud of barely sweet whipped cream. Much less covert is the Pepto-Bismol-pink saltbox house where Lovely Hula Hands has staked its claim. The food veers from Southeast Asia to Cuba--Thai flatiron steak with sticky rice served in a take-out carton, Cuban pumpkin rice with tomato-coconut curry--while the décor is inspired by a grandma's parlor, with leafy vintage wallpaper, Japanese prints, and an old mantle serving as a bar. Down the hill and across from the railroad yard, drunken sailors and Polish immigrants used to gather for heated poker games in the White Eagle. Today, it's a cozy parlor bar, with mosaic floors, an oak bar, and Oriental rugs, and it hosts country, blues, and rock shows. Upstairs are 11 small hotel rooms, perhaps the best deal in Portland at $30 to $50 a night, if you don't plan on sleeping until after the music stops (between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., depending on the night of the week). The White Eagle is run by a Portland-based company called McMenamins, whose business model is to buy historic buildings and transform them into bars and hotels while retaining as much of their character as possible. This being Portland, McMenamins is also known for brewing great beer. McMenamins' other Portland hotel, the Kennedy School, is in a quiet, residential neighborhood to the east. It's an old grammar school transformed into a themed hotel. Former classrooms are furnished with formidable oak headboards, Oriental rugs, and tassled lampshades, and some choice details have been preserved, such as the chalkboards and the lockers. Movies are shown nightly in the former gymnasium ($3), and there's an on-site pub with live music a couple of nights a week. Further south, in the Hawthorne neighborhood, is another vivid reminder that Portland isn't as young as it looks. Opened in 1927 to showcase silent films and vaudeville acts, Bagdad Theater still features the original Arabian Nights murals of snake charmers and sultans, from a time when the semiotics of ethnicity were a less volatile subject. The auditorium also retains its old red velvety seats, but some have been removed in order to make way for small wooden tables, which allow patrons to dine on pizza, microbrews, and local wine ($6.25 a glass, tops), while they watch second-run movies. Hawthorne is Portland at its crunchiest. Incense seems to waft from every pastel-colored bungalow, and the old VWs in the driveways are plastered with free tibet stickers. In Other Words is a nonprofit bookstore that specializes in books by, for, and about women. Global Exchange is an import shop with an uncompromising fair-trade policy and beautiful wares: Tibetan prayer wheels, Mexican and Peruvian retablos, Indian bedspreads, and glazed Vietnamese tea sets. Powell's for Cooks and Gardeners is an offshoot of Powell's Books, the country's largest independent bookseller (and a Portland institution). The main store, Powell's City of Books, occupies a 74,000-square-foot building downtown, but the Hawthorne shop stocks the most obscure cookbooks you could ever dream up. Among the categories: ayurvedic, gluten-free, Amish, and Junior League. Then there's Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, which falls somewhere between a '60s coffeehouse and a Viennese café. Latter-day flower children in flowing skirts gather at night for coffee and cake in a Victorian house with a sloping front porch, and a swooning pianist plays Chopin and Beethoven on a scuffed baby grand. Despite its earnestness--or perhaps because its residents need something to rebel against--Portland has its share of indie rockers, and most seem to be hanging out at Doug Fir. It's an ironic derivative of a Denny's-style coffee shop tricked out like a 1970s rec room as interpreted by an of-the-moment designer: faux-fur carpeting, curving vinyl banquettes, and late-night service. It's also an homage to the archetypal mountain lodge, with antler chandeliers and cocktail tables rendered from tree stumps. On the ground floor is a music club that books rock, hip-hop, and big-name DJs. The restaurant caters to the late-night cravings of the clubgoers, who in turn help fill the rooms of the adjacent Jupiter Hotel, a revamped '60s motor court offering rooms that have a playful Ikea aesthetic. On the patio, there's a big fire pit where guests can gather round and drink a few beers. Most of the time, though, Portland is a resoundingly nice place where people are genuinely concerned about the welfare of other people, whether those people live next door or in Nepal. In an impossibly sweet residential area called Sellwood, where every house is graced with a rosebush and children scampered home from the community pool in groups, holding hands, I came upon an intersection where, on one corner, there was a table with a large Thermos of tea and a half-dozen mismatched cups hanging from pegs. help yourself said a hand-lettered sign. On another corner, inside a bamboo lean-to, there was a modest bookshelf and a chalkboard where someone had written, happy birthday, rebecca! A small plaque explained that this was Share-It Square, an effort to build relationships in the neighborhood. You can see why I wanted to write Loretta that letter. All this noble goodness can be a bit of a drag. What usually makes a city interesting is friction--people rubbing up against each