Greetings from fast-changing Portland. On your right, note the dozens of breweries and distilleries, none of which existed until the other day. On your left, take care not to provoke the bicyclists, who may control everything by the day after tomorrow. If you’d like to feed them, locavore treats and artisan coffee only, please.
And now to today’s postcard picture, just ahead among the hippies and hipsters of Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood: the Bagdad Theater & Pub, built in 1927.
The Bagdad is not just a longtime landmark on the less shiny southeast side of town, it’s also proof of the powers of historic preservation, neon and beer (not necessarily in that order). In a city in love with making things and recycling them, it’s an old postcard with a fresh message scrawled on the back.
“Bagdad,” by the way, was a common spelling in the ’20s. And somehow, the missing “H” contributes to the whole electrified-ersatz-Islamic-hallucination effect of the theater’s exterior. But inside, the Bagdad (mcmenamins.com) is about movies, beer, burgers and pizza. You can eat a meal and drink beer in the theater (recently renovated with new seats, a bigger screen and now showing first-run movies).
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After the movie, sit at one of the pub’s sidewalk tables (well, between cloudbursts), round the corner to shoot pool in the Back Stage Bar or have a smoke at the cigar bar Greater Trumps. All fall within the Bagdad’s domain.
And within a few blocks of the Bagdad, you can shop for books at one of the branches of Portland’s beloved Powell’s Books (powells.com
); check out old vinyl at Jackpot Records (jackpotrecords.com); wolf down breakfast treats from the Waffle Window (wafflewindow.com/) at dinner time; or order at the counter of the merrily chaotic Por Que No Taqueria (porquenotacos.com).
Do not, however, try to sleep at the Sapphire Hotel (thesapphirehotel.com/) near 50th Avenue. Maybe it once was a seedy flophouse favored by sailors and hookers, but it’s now an elegantly dim restaurant and bar featuring $9 cocktails that threaten to become novellas. From the drinks menu: “Lounge Singer. That woman had the voice of a thousand cigarettes. I pined for her. Fig bourbon, rhubarb, pomegranate molasses.”
Already, you may be thinking of “Portlandia,” the 4-year-old Web/TV comedy show that deftly sketches the whole sustainably sourced, beer-soaked, coffee-powered, homemade, bike-driven scene. Have you seen the one with the Cultured Caveman, a food stand specializing in paleo-diet snacks? Or Hopworks, the all-organic eco-brewpub? Or the street-corner salesman who peddles micro-kites that fit in your shirt pocket?
No, you have not. Because those are all real. (And by the way: From 1861 into the 1880s, Hawthorne Boulevard was known as Asylum Avenue because its most notable building, now gone, was Dr. J.C. Hawthorne’s Oregon Hospital for the Insane.)
But let’s get back to the 3700 block of Hawthorne, to the Bagdad.
When the theater went up in 1927, America was abuzz over the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, and designers were entranced by all things Arabian, or Islamic or, you know, sort of like that. Accordingly, the Bagdad featured a grab bag of Arabian, Moorish and Mediterranean flourishes, including usherettes in harem garb. For the opening, somebody brought a live camel.
But the Great Depression was brewing, “talkies” were coming and silent-movie palaces were about to go out of style. Over the decades, Bagdad owners and managers zigged and zagged, first booking vaudeville acts, later sectioning space off to make a duplex, then a triplex.
And then in 1991, brothers and pub moguls Mike and Brian McMenamin bought and renovated the theater, returning it to a single-screen configuration. The key innovation, borrowed from another McMenamin project a few years before, was the view ’n’ brew angle.
Now the history loving, hippie-friendly McMenamin empire has grown to more than 50 pubs, breweries and hotels in Oregon and Washington — including the Bagdad.