The White Heart
551 Congress St., Portland
The White Heart, a new bar and cocktail lounge on the corner of Congress and Oak streets, will do more to revitalize Portland’s arts and cultural scene than any other single establishment or institution in town.
That’s right: a bar. In this case, an exceptionally long bar made of polished concrete – as fine and functional a piece of public art as we have in our city.
There’s an equally long line of tables, chairs and black-cushioned benches opposite the bar. Several comfy couches and chairs are arranged by the front windows to create a lounge area that doubles as a small art gallery with monthly exhibits by local artists. The ornately carved plaster ceiling is itself a work of art. There’s space in the back for live bands and DJs, and this summer there’ll be seating along the sidewalk.
The atmosphere is classy, but not exclusive. There’s Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap ($2.50) next to Stella Artois ($3.50), and the bartenders are just as happy to uncap a bottle of High Life ($2.50) as uncork a bottle of Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label ($85) for you.
The bar menu is diverse – offerings includes mini-teriyaki burgers, mussels, spicy shrimp, and a tasty crab and avocado spread – and reasonably priced (nothing over $10). Likewise the cocktail menu, a combination of classic drinks (Zombies, Blue Hawaiians) and original concoctions (like The Red Worm, an inspired mix of tequila, passion fruit nectar and ginger beer), all either $7 or $8.
There are no TVs. Instead there’s “the world famous jukebox.” Though still a work in progress as of this writing, The White Heart’s jukebox shows signs it can be a contender for that title. When you can flip from Led Zeppelin’s Presence to A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory, greatness is afoot.
All this combines to create the ideal urban gathering spot, a place where the rich and the poor, the old and the young, can drink and mingle, can socialize. It’s through socializing that new connections are made, old ones strengthened; ideas are born; inspiration happens. Hell, people fall in love. The lonely find company. The miserable ease their pain. Songs are sung. Asses shaken. Tears begin to fall….
The crowd that packed the place on opening night is worthy of a Whitman stanza: the rock club proprietor, the curator, the playwright and the actor, the concert promoter, the record label owner, the painter, the photographer, the DJ and the drummer, the tattoo artist, the novelist, the editor, the Bingo host…. The scene reminded me of the beloved Free Street Taverna of old, but with a pleasantly scented men’s room and a shallow stone sink.
The White Heart can’t fill the void created by the empty State Theatre or the struggling Center for Cultural Exchange. But on opening night the Cajun band Douce tore it up, followed by pop chanteuse par excellence Darien Brahms.
It can’t convince Libra’s board to preserve the Public Market (another great urban gathering space), and it won’t turn the luxury condos above it back into artist studios. But by being a place where condo owners and artists drink side by side, this bar erases some of the social stratification caused by the condo boom. (And might said condo dweller be interested in some paintings for the new digs?)
Simply put, The White Heart has gotten people excited to hang out downtown again. I’ll drink to that.
— Chris Busby
The White Heart is open nightly from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.