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Locals Know Best: Portland, Oregon

By Liza Weisstuch
February 27, 2017
food trucks portland oregon
Erica Schroeder/Dreamstime
There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked a local star restaurateur and chef for her take on culture, food and drink on the town she calls home.

Portland, Oregon’s history is one of ship-building, grit, and organized crime. What a difference a century makes. Today, Portland is strongly associated with organic food, hipster eyewear, elaborate tattoos, craft beer, and artisanal everything. The dining scene is particularly alluring, offering loads of options from classical cooking to hyper-creative modern menus, not to mention the city is less than an hour from heart of Oregon’s wine country. To get a culinary insider’s tips on where to go and what to do around this city, we caught up with Cathy Whims, award-winning chef who owns a variety of restaurants, including Oven and Shaker, which is known for its wood-burning pizza oven, the modern Italian eatery Nostrana, and Hamlet, the newest entrant in her expanding empire which focuses on ham-heavy small plates, craft cocktails, and sherry. You’d think it’d be tough to find down-time when you oversee that many restaurants, but a retro steakhouse, a bird-watcher’s haven, and a visit to a Zumba class with an eccentric instructor are just a few of this long-time resident’s go-to’s.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT

If you can’t count on a chef with six James Beard Award nominations for dining recommendations, who can you count on? Cathy’s restaurant picks lean towards the classically-minded and Portland has them in spades. A personal favorite, she says, is Burrasca, a “super-classical” trattoria owned by a Tuscan. “Eating there is like being suddenly teleported to Florence in 1970,” she asserts, ticking off just a few of the “super-classical,” ultra-authentic offerings, like Fegatelli, pork liver wrapped in caul fat, homemade pasta and focaccia, an exclusively Tuscan wine list, and, when in season, squid stewed with greens.

Clyde’s Prime Rib is another one of the city’s throwback eateries that comes to us heartily endorsed by her staff. A trip back to the 1950s, they regularly have live jazz and soul music and a happy hour where you can get a prime rib and martini for prices that are as throwback as the vibe.

One of the things that defines Portland is its entrepreneurial culture, and that’s especially captured by the food purveyors. Cathy is particularly fond of Providore, a go-to for salami, cheeses and veggies. The store is actually a business within a business: it houses Fly’N’Fish Oyster Bar, a compact, casual joint with a small selection of wine and beer. Cathy describes as an “indie startup fish company,” which evolved from a small shack.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Much like Amsterdam, the preferred mode of transportation of many Portlandians is bicycle. Nike recently launched Biketown, a bike-sharing program with 100 stations around the city. To get a full sense of local life, you can get navigate your way around, hopping on and off brand new orange bikes every few blocks.

As to be expected of a city surrounded by wilderness, Portland is a fitness mecca. One of Cathy’s preferred workouts is her Saturday morning Zumba at a spot called Center Space. “The instructor is unlike any other,” she says. “He’s trained in African dance and has actually led several African dance troupes, so he integrates that traditional dance aspect.

Almost every Sunday Cathy laces up her sneakers and heads to Mt. Tabor Park, a city park centered around a non-active volcano where it’s easy to figure out a hike, she says. Right near it is Cheese Bar, which, in addition to incredible cheeses, offers wine and beer, salads, and meat boards. When she leaves the park, she usually picks up cheese for rest of the week.

Another spot for glorious surrounds is Forest Park. Covering 5157 acres, it’s known as the biggest inner city park in the country. It features 80 miles of trails and an Audubon Society Sanctuary is situated within its borders. And for a quirky twist—something this city is good for—Forest Park is home to what’s recognized as the smallest park in the country.

CULTURE CLUBS

Whether you’re into music, art, or comedy, Cathy’s got tips for you. Music-lovers would do well to hit Mississippi Studios, a “neighborhood spot,” she says, that offers a packed calendar of live music, from singer/songwriters to indie rock to punk to electronica. And while you’re there, check out the adjacent Bar Bar for what Cathy declares some of the best cheeseburgers in town.

All of her employees are regulars at the long-standing Alibi Tiki Lounge, a tacky-chic bar with lush leather booths, string lights, and a giant neon tiki sign outside, and, of course, tropical drinks. It’s perfect for rainy cold night, she said.

Speaking of cocktails, the Living Room Theater, which shows first-run arthouse films, has a cocktail bar so you can order drinks and bites for the show. And if cocktails are indeed your interest, go across the street after the show (or before, of course) to the bustling Clyde Common, which Cathy deems “one of the funnest bar in Portland.” Its menu features elaborate drinks like barrel-aged cocktails. If that all seems too self-serious for you, Helium Comedy Club is a great bet. From emerging comics to well-known personalities (Cathy has caught Margaret Cho and David Attell) to open mic nights, laughs come fast and furious.

