Locals Know Best: Portland, Oregon

06_food trucks_Portland Oregonfood 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 he 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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