Thursday, June 18, 2009

Exploring Alberta Street

(Photo by Hilary Pfeifer)

Alberta Street—A World Away from Downtown
By Brooke Preston

In a city’s arts district, places like galleries, performance spaces, artesian bistros and independent boutiques abound. By this definition, most of Portland should be considered the arts district. Thus, calling the revitalized, gentrified cluster of businesses along Northeast Alberta Street the “Alberta Arts District” can initially be a bit of a head scratcher. After all, there are noticeably less of what might be called traditional galleries than in other local neighborhoods. However, by actually roaming this street of eclectic shops, one yields a bit of insight: nearly every restaurant and establishment is a gallery of sorts, showcasing a rotating collection on their walls and hosting openings. Most stay open late once a month to host events for the Last Thursday art walk, which provides a smaller but spirited counterpoint to the Pearl District’s First Thursdays.

Alberta is a fine place to bring visitors, but many Portlanders have yet to explore this somewhat out-of-the-way corner of their own community. It’s easy to fill an entire day ambling and noshing among the tattooed and shabby chic masses, but first, you’ll need a game plan. The district rambles all the way from NE MLK Jr. Blvd to NE Killingsworth, but most of the neighborhood’s highlights are conveniently located on NE Alberta Street between 11th and 31st Avenues. Ample street parking means you can get right down to enjoying the neighborhood on foot or bike without circling endlessly to jockey for a space.

You’ll need plenty of energy for a full day of intrepid exploring, so start with a hearty breakfast. No problem there—several of Portland’s most beloved breakfast and brunch havens are located in the heart of the district. I started my day at Helser’s, or more specifically, outside the classic café/diner at one of several (dog-friendly!) sidewalk tables. There, the hubby, the lab and I enjoyed a veritable feast of well-made a.m. comfort food served by friendly and efficient servers, including scrumptious potato pancakes. Just down the street, the Tin Shed and Garden Café is a local staple, serving up fresh local ingredients, and a large, covered outdoor seating area, which means less wait time during these summer months. Vegetarians and omnivores alike flock to the Vita Café, now settled in its new home directly across Alberta from its previous location. Its menu heavily leans on veggie and vegan offerings, but offers some responsibly raised meat options, meaning we can finally all eat at the same table without warily perusing the menu for something tasty. The Fuel Café is rich in both ‘nutritious’ and ‘delicious’, with an entirely organic coffee selection, cozy atmosphere and WiFi to boot.

Once you’ve fueled up, enjoy a peaceful morning filled with culture and creation. The Guardino Gallery offers appealing and ever-changing selections from contemporary Northwest artists. Fellow gallery Ampersand offers a fascinating, offbeat collection of new and vintage paper ephemera (and beyond) as well as a bookstore and gift shop largely specializing in photography and design offerings. Feeling inspired after taking it all in? Children of all ages can paint a variety of pottery items to call their very own at Mimosa Studios.

All that creating can work up an appetite, and lunch options are plentiful. Stop by Francis for a rare and perfect blend of high-brow luxuries (oh, those famously comfy chairs!) at surprisingly affordable prices. Stylish décor, unique and scrumptious food and drink and an accomplished, unpretentious staff make this a perfect place to languish and make lunch an event. If you’re in a hurry, or want to continue exploring while you eat, consider the Grilled Cheese Grill, a food cart that serves the childhood favorite in surprisingly interesting and gratifying ways.

After eating your greens, it’s time to drop some green on the street’s many locally-owned boutiques and shops. No need to feel guilty about your retail therapy—chains are all but nonexistent on Alberta and its surrounding streets, so the money you spend goes straight back into the neighborhood economy, helping small business owners thrive. Plus, we’re not talking mass-produced mall trinkets. Ella’s saves 30 to 50-somethings from choosing between the junior’s section and Chico’s, providing a stylish array of fitness, casual and even formal pieces. Donna and Toots and Garnish are two Alberta boutiques that offer only handmade clothes, sewn by their owners. Local fashionistas also rave about Garnish’s willingness to change or embellish a style or custom tailor any piece to look great on the buyer’s body. If that’s not enough to perk up your day, include a visit Mabel and Zora, a store inspired by the sunny spirit of Doris Day. If you’re shopping for smaller fry, don’t miss Grasshopper. The brightly colored store is packed with finds—but is refreshingly free of the over-marketed brands and toys of other stores.

However, there’s much more to browse than dresses and scarves. For example, one must-stop Alberta attraction is Office PDX, one of the most talked-about stores in Portland. Even if you’re not in the market for their collection of vintage office furniture, retro whatnots and design-centric modern notions (including a killer selection of laptop bags), you’ll be glad you stopped in—after all, what better place to re-enact scenes from Mad Men?

Don’t leave out Fido and Fluffy—Healthy Pets Northwest’s largest location (they have three) is located in Alberta. Bring in your pet, and the welcoming staff will probably offer your pet a treat or two from the massive additive-free treat bar. (My pooch literally leapt for the chicken variety).

Nearby, one of five area women-owned Real Deals on Home Decor location keeps prices ridiculously low for their large selection of home décor by staying open only a couple days a week (currently Thursday and Saturday). In fact, gifts and goods for just about everyone are all within a stone’s throw, from home and garden goods at Digs, new and used musical instruments and more at Trade Up Music, or gently used cycles for a good cause at the Community Cycling Center.

Celebrate your newfound bargains at Every Day Wine, where the laid-back atmosphere allows for sampling of any of the 400 options, most of which are under $15 dollars. Follow this with dinner at swanky (but not too swanky) Ciao Vito, serving Italian influenced dishes under glittering chandeliers.

After dinner, (or for another great happy hour/dinner option) keep the party going by visiting Zaytoon, a neighborhood bar with a decidedly big city feel. The spacious bi-level lounge is a must-stop, offering sophistication sans snobbery. This is fantastic news for those that want to class up their night without fighting the weekend Pearl throngs. In fact, once you spend some time in Alberta, this neighborhood is virtually destined to quickly become a regular part of the social repertoire.

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