other, not always with mutual respect. On my last day, I signed up for a walking tour of downtown. The guide pointed out the perpetually bubbling water fountains that were installed in the 1910s. "It's rainwater," he said, encouraging us to take a taste. He directed our attention to one about half a foot off the ground, and told us it had been installed for dogs. It was almost too much to bear. And then something wonderful happened. As the tour guide rhapsodized about the monitors in the bus shelters that update commuters on the buses' ETA every 30 seconds and the parking meters that know to refuse your money on the days when payment isn't necessary, a cluster of punk-lite kids in dog collars and Converse high-tops started heckling him. They also suggested, in no uncertain terms, that all of us--the losers standing there listening to the lecture on public transportation--pack it in and go back home. The other tourists shifted their weight uncomfortably; they didn't want anyone to puncture their utopian vision of Portland. But I found myself comforted. I needed a reminder that Portland is a real place with real people who get angry and everything. It only made me love it more. Where to spend more on a special dinner On the back of the menu at Higgins is a manifesto explaining that the ingredients are local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable, and that in maintaining these standards, the restaurant preserves rural communities and decreases water and air pollution. Foodwise, this might translate into handcrafted pastrami, or pheasant and venison terrine with sour cherry mustard. In a lantern-lit room, Noble Rot serves unusual small plates--pork and squab terrine, eggplant and lamb cannelloni with a yogurt sauce--but wine is the real passion here. The vaguely unappetizing name refers to a grape fungus that produces a sweeter, richer flavor in wines. There are up to 50 wines by the glass and five flights (samplers of three wines in two-ounce pours). Lodging   Governor Hotel 614 SW 11th Ave., 800/554-3456, govhotel.com, from $129   Hotel Lucia 400 SW Broadway, 877/225-1717, hotellucia.com, from $139   Jupiter Hotel 800 E. Burnside St., 877/800-0004, jupiterhotel.com, from $79 ($50 Get a Room rate after midnight)   Kennedy School 5736 NE 33rd Ave., 888/249-3983, mcmenamins.com, $84--$94   White Eagle 836 N. Russell St., 503/282-6810, mcmenamins.com, $30--$50 Food   Bread and Ink Café 3610 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/239-4756, jerk chicken sandwich $8.75   Family Supper 2240 N. Interstate, 503/493-9500, three-course dinner $25   Fuller's Coffee Shop 136 NW Ninth Ave., 503/222-5608, pancakes and eggs $3.50   Higgins 1239 SW Broadway, 503/222-9070, pastrami sandwich $10   Hot Lips Pizza 1909 SW Sixth Ave., 503/595-2342, large cheese pizza $13.25   Jake's Grill 611 SW 10th Ave., 503/220-1850, cheeseburger $8   Lovely Hula Hands 938 N. Cook St., 503/445-9910, Thai flatiron steak $12   Noble Rot 2724 SE Ankeny St., 503/233-1999, Pacific cod with bacon and sautéed greens $13   Pambiche 2811 NE Glisan St., 503/233-0511, Creole chicken $12.50   Paragon 1309 NW Hoyt St., 503/833-5060, wild-mushroom-stuffed chicken $17   Piazza Italia 1129 NW Johnson St., 503/478-0619, linguine squarciarella $13   Tin Shed 1438 NE Alberta St., 503/288-6966, jalapeño macaroni and cheese $6 Shopping   Don Pancho's Market and Carnicería 2000 NE Alberta St., 503/282-1892   Global Exchange 3508 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/234-4049   In Other Words 3734 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/232-6003   The Monkey and the Rat 131 NW Second Ave., 503/224-3849   Powell's Books for Cooks and Gardeners 3747 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/235-3802   Powell's City of Books 1005 W. Burnside St., 503/228-4651   Torso 36 SW Third Ave., 503/294-1493   Tumbleweed 1804 NE Alberta St., 503/335-3100 Nighlife   Bagdad Theater 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/236-9234   Doug Fir 830 E. Burnside St., 503/231-9663   Lucky Labrador Brew Pub 915 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503/236-3555   Rimsky-Korsakoffee House 707 SE 12th Ave., 503/232-2640   White Eagle Saloon 836 N. Russell St., 503/282-6810   Wilf's Union Station, NW Sixth Ave. and Irving St., 503/223-0070 Attractions   Classical Chinese Garden NW Third Ave. at Everett St., 503/228-8131, portlandchinesegarden.org, $7   Gallery 500 420 SW Washington St., Ste. 500, 503/223-3951, gallery500.org   Ogle 310 NW Broadway, 503/227-4333, ogleinc.com   Portland Art Museum 1219 SW Park Ave., 503/226-2811, portlandartmuseum.org, $10   Portland Farmers Market South Park Blocks at Portland State University between SW Montgomery St. and SW Harrison St., 8:30 a.m.--2 p.m.   Talisman Gallery 1476 NE Alberta St., 503/284-8800, talismangallery.com

Inspiration

A Night Out in Buenos Aires