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Locals Know Best: Cleveland

When you think of destinations for music-lovers, Nashville, Detroit, Kansas City, and Austin easily spring to mind. But you’d be remiss if you left Cleveland off that list. Home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the city, a longtime industrial metropolis that suffered economic decline, devastating pollution, and population flight in the 1970s, is in the throes of a renaissance today. But its old-world character persists. Beyond the roster of tried and true tourist must-sees, like the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art, the shores of Lake Eire and, of course, the house made iconic by “A Christmas Story,” there’s a booming circuit of local restaurants and a vibrant indie arts scene to be explored. We caught up with Greg Harris, President and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, to give us the lowdown on this magnificent city with a resilient rock’n’roll soul.  EAT YOUR HEART OUT  Cleveland landmarks come in all shapes and sizes and, as it turns out, flavors. Having just celebrated its centennial, West Side Market is arguably something of a food museum, what with its abundance of traditional provisions (think: handmade sausages, cheese, spices and oils) sold alongside countless fruit purveyors and butchers. While locals stock up on groceries, Harris recommends you join the dependably long line for made-to-order crepes.  Cleveland has its fair share of James Beard Award nominees and winners, but it also has a long and solid legacy of old-world ethnic fare, thanks to the many immigrant groups who made their way here when the city was a booming industrial center. In the 1950s, its strong Hungarian and Slovenian populations gave the city Sterle’s Country House, a mecca for Eastern European comfort food. Plus, in a nod to German heritage, polka bands often play. The classic chicken paprikash is Harris’s go-to here. The city’s Polish heritage is on display at Sokolowski’s, which has been family-run since 1923. They offer stuffed cabbage and roster of other standards that, Harris happily notes, you can smell from blocks away.READ: "Locals Know Best: Milwaukee" That Eastern European influence makes its way into the city’s signature barbecue, as evidenced at another one of Harris’s go-to, Mabel’s BBQ, a hip industrial-chic smokehouse with an extensive bourbon list. An old-world pride is also the cornerstone of the local-minded Butcher and Brewery, which Harris recommends for its house-cured meats.  And no visit to a rock’n’roll city would be complete without knocking back a few in a classic dive bar. Cleveland’s most legendary is the Harbor Inn, a local institution that, Harris explains, used to the be gathering spot of merchant seamen. For those with more mondern inclinations, the Velvet Tango Room, a speakeasy-style cocktail den, is a must for craft cocktails.   LONG LIVE ROCK When the President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame endorses a music club, you know it’s gotta be something special. Harris declares Beachland Ballroom “the finest live music venue in the city. I’ll even add in the country.” Its lineup regularly ranges from rockabilly to punk to Americana and plenty more. The club is the anchor of the Waterloo Arts District, where local businesses are open for a street-party-style walk-about the first Friday of each month.  And then, of course, there’s the Hall of Fame, which is more than just a museum. Harris notes is mission: “to engage, teach, and inspire through the power of rock and roll,” and they're tenacious about that commitment. The museum is open 362 days/year and while music history is the spotlight of most exhibits, today’s talent comes to life in the busy concert schedule. They hosted 40 concerts on the pavilion in front of the museum, which was christened with a 80-foot-long “LONG LIVE ROCK” sign, dedicated in November.   GET CULTURED Here’s an interesting tidbit: In 2006, Cuyahoga County approved a tax on cigarette that would fund Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, an organization that organizes and funds all sorts of programming for the community. “The county collects cigarette tax greater than most cities’ funding,” Harris notes. “It’s fueled a lot of great artists—large and small—through its various arts programs.” It’s a bit of an incubator for young talent, so make sure to check out what events are on when you’re in town. You never know—maybe someday in the future you can say, “I saw her when…”READ: "Locals Know Best: Charleston, South Carolina"  Of course, when it comes to art, the Cleveland Museum of Art is a treasure trove of masterpieces, from Edgar Degas to Edward Hopper, but the city’s galleries should not be overlooked. Harris points to the burgeoning scene at Gordon Square Arts District, which was officially established in 2007 by the area’s theater and the local community development organization. Today, 78th Street Studios, which is set in an old automobile parts factory and dubs itself an “eclectic arts maze,” is one of the District’s anchors. On the third Friday of every month, from 5PM to 9PM, all the resident galleries and studios are open, pop-up shops, and food trucks are onsite, and visitors mingle. According to Harris, it’s “uniquely Cleveland.” In addition to revitalized theaters and an independent movie theater, there’s a broad range of bars and restaurants to choose from. One of Harris’s favorites is Spice, which offers creative updated southern fare made with local ingredients, much of which is grown in the on-site hoop house or the restaurant’s nearby farm. For something a bit more nostalgic, Happy Dog is, first and foremost, “a classic, untouched dive with hot dogs with any toppings,” he explains. It’s also a music venue featuring everything from punk to polka. And if that aforementioned nostalgia is your thing, check out the vintage video games in the basement. It may take you back to your early rock’n’roll memories.   STAY Like so many other cities around the US, Cleveland has seen a remarkable hotel-building boom in the past two years, so much so, that Harris nearly guaratees that savvy travelers can find deals. One particularly cool new spot to check out is the Drury Plaza Hotel, retrofitted into an old Board of Education building. The $52 million project opened in April 2016.  BEER HERE Everywhere you go in the USA these days, you can find local beer. Cleveland’s brewing scene is exceptionally attention-getting, what with several top-rate breweries located in lively areas of the city. Harris calls out Market Garden Brewery, located next to West Side Market. It’s known for its brewpub, which is open until 2.30AM and offers what Harris simply deems “terrific atmosphere.” A 35,000-square-foot production facility, complete with tours and a tasting room, recently opened next door. Harris also gives a nod to Great Lakes Brewing Company, which offers tours Fridays and Saturdays from 12PM to 8PM, and he's looking forward to getting acquainted with the new Platform Beer Company. 

