Way up in North Portland, the Kenton neighborhood has a feeling of Portland’s working class …
I passed this place many times during my MAX commute through Old Town. Big windows, bricks, booths and an ornate wooden bar that I could see through dark windows. “Why is it empty?” I asked, daydreaming about it becoming a bustling brunch spot or a new place for a nightcap. I waited, but still it sat. My schedule changed and I didn’t take that route anymore, so I forgot about the building and it’s idle possibilities.
I heard someone had renovated the old McCormick and Schmick’s building into a new bar and venue, but I didn’t realize the irony until I found myself on its doorstep. My vacant dream-bar is now the swanky No Vacancy Lounge.
The building came to life in 1886 with cast-iron architecture. It served as a personal office for long-ago Portland mayor Henry Failing, before becoming a J.K. Gill department store, a few other small businesses and eventually McCormick and Schmick’s flagship restaurant from 1977 to 2009. From there it fell quiet, before landing into the cumulative hands of entrepreneurial partners with creative backgrounds in tech and design.
“No Vacancy” was the name of the underground dance parties that these young professionals started throwing in 2014–live streaming local artists and DJs in the form of a packed office party until the wee hours. Eventually they ushered the crowds to rooftops and warehouses, and then venues like Doug Fir and Holocene, and even pulling off a secret Diplo set at Black Book (now Maxwell). Things kept expanding, so when someone bought up the empty space, they got to work.
“We fell in love with it, this place has so much history.” says partner Rick Sheinin, as he discusses the custom designs that fellows Jessey Zepeda and Billy Vinton put into the takeover. “The idea is to be a true lounge, not just a venue or bar. A place to grab a great cocktail and food during happy hour, but also have great entertainment every night with cross-genre shows.”
There’s a unique lighting system and a four-point EAW Avalon sound system to fill the space. Shows alternate between live bands below and a DJ booth obscured behind a large picture frame window above. March will showcase Blossom, Billy Kenny, Swing City (electro-swing and burlesque from Portland’s High Step Society) and Telepopmusik, a French electronic music legend who hasn’t toured in a while.
A full kitchen provides charcuterie plates, Karaage vegetables and skewers. But the food also coordinates with the music–like fried plantains and jerked chicken paired with a Haitian band. You can order Cava, Scotch and Rose Gold High Balls, but there’s also an express bar with craft cocktails on tap; we’re talking rotating concoctions of Vieux Carres and Bulleit Old Fashioneds.
And then there’s the liquor lockers. The concept is that you’re here to socialize. Adding a speakeasy-style membership helps to fit that niche. “Were really trying to do something a little bit different, and for people that like to go out, there’s a lot of value in what we have to offer,” explains Sheinin. Becoming a No Vacancy member is comprised of renting a locker to store spirits to be served during visits. They receive discounts on purchases and perks like champagne flights and appetizers in the aforementioned “Members Mezzanine.” Most importantly, members receive admission to each show. “We’re also trying to build a social community here. That’s really important to us,” says Sheinin. Peeking into locker #11 reveals a bottle of New Deal Wildcat, Hibiki Suntory, and… is that Ron Burgandy Scotch? I think I need a sip.