ON a pre-dinner stroll through the Pearl District, we passed blocks of shiny new boutiques selling high-end design books, dog grooming services and $75 sweaters for babies. High-rise condos and bustling restaurants seemed to have sprung up on every elegant, cobblestoned corner.
I turned to my husband, Michael. "This is amazing," I said. "It's all new." He rolled his eyes. It was the fifth time in 10 minutes I'd expressed such sentiments.
I grew up in Portland when this area, known then as the Northwest Industrial Triangle, seemed gritty and dangerous. It was depicted in the 1989 movie "Drugstore Cowboy" as the stamping grounds of drug addicts and homeless people.
But then artists began congregating in huge numbers, gallery owners followed and today the neighborhood, renamed the Pearl District, looks like a real estate brochure for loft living. There's free wireless, and a local guide to the area lists 29 restaurants, 11 coffeehouses and 21 art galleries.
Transit geeks and urban planning nerds have long loved Portland for its light rail, slow-growth policies and dedication to public art that extends to former Mayor Bud Clark posing as a flasher in bare legs and raincoat in front of a statue under the heading "Expose Yourself to Art."
In the last few years, the city has also made strides in its restaurant scene.
Our plan was to eat our way across the city, punctuating our meals with strolls over the many bridges that cross the Willamette River and visits to Portland's famous Rose and Japanese gardens. We also envisioned a hike in Forest Park, the largest urban forest in the country. We pictured our baby, Evelyn, playing in burbling brooks while our eyes, accustomed to the brown of a late California summer -- we visited in August -- learned to distinguish among dozens of different shades of green.
Covering that much ground turned out to be too ambitious. Instead, we savored the city, and our days unfolded at Portland's languid, good-natured pace.
Almost without exception, the food was incredible. Even the waiters seemed stunned at the explosion of restaurants and influx of affluent, Portland-casual clientele that fills them night after night.
At Fenouil, a new high-end French brasserie with big windows overlooking a new public square and fountain, our waiter delivered a tomato tart combining melt-in-your-mouth pastry and salty blue cheese and shook his head in sympathy as we described the sensory overload of our walk. "Every day, there is something new," he said.
At Nostrana, a pizzeria on the city's east side recently billed as Portland's best restaurant, we ate pizza with tomatoes, a tuna and white bean salad and minestrone soup. All were light, fresh and subtly seasoned.
At Bluehour, at one end of a converted loading dock with hipster hairstyling chain Rudy's Barbershop, we sat in the sun next to some whippets and their owners just back from a dog show. (Portland is perhaps the most dog-friendly city in America; restaurants where dogs are not welcome feel obliged to put up signs to that effect.) The brunch menu leans toward comfort food with a twist. My husband had Bluehour's spin on the blue-plate special, which was a fried-egg sandwich; instead of side dishes of fast-fried onions and a slab of ham, he got caramelized fennel.
At Andina, a Peruvian restaurant, the food was good, but the cocktails were the real attraction.
I had the Atardecer Porteno, which the menu described as "pink guava nectar shaken with honey-infused vodka and lime juice topped with a float of ruby port and a spritz of lime zest, served up with an anise sugar rim." It left me speechless. A half-dozen other cocktails had ingredients just as extravagant -- including the Granada de Amor, which contains Damianaq, identified on the menu as "a Mexican love potion."
Our hotel was similarly over-the-top. We stayed at the nearby Hotel deLuxe, which is just up the hill in the city's old theater district. It bills itself as paying "homage to Hollywood's golden era." Movie stars glare out from every wall. But once you collapse into the exquisitely soft beds, it's easy to close your eyes and forget them.
On any trip, it's often the little unexpected moments that charm the most, and linger longest in the memory as reminders of relaxation and delight.
We had one of these walking back from lunch one afternoon when we stopped at Irving Park, a deep pocket of green on the city's east side.
Tucked behind the tennis courts were the usual swing set and play structure. But we also found a huge, colorful fountain. When my husband pushed a button, it burst into a symphony of water sprays.
The baby made one of her huge, happy grins and waded right in. Within moments, we were all soaked and smiling.
Not everything we did was new. On any visit to Portland, there are a few obligatory stops. One is Powell's City of Books, said to be the largest independent bookstore in the United States.
It remains a place to lose yourself for hours. And now that the Pearl District has grown up around it, you can wander through the stacks and then wander out and reward yourself with an enormous meal.
We also felt obligated to eat at a few old Portland favorites. On our first morning, which dawned under steel-gray skies, we headed to the Cadillac Cafe, which has been in business for more than two decades and already feels like a Portland institution. We eyed the giant pink Cadillac, all shiny and chromed up near the dining room, then watched the white-capped chefs dance through the open-air kitchen.
But to me the real attraction, apart from the fluffy eggs everyone raves about, are the disgustingly sweet, somewhat depraved coffee concoctions.
Because of its name, I ordered the Oregonian -- a cafe mocha with hazelnuts, whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles.
Halfway through my drink, as I read about other coffee options, including one with blackberry and another with Kahlua, I felt slightly queasy. But there was no denying the delightful effects of a huge jolt of caffeine and sugar.
As we walked out of the restaurant, the skies opened. We pictured the blanched landscape of Southern California and smiled as we strolled, holding our faces up to greet the rain.
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Wander along the Willamette
From LAX to Portland, Ore., Alaska and United fly nonstop; Southwest flies direct and America West has connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted roundtrip fares begin at $198.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel deLuxe, 729 S.W. 15th Ave.; (866) 895-2094, www.hoteldeluxeportland.com. Features rooms decorated in old Hollywood themes. Doubles from $149.
Jupiter Hotel, 800 E. Burnside St.; (503) 230-9200 or (877) 800-0004, www.jupiterhotel.com. This former motel has gone retro and bills itself as Portland's only "cultural boutique hotel." Doubles from $99.
WHERE TO EAT:
1. Fenouil, 900 N.W. 11th Ave.; (503) 525-2225, www.fenouilinthepearl.com. Fenouil means "fennel" in French, and little sprigs of the plant grace each table. The menu includes classic French fare such as fried frog legs, along with fish, lamb and seafood paella. Entrees $18-$31.
2. Andina, 1314 N.W. Glisan St.; (503) 228-9535, www.andinarestaurant.com. Traditional Peruvian dishes and contemporary Andean cuisine. The cocktails are amazing. Entrees $17-$29.
3. Bluehour, 250 N.W. 13th Ave.; (503) 226-3394, www.bluehouronline.com. Contemporary French and Italian, with choices such as potato gnocchi with black truffles. Entrees $16-$75.
4. Cadillac Cafe, 1801 N.E. Broadway; (503) 287-4750. A good breakfast spot. Less than $15, including an elaborate coffee drink.
5. Nostrana, 1401 S.E. Morrison St.; (503) 234-2427; www.nostrana.com. Some food critics call this Portland's best restaurant. This cavernous place features a changing menu of pizzas, salads and soups. Pizzas from $8, pasta from $13, meat and seafood from $16.
WHAT TO DO:
6. Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, (503) 228-4651, www.powells.com. Another fun place to wander and shop.
The Pearl District is a lovely place to wander, shop, dine or people watch. But Portland, with its miniature-sized blocks and plentiful parks, is delightfully walkable.
TO LEARN MORE:
Oregon Tourism Commission, 670 Hawthorne Ave., Suite 240, Salem, OR 97301; (800) 547-7842, www.traveloregon.com.
-- Jessica Garrison