Slurp. Nothing better after a long day's work than a perfect cocktail. Crunch. Make that a cocktail chased by some of the best fries on the planet.
It's hard not to love bar food—they're satisfying snacks that help blunt the impact of alcohol—but Portland, Oregon's bar food is something special. That's partly because the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) mandates that food must be served at all times when alcohol is sold, and partly because Portland is a city full of passionate folks who put the same passion into drinks as into the food that accompanies it.
Portland's bars serve everything from nuts to small plates to full-on meals, but the criteria for this piece is simple: we wanted foods that are 'snacky', that are under $8, and are available anytime (not just Happy Hour specials, though go at the right time and you can score great prices on some of these foods). I happily biked myself all over the city nibbling, photographing, and taking notes to bring you eight of the best bar snacks in Portland.
The best place to eat and drink at Bar Avignon is perched at the bar, where you'll get a ringside view of the kitchen. It's a dynamic place full of hiss and steam and ironclad focus, with beautiful food emerging in a total team synthesis under the watchful eye of Chef Eric Joppies.
In the midst of this energetic space, take a moment to appreciate the simultaneous comfort and warmth of the Rosemary-Paprika Glazed Hazelnuts ($4) from Freddy Guys farm in the nearby Willamette Valley. This snack subtly builds on the tongue, with the buttery hazelnuts offset by the spiky freshness of rosemary, smoky paprika, and a subtle sweetness of brown sugar. The overall effect is uncomplicated, providing the perfect accompaniment to one of the excellent cocktails or a choice from their extensive list of French wines.
As you slide through the faded green curtains which mark Expatriate's signless door, you may find yourself feeling just a bit more sophisticated, your world-weariness assuming for a moment a charm usually found only in novels by Henry James.
New James Beard Award Winner Chef Naomi Pomeroy (of Beast) created a beautiful bar eats menu here, with the Hot & Sour Indian Spiced Fries ($6) not to be missed. The fries are the perfect texture, crispy outside and fluffy inside, and covered in a delicious mix of green mango powder, sugar, salt, black cumin, and curry that interact with the trio of sauces memorably. Those sauces would be a cilantro-raita aioli, house curry ketchup, and sumac ranch, and each provides a unique counterpoint to the spicy fries while complementing each other perfectly.
Popcorn is an art form at James Beard award nominee Clyde Common, the lauded Ace Hotel project in downtown Portland. Like just about everyone on earth, I'm a huge fan of bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler's drinks program, and the savory Popcorn in Brown Butter and Old Bay ($6) is a great accompaniment to, say, a mellow and self-confident Barrel Aged Negroni ($12) or any other of easy-to-drink cocktails on the menu.
Perfectly seasoned, fluffy yet still substantial, the popcorn is memorable on its own but even better paired with the Simple Green Salad in a Vinaigrette ($6). The salad is a refreshingly light choice, with glistening, unaccompanied lettuce leaves providing the perfect counterpoint to the rich popcorn. (Hint: both dishes are only $3 each during Happy Hour and Late Night, 3-6 p.m. and 11 p.m.-close.)
Note: Clyde Common is an experiment in communal dining that works exceptionally well some times, and can be grating at others. Plan to share a table with strangers—which can be a blast in Portland—and if you hate crowds, come early to avoid the escalating noise and excitement that fills the place as it transitions to evening.
Forget bar food, forget Cascadian cuisine, the Hawaiian Bread ($4) at Hale Pele will caress your palate and fill you heart with cheer, exactly as its 42-strong cocktail list will do. Any tiki bar will surprise and delight in Portland's long, rainy winters, but Hale Pele is special because it's tiki done right. Each cocktail has a line explaining its origins, and the drinks have been carefully updated while remaining true to their roots.
You'll find the bread from local Hawaiian bakery Lililoi is fluffy inside, with the outside caramelized and crusted carefully in salt. It comes accompanied by a butterscotch-y guava jelly made from B. G. Reynolds vanilla and ginger syrups. The flavors and textures intersect here in a beautiful snack, presented engagingly in a wooden bowl. The bread is a great accompaniment to any drink, but the Singapore Sling ($9) is refreshing with its combination of London dry gin, Cherry herring, lemon, and soda water.
Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen
Most bar foods balance booze intake with fat and carbs, which is one reason the Fresh Spring Rolls ($5) at Luc Lac are so engaging. These are some of the best spring rolls I've ever consumed, each texture and flavor balanced with the whole. Springy rice paper caresses the hearty meat (choose from pork, pork-and-shrimp, and tofu), crisp romaine lettuce, and columnar vermicelli noodles, with fresh mint providing a subtle surprise and refreshment.
Luc Lac is a busy spot. Expect to order at the register before sitting, and expect that you'll wish you'd ordered two of everything. The cocktails here are Vietnamese-influenced and the pho worth a trek. The space is filled with light and cheer, and one of my favorite touches is the countless delicate pink parasols depending from the ceiling.
Pepe le Moko
When cocktail legend Jeff Morgenthaler (he of the Clyde Commons, see above) opens a new concept bar, you can bet cocktail fanatics will be flocking. And they are. But one of the less-adulated facets of this quirky bar is its Bocadillos ($5), a proprietary take on the iconic Spanish sandwich. They're all delicious, but I recommend the Sweetheart ham and zucchini pickle version, and you should plan on taking a moment of silence to properly experience your first bite.
The bread is crispy and yielding at once, giving way to the salty flavor of thin-sliced ham and the gentle acidic crunch of the pickles. Try the bocadillo alongside one of Morgenthaler's defiant classic cocktail revisions (like the Amaretto Sour ($14), which might just justify his claim that he makes the best amaretto sour in the world) and know that you're experiencing one of the newest and most-watched bars in the country.
Well, it turns out that eggs are the perfect bar food (with all their protein and sweet-savory potential), and the unconventional kitchen at Rum Club delivers with its Pickled Egg ($2). Do yourself a favor and order both the beet-pickled egg and the jerked egg, which complement each other perfectly. The bright magenta-colored pickled beet egg has a faint yet pleasing sweetness that's offset nicely by the meaty Caribbean jerked spice (made from clove, allspice, cumin, aleppo pepper, and more).
Rum Club is a quirky not-tiki bar where many Portland bartenders like to hang out after hours, and the drinks here are boozy, creative, and inspiring. You can't go wrong with a Rum Club Daiquiri ($9) or the cocktail of the day, written on a chalk board against the hummingbird wallpaper.
The American Local
Brand-new but with the feel of a well-run community mainstay, The American Local is sort of an unofficial home for PDX bar food. Traveling chefs Chris Whaley and Jenny Nickolaus have finally settled here, but their electric and constantly-changing menu doesn't, with unashamed influences from East to West to In Between. A read over the menu (with its simple dish descriptions like "Striped bass tataki/miner's lettuce/green strawberry/Thai basil/spicy dashi") will have you salivating, but I highly recommend the Chicken Meatball Skewer ($6).
I'm not sure if you've ever thought of egg yolk as gravy (there's the Kentucky woman in me talking) but it's incredibly effective here, whisked with soy sauce and topped with crisp green circlets of scallion. The chicken meatball is beautiful: piping hot and striped from the grill, with a flaky but cohesive center and a gentle spice that comes to life when it's dipped in the sunny viscosity of the egg. Presented with complete attention to detail by the talented cooks in the open kitchen and consumed in a welcoming space that comes with an abstract mural influenced by Portland's highway system, this bite of bar food might just redefine the genre for you.
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