10 p.m. to midnight Most restaurants don't fully get swinging until at least 10 p.m. The classic place to go is a parrilla, a barbecue restaurant where tender cuts of beef are seared over wooden coals by a parrillero in a bloodstained apron. Bife de chorizo (sirloin), morcilla (blood sausage), and chinchulines (tripe) are all liberally slathered with either chimichurri (sauce of parsley, garlic, olive oil, lemon, and other assorted herbs) or salsa criolla (finely chopped tomatoes and onions). The casual Desnivel, in the historic San Telmo district, is always packed with locals. With a cheap glass of wine, the bill usually comes to about $7 a person. An imposing man named Carlitos serves whatever he feels you should eat at Don Carlos, a parrilla in the shadow of La Bombonera soccer stadium in the Boca neighborhood. He'll begin by putting down plates of croquettes, marinated peppers, or pizzas. Then he'll ask how hungry you are. To Carlitos, "a little hungry" means very hungry, and anything else means you're a Texas rib-eating champion. Either way, it's wise to have skipped lunch. Carlitos keeps an eye on the sizzling bife de lomo (filet mignon) and juicy sweetbreads while watching the televised horse races. He'll focus on making sure you're finished before placing down desserts--tiramisu, bread pudding, and the Argentine version of flan: crème caramel garnished with whipped cream and dulce de leche (a spread of caramelized condensed milk). Finally, he'll scribble the price he feels is right on the tablecloth. For people he doesn't know, it's usually around $15; friends pay about $5 less. The buzzy neighborhood of Palermo has more chic places to eat and drink than you can keep track of. Bar El Diamante, a tapas restaurant in a converted house, is more cozy than aggressively hip. On warm nights, the rooftop makes an ideal setting for enjoying small plates of delicious grilled meats, fish, and pastas (a four-course meal with wine is $18). Nearby, at Thymus, the chef is trained in the classical French tradition. He turns out artful dishes such as wild mushroom salad, grilled loin of venison, and chocolate soufflé. A three-course tasting menu starts at $13. For a little more of a splurge, Oviedo, in the posh Recoleta neighborhood, serves Spanish-style seafood in a room with warm bistro lighting. A three-course prix fixe is $20 to $25, depending on the wine. Midnight to 3 a.m. The next few hours are best suited to laying low over drinks. At the old-timey locals' bar Lo de Roberto, dusty bottles, faded photos, and worn lyric sheets line the walls. Order a bottle of Vasco Viejo wine ($4), some seltzer ($1), and a bucket of ice-and mix it all up. Guitarists and tango singers wander in after midnight, and the owner Roberto will sternly shush anyone who dares to talk while they play. For better quality wines, Gran Bar Danzon is a downtown lounge favored by sommeliers. Danzon sells dozens of Argentine wines by the glass, most of which are hearty cabernets and malbecs from top labels such as Catena and Weinert. Each glass comes with a ticket, in Spanish, explaining the flavors and properties of the wine. The Faena Hotel + Universe is a year-old boutique hotel in Puerto Madero, the docklands district. Rooms start at $300, but the scene's what you come for anyway, and you can get enough of a taste at the patio pool bar, open in summer. The drink list leans heavily toward champagne, and white-cushioned banquettes provide a comfortable place to sit back and scope out all the beautiful people. From 3 a.m. on In a Palermo warehouse, a dance club called Niceto has a Thursday night international hip hop/electronic-music party called Club 69, where a campy mix of breakdancers and transvestites find common ground ($7 cover for women, $9 men). Club information is always changing, but the free monthly Spanish-language magazine Wipe, found at most Palermo stores and restaurants, has up-to-date bar and party listings. With all the overproduced tango shows advertised around town, it might seem like tango is a tourist trap. Do as locals do; avoid Vegas-style productions for a traditional, under-the-radar milonga (dance hall). Different milongas take over clubs on various nights. One lively weekend spot is La Viruta Tango, in a Palermo community-hall basement ($2 cover). To the tune of squeezeboxes and violins, you might find yourself pressed up against locals, sweeping around the dance floor, as the light of morning erases the darkness. Food   Desnivel Defensa 855, 011-54/11-4300-9081   Don Carlos Brandsen 699, 011-54/11-4362-2433   Bar El Diamante Malabia 1688, 011-54/11-4831-5735   Thymus Lerma 525, 011-54/11-4772-1936, thymusrestaurant.com.ar   Oviedo Beruti 2602, 011-54/11-4822-5415, oviedoresto.com Nightlife   Lo de Roberto Bulnes 331, Plaza Almagro, no phone   Gran Bar Danzon Libertad 1161, 011-54/11-4811-1108, granbardanzon.com.ar   Faena Hotel + Universe Martha Salotti 445, 011-54/11- 4010-9000, faenahotelanduniverse.com   Niceto Niceto Vega 5510, 011-54/11-4779-9396, nicetoclub.com   La Viruta Tango Centro Cultural Armenio, Armenia 1366, 011-54/11-4774-6357, lavirutatango.com Bo-Bo Hotel, Buenos Aires Last year, Mariano and Pablo Gimenez opened the Bo-Bo Hotel in a 1920 mansion in the Palermo district. Six of the seven rooms--all of which have free Wi-Fi--are themed to modern art movements. The Minimalist Room has ecru walls and white bedspreads; the Pop Room references the 1960s with a plastic orange chair and a photo of a Ford Falcon. For the seventh room--on the top floor, with a terrace and a skylit Jacuzzi--the brothers abandoned the art theme and named it the Argentina Room (left, $120). Each morning, a free breakfast of croissants, yogurt, and café con leche is served in the restaurant. Guatemala 4882, 011-54/11-4774-0505, bobohotel.com, from $80. --Celeste Moure