How I Avoided Christmas in Style This Year
My mother passed a few years ago and my kids were getting to that age when I could use the occasion of my wife's 50th birthday (December 23rd) as plausible grounds for abandoning my normal familial responsibilities this holiday season. We motored south unfettered by the usual holiday obligations to our favorite burg across the Columbia. What we learned is that nothing puts the “X” in Xmas better than PDX.
Next to Disneyland, my wife's happiest place on earth is Portland and, more specifically, ensconced in a booth at that city’s Trader Vic's, so that’s where we landed to mark the occasion of her half centennial. I grew up outside of Portland in the early 70's and when my parents needed time away from their troubles they headed downtown to Vic Bergeron’s exotic eatery to escape with a flaming pu-pu platter and whatever poison they might select off the colorful menu of rum based tiki concoctions. After the original closed in the ‘90s, my wife and I were elated to hear of its reincarnation in the Pearl District several years ago. While we were toasting my wife with some complimentary champagne there, I spotted a guy at the bar sipping his Mai Tai with a uniquely satisfied look on his face. Later I found out that he was none other than Clayton Hering, the man behind the restaurant’s rebirth. His reasons for breathing life once again into a Portland franchise were simple: He wanted a restaurant back on the city map where folks could go to mark those milestone events in our lives. In Seattle that place is Canlis, maintained lovingly by the third generation of the founder. And thanks to this gentleman Portland now has its venerable gathering place back.
The next day on Christmas Eve, we were looking for a purveyor of the ‘old school’ Christmas libations one might find mentioned in a Dickens story or served to weary travelers by the fireside in colonial taverns, hot drinks with complex flavors meant to warm souls long before central heating. We found them in the bar at the Raven & Rose restaurant, a relatively recent addition to the city’s restaurant scene. The Rookery bar sits in the massive hayloft atop a converted historic carriage house that once sat alongside one of the grand mansions that dotted the park blocks running like a spine of green through the heart of historic Portland. Our genial host, Bar Director David Shenaut, had a vat of hot mulled wine sitting atop the bar which we promptly imbibed, enjoying its spiced warmth. David let us also sample the house-made sangria and their eggnog, the latter which he’d designed to be lighter in quality so it would blend better with the rums we added. While he took his drink-making seriously, David’s staff sported tacky Christmas sweaters and there was throughout the splendid space an air of light hearted merriment and seasonal conviviality. One imagined the ghost of Christmas present perched in the Rookery’s majestic rafters gazing down in satisfaction, his goblet raised in salutation.
That night for Christmas Eve dinner we’d snagged the last available reservation for a two-seater in the bar at the original Ringside Steakhouse on Burnside Street. It belonged to my short list of Portland eateries that Dad had driven past back in the day as I gazed out of the family car and wondered what it was like inside. My wife and I had bundled up in preparation for the long walk from our hotel (the Mark Spencer, an unassuming hostelry which perfectly straddles the posh and plain as well as it does “the Pearl” and Downtown). After the brisk multi-blocked stroll we had nearly lost the function of our extremities when we swung open the large black doors and entered into the mad and glorious cacophony of an operation established before the end of WWII and yet one that still knows how to create great dining theater. Once we were sat at our little table with white linen and punched leather seating we marveled at the chaotic ballet of the uniformed staff as they rushed to serve a house packed to capacity in scenes reminiscent of a Martin Scorsese movie.
Several hours later after being stuffed with meat, potatoes and bourbon we were coughed out of the back door into the historic Alphabet District to begin another frozen trudge, this time to partake in Midnight Mass.
Going from one version of theater to another we entered the glorious Gothic Revival of the Trinity Cathedral and were greeted with a scene of such Episcopalian visual excess that we were barely able to stumble to a pew and drink in the splendor. The massive altar was festooned with so many white poinsettias that it looked like a snow drift. Live brass and chorus complemented a thundering organ with pipes rivaling the height and girth of the majestic firs that still populated the environs back at the turn of the century when the cathedral opened. This being “Portlandia” and all, the quirky sermon delivered a homage to the classic Peanuts Holiday Special (“A Charlie Brown Christmas”) which, along with my wife, had just celebrated its 50th birthday. The pastor praised the animated special’s revolutionary aspects to include a child speaking biblical text at length on prime time network television. When he mentioned Linus van Pelt giving up his beloved security blanket to prop up Charlie's drooping tree, symbolizing a broken spirit of Christmas renewed by profound sacrifice, I nodded in appreciation at the sermon’s insight. I had watched this TV special every year since I first saw it when I was five years old and had never got the full message of hope it was giving Middle America that winter night 1965. God bless Charles Shultz, I thought to myself.
The next morning peace and quiet reigned throughout the city and Christmas day was spent by the both of us jumping off random curbs and following our muse through empty streets down near the park that runs along the Willamette. We paused at the venerable Benson Hotel, a landmark since its opening in 1910 and where the city’s original Trader Vic's had been located no less. The lobby of the hotel features an Edwardian splendor of large palms, rich wood panel and a staircase that when you descend makes you feel you’re in the closing scenes from “Titanic”. It’s no surprise that for the season the hotel installed a Christmas tree, but this leviathan reminded me of the one in the Nutcracker that someone forgot to stop from growing too large before it nearly ate up most the air space in the grand lobby. We ended up in the Palm Court off the lobby, sipping Old Fashions in an alligator-skin upholstered booth with a host of local police officers eating an early Christmas feast compliments of the hotel. I asked the staff who explained this beau geste to Portland’s finest had been a tradition at the Benson for as long as any could remember. Nice touch.
We ended our trifecta with Christmas dinner at Zeus, the restaurant located in the Crystal Hotel, a relative new addition to the quietly-growing Oregon empire of the McMenamin brothers. Purveyors of slacker-casual hipness the two siblings have done more to establish the ethos of modern urban Oregon culture than anybody else in the state. They are legendary for lovingly breathing new life into the ghost-ridden halls of old hotels, saloons, brothels and meeting halls. The running joke for Portlanders is that, despite a warm and welcoming ambiance, crafted booze and an whimsical theme of post-hippy mysticism present at all their many and varied properties, they can’t seem to address the uninspired food offerings. Perhaps in an attempt to beat this rap and compete with Portland’s gastro revolution they opened this venue, the first of its kind featuring an open kitchen design with a chef driven menu. I leaned back from my plate of roast goose in a cherry port reduction enhanced by a glass of their seasonal pear ginger cider and smiled as I heard the Ramones singing Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) playing above the din of retro revelry. I thought to myself what a perfect ending to a uniquely Portland Christmas in the city that always keeps you delighted in your wanderings no matter what the season. And best of all, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty that I’d avoided Christmas entirely.