We used to call it the Stumble Zone. For a long time it was just the Space Room, Sewickly Addition and the Watertrough. Then Bar of the Gods came along, and later, the Sapphire Hotel. Occasionally someone would throw a party at the Eagles Lodge, and there would be rock shows at the Mount Tabor Theater, which eventually became Sabala's and added the Sideshow Lounge.
Compared with some of Portland's other commercial strips, upper Hawthorne has evolved slowly. For a six-block stretch that hosts eight restaurants, six additional bars and a live music venue, the strip from Southeast 44th Avenue to 50th Avenue is far from hectic.
The venerable Casa de Rios recently has become the Hawthorne Fish House. It's a bright, uncluttered, family-friendly fish-and-chips place, with good air conditioning and an alert wait staff.
Folks in the neighborhood will be happy to know that the fish and chips are gluten-free, and that the restaurant follows the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which is designed to protect endangered fish. The chile-fried catfish is spicy and succulent, and we don't have to wait for a table.
That's not the case at Apizza Scholls, just up the street. The sidewalk outside this one-year-old pizza place hosts a small crowd of pilgrims. We walk past them, after dinner at the Fish House, and on up Hawthorne.
The Sapphire Hotel is the swankiest bar on the strip, and it's good for an after-dinner drink, or some dessert. The whole interior is as carefully arranged as a storefront window display. Even the bathroom is draped in fabric and lit with rosy, flattering light.
Drinks have names like Amore (an amaretto sour) and Nina Simone (Grand Marnier, pomegranate syrup and sparkling wine). Thin bands of evening sun are slanting through the shadows, and 'Girl From Ipanema' plays in the background. The air conditioning is welcome at first, but as the sun goes down, we want to sit outside.
Zach's Shack serves hot dogs. And beer. And that's it. There's a deck out back, and tables in front, for some of the best people watching and evening sky watching on the boulevard. Folks from Captain Jack's, the tattoo parlor next store, stop in for dogs to go.
We're facing the sidewalk picnic benches of Dingo's Taco Bar across the street, and the moon is rising behind the scaffolding on the roof of Angelo's, another neighborhood tavern. A man walks down the street, strumming an electric bass. He's wired for sound, with an amp in his backpack. He's not asking for money. This coming Saturday, July 15, Zach hosts his third annual hot dog eating contest ($4 to enter, sign up at the shack).
Then it's dark. That means it's time for the Space Room, one of the first bars ever to serve me a drink. Back then, it was a pristine relic of its 1959 inception, with clown paintings on the walls and a fabulous neon sign that was destroyed by a storm two years ago. The booths are still cushy, and the original flying-saucer lamps still hang crookedly over the bar. But the murals and black lights are newer, as are some of the drinks.
The Martian has been replaced by a blueberry mojito, which has plenty of fresh mint and isn't half bad. But if you want something from the nuclear age, try the Blue Marlin. A mixture of tequila and blue caraçao - and nothing else - it's potent and scary, and glows like radioactive cobalt.
The Space Room is a lounge; the Watertrough, across the street, is a saloon. Bartender Rich Flaminio says the place has been a bar for at least 50 years; he's worked here for the past eight. 'It has remained remarkably the same,' he says. 'The clientele changes. You'll have groups of people move in, then move out and move on. But I'm still here.' The tapestry of dogs playing pool is fairly new, Flaminio explains, but it's a replacement for the old one, which, believe it or not, wore out.
The bathroom at the Watertrough is a hilarious study in contrasts with the bathroom at the Sapphire Hotel. The floor tilts. Leprous tiles partially cover the fake-wood walls, and to shut the door of the stall, you actually have to stick your hand through a hole in the paneling.
We've started with the newest spot on the street, and ended up with the oldest. Now, it's time to stumble home.