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Deal of the day: Your NYC vacation at a price beyond compare

This is not a typo: you can stay in the heart of New York City for $229 per night Thursdays through Sundays this winter. That's a savings of over 50% off standard rates. We're not kidding. In fact, to make things even more unreal, the rates on select dates are as little as $189. The Westin New York at Times Square is going all out and offering luxury and convenience at an unprecedented price. And we mean Convenience with a capital "c." The Theater District, shopping galore, and subway lines that get you nearly anywhere in the five boroughs are all within a short walk from the hotel's front door.  This Deal, which gets you a standard room, also includes a breakfast offering you gotta see to believe: start your day with a full breakfast for two for $1 at Foundry Kitchen and Bar, a welcoming spot adorned with all the fixings of a country kitchen. It's regularly $65 for you and a companion. We're not mathematicians here at Budget Travel, but it looks like that works out to nearly 100% savings. The hotel boasts a state-of-the-art 24-hour fitness center. It's true: like the city outside, it never sleeps. And the Westin hotels recently instituted a Gear Lending program, which offers New Balance workout clothes delivered right to your room for $5. So there you have it: Food, fitness, and a room smack in the middle of one of the greatest cities on Earth, at a price that leaves you plenty of coin to explore. For more information and to book, click here.

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Escape winter with these Caribbean deals

This is the time of year we always get a little tired of the winter grind, and the snowstorms across the country this past week sure don’t help. A nice Caribbean escape could sure come in handy right about now. Here, three of our favorite "ultimate islands" that won’t break the bank. ANTIGUA & BARBUDA is inviting Americans to discover this elegant, beautiful pair of islands with (no kidding) 365 beaches -- yes, you could literally stay all year and never visit the same beach twice. The Verandah Resort & Spa is a high-end luxury property but the good news is... Expedia is offering a great all-inclusive deal: $462 for a room that sleeps four -- that’s just a little more than $100 per person per day for lodging, meals, beverages, and non-motorized water sports included. CURACAO may be the most colorful island in the world, with its mix of gorgeous beaches and bright Dutch-colonial buildings. Snorkelers love its coral and underwater caves (not as scary as they sound). JetBlue has vacation packages that include airfare and four nights’ lodging from $459. PUERTO RICO is a world away from home, but it’s part of the U.S. (no passport required!) and a short flight from the East Coast. Stroll the old-world streets of Old San Juan, kayak in tropical waters, taste local fare like arepas and spicy Asian-fusion dishes. We love Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa for its secluded beach, acres of tropical gardens, and diving opportunities, from $145 per night.

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Small-town must-see: Pottstown, PA's new carousel

It’s no secret that Budget Travel loves small-town America. Our annual Coolest Small Towns contest has celebrated 110 exceptional communities around the U.S. over the past 11 years, and we’re always on the lookout for “small-town must-sees.” Our latest must-see is the newly opened carousel in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a historic town on the Schuykill River about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Offering $2 rides, the carousel is a beautiful example (literally and figuratively) of what a community can accomplish when it works toward a common goal. Pottstown’s carousel is a large-scale lesson in “reuse, recycle”: The building that houses it was once home to Pottstown Metal Weld and has been renovated to play host to the spectacular Derek Scott Saylor Memorial Carousel, which itself is a rebuilt retro gem dating back to 1905. The carousel’s animals were hand-carved at cost by Ed Roth, a Disney carousel carver, and were painted by volunteers over the course of several years. Pottstown defrayed the cost of the carousel by seeking out sponsorships ($4,000 per animal) and holding a variety of fundraising events. And for those who might see a community carousel as an exclusively “feel-good” venture, those involved in the project note that the carousel, initially valued at about $25,000 prior to renovation, is now worth more than $1 million. The new carousel is part of Pottstown’s Tourism & Recreation District (or TREC), which includes a wide array of cool attractions such as the Colebrookdale Railroad’s Secret Valley Line, the Schuykill River Trail, and the Schuykill River Heritage Area’s “River of Revolutions” exhibit. (Pottstown's proximity to Philadelphia, the birthplace of American independence, makes the town an absolute feast for history buffs and students learning about our country's founding.) I’d like to thank my friend Evan Brandt, from the Pottstown Mercury newspaper (pottsmerc.com), for bringing the awesome carousel to our attention. Got a small-town must-see to recommend? Email us at info@budgettravel.com!

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