2018 is Portland’s year of the wine bar, with more than eight new wine bars including the perpetually buzzy Canard and the oh-so elegant Arden. The country’s current fascination with neo-bistros, combined with Oregon’s status as a winemaking haven, has made Portland’s vetted restaurateurs — and a few newbies — dive into the chic wine bar world, replete with eyebrow-raising dishes and ritzy decor.
While Portland has a number of exceptional longstanding wine bars (Hello, Noble Rot), Eater Portland decided to evaluate five of this year’s wave of newly opened wine bars based on breadth and quality of wine selection, food, and atmosphere. This list excludes pop-ups like Sardine Head and the bar at Park Avenue Wines, sticking to spots with consistent hours and standing locations.
Canard: The Overachiever
Overall score: 4.5 out of 5 wine glasses
We started at Gabriel Rucker and Andy Fortgang’s new wine bar, a critical darling across the board. Canard’s energetic vibe and cheerful decor set us off to a good start, followed by buzz-worthy bites like the foie gras dumplings. While Canard’s food is rightfully knockout, we found the wine list almost inaccessibly long — it’s a wine nerd’s ideal bedtime reading, but for newbies, it can be a little daunting; its cocktails are significantly more inviting.
Ok Omens: The People Pleaser
Overall score: 4.5/5
Ok Omens is a big step up from the now-shuttered Cafe Castagna. It keeps the decor pretty subdued — it almost has a coffee shop feel in the daylight — but its wine list is organized in a cheeky, playful way, with shocking, bargain-basement prices on ‘80s and ‘90s bottles. We couldn’t stop talking about the La Collina Lambrusco Rosato we tried there for weeks, which paired amazingly well with Justin Woodward’s beets and beef dish: beets braised in pickling liquid then seared, served with beef tartare.
Arden Wine Bar: The Matchmaker
Overall score: 4/5
Heading into the Pearl, Arden feels the most elegant in its decor, with a few of the same natural tones and design notes as OK Omens. Its food is elegant, too: Chef Sara Hauman’s menu is intricate, offering a tasting menu and composed dishes with captivating touches of smoke. We had a lovely fennel salad with some mimolette, and the pairing of Auxerrois Blanc tasted unmistakably of green apples. Still, the wine list itself wasn’t particularly eye-catching — the bottles almost felt too obvious.
Bar Norman: The Purist
Overall score: 3.5/5
Bar Norman’s ambience is effortlessly cool, the kind of place to take a quirky friend living in whatever city Portland was in the ‘90s — Asheville? Is Asheville still cool? Super somm Dana Frank of Ava Gene’s and hip hop pop-up Natty by Nature curates the bar’s constantly changing list, which features a strategic range of styles that will please any palate. Getting peckish while sipping on some natural orange wine from Slovenia, we ordered a smattering of nice cheeses and canned fish, which is the gist of the very limited menu. The food feels a bit like a throwaway, which knocked down its overall score; still, for those solely interested in wine, Bar Norman stands out.
Enoteca Nostrana: The Diva
Overall score: 3/5
Nostrana matriarch Cathy Whims’ flashy wine bar serves as a private event space for the main restaurant and a playground for wine director Austin Bridges, and it’s certainly the looker of the group: High ceilings, Hollywood-style lights, brut-cork stools. Bridges’ wine list is extensive and littered with gems, but it’s also long and tough to parse — unfortunately, on our visit, the two servers we asked for direction seemed a little lost themselves, and the wines we drank felt somewhat safe. When Bridges is in the building, he is a great guide, but it can be a gamble when he’s not. The food we had — a customizable pasta with capers and house chili oil — was lovely, but at $18 for a small portion, it felt expensive for what it was. The time to go is during one of the happy hours: From 4 to 6 p.m., when dreamy Nostrana pizzas are available for $9, or after 10 p.m., when every bottle is half-off.