Portland ’s gay bar scene used to be concentrated along SW Stark Street downtown, but in the past decade the gay drinking scene has dispersed, both into new neighborhoods (there are now as many gay bars on the East Side as downtown) and also to regular bars.
Gay people are welcome pretty much anywhere in Portland, and you certainly don’t need to seek out a gay bar just to have drinks with gay friends. In fact, in hip nightclubs, there’s usually a strong gay subtext to most events anyway.
The Gay/Lesbian International News Network recently ranked Portland as the number 1 U.S. city in its list of Best Cities for Gays, and you’ll find that most Portlanders don’t just tolerate but support gay people. There’s certainly no gay ghetto here, so enjoy your gay ol’ self wherever you wish.
One of a cluster of bars on SW Stark Street’s busiest corner, Boxxes (330 SW 11th Ave., 503/226-4171) is a popular spot with young gay men and those who wouldn’t mind the opportunity to love them. Entertainment at Boxxes takes the form of large-screen videos, go-go boys, bingo nights, and karaoke, though most think of Boxxes as the staging ground for entry into the Brig, the dark, sweaty, and hot-hot-hot dance bar in the back.
On the Stark Street side of the corner is Red Cap Garage, part of the same operation, but with street-side tables that offer some of the best people-watching in the city.
SW Stark Street is the traditional hub of Portland ’s gay bar scene, and Scandals (1038 SW Stark St., 503/227-5887) has been a fixture here since the 1970s. The scene is wide-open, meaning the bar is bright and airy, and in summer the floor-to-ceiling windows slide open and the scene spills onto the sidewalk. While there are pool tables and DJs spinning tunes, this is an easygoing, cruisy bar where (mostly) men come to hang out and meet friends.
The longtime favorite CC Slaughters (200 NW 3rd Ave., 503/248-9135) has undergone a lot of changes in the past few years. Up front, the Rainbow Room is a frosty-cool cocktail lounge, the place to sip cocktails and play pool in high-style surroundings; food is available as well. The nightclub is entered along NW Davis Street and contains a large bar and dance floor where DJs keep the rhythms pounding. The crowd is mostly male and of all ages, but the fun is open to all.
Crush (1400 SE Morrison St., 503/235-8150) is a bar that defies easy categorization. It’s definitely a gay place; witness Tuesday’s “That’s So Gay” trivia night, Wednesday’s “Gaym Night,” and the towering drag-queen waitresses. But the majority of people here are young and seemingly straight (it’s hard to tell these days), enjoying Crush’s arty good looks, fine cocktails, and fun events. Weekends find DJs and dancing; other evenings bring theme nights and Tarot readers. There are three separate bar areas, each with its own ambiance, including the lounge with its old-fashioned curved bar and the Blue Room for dancing and live music. Crush is a fun high-energy place to hang.
Darcelle’s (208 NW 3rd Ave., 503/222-5338) is one of those Portland  institutions, like biking and brewing, that may not make sense until you get here. Darcelle is a female impersonator extraordinaire who has, over the years, cozied up to all the political leaders in Oregon and whose outsized personality has made her an entertainment legend for 40 years. Everyone in Portland knows Darcelle. The stage show ($15), a combination of lip-synching and comedy by a bevy of lovely “ladies,” is very funny and rather raunchy, just as it should be. The shows are very popular, and a broad spectrum of Portland citizenry, not just devotees of the Imperial Court system, will be in attendance. Reservations are nearly mandatory, especially on weekends. If it’s midnight on Friday or Saturday, then bring on the male strippers!
Known to many simply as the E Room, the Egyptian Club (3701 SE Division St., 503/236-8689) is Portland’s most popular lesbian bar—and what a scene it is. Raucous and rough around the edges, the Egyptian isn’t exactly for shrinking violets. The main room is an old-fashioned bar with pool tables, and the dining room has a stage for karaoke. Down the hall is the dark and cavernous Tomb Room, where drag kings entertain and the mostly all-female crowd takes to the dance floor. Staff and regulars can sometimes be indifferent to outsiders, or to women who don’t fit the typical E Room butch-fem paradigm.
In super-tolerant Portland , it’s easy to ask why gay bars still even exist. Well, places like Embers (110 NW Broadway, 503/222-3082) still exist because they are so damn much fun. Part drag showcase (up front), part disco inferno (the back room), Embers is a Portland institution from the days when dancing all night beneath a mirrored ball to I Will Survive seemed like an act of defiant liberation. This is still Portland’s premier gay dance club, though the crowds here are very inclusive and include gays and straights and everyone in between. If you’re young, or young at heart, and feel like dancing to DJs, this is where you want to be.
In the heart of Old Town , Hobos (120 NW 3rd Ave., 503/224-3285) combines the classic redbrick good looks of an authentic 1890s bar with the courtly rhythms of a contemporary piano lounge. Wednesday–Sunday evenings starting at 8 p.m., pianists tickle the ivories (jazz, show tunes, occasional classical numbers) while the well-dressed clientele—a friendly mix of gays, lesbians, and their straight friends—enjoy cocktails. Hobos is a classy spot for an after-dinner drink.