A bit of vaudeville, a few drinks outside give clubs a festive outlet

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - People enjoy the nightlife on Southwest Ankeny Street between Second and Third avenues, a location lit with stringed lights and neon signs and lined with bars - and closed to traffic to enhance the mellow party feel.The girls in the tight black mini-dresses are headed in one direction. The guy in head-to-toe leopard print is headed in another. The couple with the big pink box are just here for the doughnuts.

Sooner or later, anyone who has any reason to be downtown on a Friday night ends up on Southwest Ankeny Street. The street is lit with strings of lights and neon signs, and lined with bars. Picnic tables fill the middle of street, so you can take a drink outside and do some serious people-watching.

The idea to close off the street was spearheaded two years ago by Dustin Knox, who at the time owned an ambitious little bar on Ankeny called Central. After serving some amazing cocktails and, at one time, very high-end food, the bar transitioned to selling deep fried hot dogs and hosting hip-hop dance parties under the name Harlem.

It’s changed ownership, but kept the name. The new Harlem is basically a simplified Central, with less attitude, no fancy drink menu and no giant taxidermy elk head. It’s still secretive. From the street, what you see is an outpost of the KOi Fusion taco chain, which fills the storefront like a window display. Pass through a small hallway on the right to reach the small bar that displays the old bones of the building — brick, concrete, a soaring warehouse ceiling.

There’s a bartender, a DJ and few customers. Upstairs is a balcony space if you want some privacy. Or you can take your drinks out to the picnic tables in the street and become part of the scene.

Valentines, the bar next door to Harlem, is architecturally a mirror of Harlem, and so small that I can’t believe they have live bands here, but they do. Valentines’ bar is in the back, tucked underneath its balcony, with a natural-edged wood bartop and a friendly bartender.

Summer cocktails are based on fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and lemonade. A fine drink called a John Daly combines tea-infused vodka and sparkling lemonade for an alcoholic Arnold Palmer that is tart and bracing — not oversweetened — and another good excuse to sit outside.

Sugar or smut

Across the street, the ever-morphing Berbati is still there, scaled down to just a bar, with pool tables and big TVs. Berbati wraps around another old-timer, Shanghai Tunnel, the mostly underground bar on the east end of the block. The far west end, where Berbati’s club entrance used to be, is, of course, Voodoo Doughnut, with its perpetual line of pilgrims running down Third Avenue toward the porn theater. The big center space where bands used to perform (Berbati’s Pan), is now the Kit Kat Club, a new strip club with a nostalgic bent.

In the bathroom are framed vintage ads for go-go dancers like Bambi Darling, Gigi La France and Dee-Dee Cartier “in her mono bikini.” Outside, gold paint and draperies add a little decadence to what was a cavernous room, now split up with booths and two round stages for the dancers.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Harrison Smith, visiting from Sacramento, hangs out with Portlander Chelsea Brist at Valentines, a cozy bar with live bands on Southwest Ankeny Street.Evoking a vaudeville tradition, there’s an MC to provide between-dance patter, although the sound system is so bad that you can’t understand what he’s saying. Also, every half hour the regular show is pre-empted by a “burlesque” segment.

In one, a pretty girl gamely pretended to be a wizard. It was weird and funny, but I’m afraid she didn’t get as many tips as the girl who just pretended to like some guy at the bar.

Outside, there’s a walk-up dessert window called Kutie Pies, selling ice cream and individual sweet and savory pies. They looked a little sparse and tired when I was there, but it was late at night.

Everywhere you look on this street, businesses are nested inside other businesses. The high-end pizza spot Via Tribunali takes up the corner spot on Third Avenue, with a little outpost of the coffee spot Caffe Vita carved into one corner, with a counter along the sidewalk. (They’re both owned by the same company).

Up above Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, which has been serving up fresh-shucked oysters and nautical kitsch for more than 100 years at the corner of Second Avenue, a red neon phone number connects callers to a massage parlor.

It’s that kind of street — definitely not squeaky clean, but not a red-light district either. It’s distinctly more mellow than the party zone just a couple blocks away, where the streets are blocked off for crowd control, not for fun.

There’s a more urban feel that everyone’s here for a different reason: sugar or smut, a show or a quick drink or just passing by.

Harlem, 220 S.W. Ankeny St., no phone; Valentines, 232 S.W. Ankeny St., 503-248-1600,, opens at 5 p.m.; Kit Kat Club, 231 S.W. Ankeny St., 503-226-6630.

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