Written By Deston Nokes • Photographed By Dylan + Jeni
BON APPÉTIT — It was 7:30 a.m. and I was munching on steak and eggs when I heard a voice purr, “Whatcha doin’?” A curly-haired woman wearing only a plaid skirt was crawling catlike toward me on the bar. When she realized my attention was focused on reviewing the breakfast, and not her, she politely slinked away—and over to a grinning newcomer who’d just bellied up. So it goes at the Acropolis Steakhouse, a well-known strip club in Portland, Oregon.
In Portland, strip clubs are nearly as common as cafés. There’s one for every 9,578 residents, a density surpassing even Tampa and Las Vegas, and they appeal to people of every conceivable persuasion—gay and straight, the tattooed and the surgically enhanced, and, of course, the hungry. “It’s a hedonistic town,” observed Mercury, a dancer at Blush. “Portland always has been a little seedy—all the way back to its roots as a shipping town, complete with Shanghai tunnels leading to the docks.”
And while strip clubs aren’t about to steal Portland’s restaurant spotlight, there’s a great deal of pride and talent among their chefs. Herewith, the skinful establishments that cleverly combine the carnal and the culinary.
The Old School: Mary’s Club
Mary’s Club, on Portland’s busiest downtown street, opened in 1945 as a piano bar catering to longshoremen and servicemen. It’s dark and narrow, with the original murals still on its walls, and perhaps some of the original customers sitting in the dark. (One Coors-sipping older fellow claimed to have been a regular for more years than he could count.) Mary’s also serves some of the most flavorful Mexican cuisine in town, courtesy of Santeria, a neighboring hole-in-the-wall that also serves food in the club. The green mole with chicken, prepared by chef Ian McCormick, sings spicily of garden greens, cilantro, and tomatillo, and you should always keep an eye out for fresh ceviche.
Drink: Mary’s Topless Blonde Ale, of course, brewed by Cascade Brewing.
Nudes and Noodles: Lucky Devil Lounge
At the east end of the Ross Island Bridge, there’s a short, red building where naked ladies swing on monkey bars to the sonic shrapnel of heavy metal. With a healthy amount of red velvet, black paint, and some very attractive dancers, Lucky Devil Lounge is precisely where you’d expect to find some creative takes on old standards. Chef Luke Zimmerman, who’s covered in tattoos save for his face (that’s next), developed the recipes, which include penne with local Tillamook Cheddar and jack cheese, garlic, and Sriracha, and hand-cut fries rolled in rice flour for extra crispiness. A friendly fellow, Zimmerman noted the club received a 100 percent on its most recent health inspection, adding that it’s also known for “Tiny Tuesdays,” when only dancers under five feet tall perform.
Drink: Old-fashioned margaritas and Jell-O shots.
The ‘Anything Goes’ Vegan: Casa Diablo
Casa Diablo owner Johnny Diablo Zukle relishes “putting meat on poles instead of on plates,” he says in a well-rehearsed soundbite. But his intentions are sincere, and his club, in Portland’s industrial Northwest, has a well-crafted vegan menu to back them up. Chef Becky Lou whips up baked tofu Jamaican jerk kebabs over dirty Caribbean rice, samosas filled with mashed potatoes and curry, and a not-too-shabby veggie burger. The roomy club is renowned for its “anything goes,” freewheeling shows late in the evening, and is also lesbian-friendly.
Drink: An Eros Euphoria—whipped cream vodka, chocolate vodka, cherry vodka, and nondairy creamer, garnished with chocolate and a cherry. Or… maybe just a beer.
Suburbanites’ Delight: Stars Cabaret
On a recent Monday, Stars Cabaret, in Southwest Portland’s suburbs, was full of men enjoying not only the rapt attention of the strippers who mingled among them, but also a hearty lunch from chef Walter Romero‘s menu. Romero’s fare ranges from an unexpectedly spicy lasagna (with fresh-made noodles) and a seafood jambalaya to Hawaiian, Greek, and American classics. The Tuscany turkey melt, dripping in decidedly non-Tuscan chipotle sauce, provides as much sizzle as the stage. I was so taken with my meal, in fact, that I mentioned to my girlfriend that once my research was done, that we could come back … for, you know, the food.
Drink: Bartender Sarah was gleefully making strawberry mojitos using fresh fruit and mint leaves. “We’re always making whatever’s fresh,” she said. How very Portland.
Steak & Legs: Acropolis Steakhouse
The “A-Crop” is one of Portland’s oldest and most famous strip clubs—famous not only for its four stages but its exhaustive selection of beef, from marinated sirloin bites with sweet and spicy sauces to a two-pound hamburger. There’s even a fresh salad bar—a rarity among Portland clubs—and an outside takeout window, if gyrating, purring, counter-crawling ladies aren’t your cup of tea. Finally, if you’re there when it opens at 7 a.m., you should probably get the 10-egg ham and cheese omelet for $7.50. Yep–10 eggs. For stamina, presumably.
Drink: Angela, who’s tended bar for 15 years, draws pints from a selection of 65 beers, from Bud to Widmer Brothers’ gluten-free Omission Pale Ale.
The Meat Eater: Blush
After eating a 16-ounce top sirloin steak dinner for $4.95, diners at Blush aren’t going to leave hungry, broke, or disappointed. You get a mountain of meat (ask for medium rare), which you get to tackle while chatting with the exceptionally friendly (and never pushy) nude dancers. This place feels upbeat and fun, as evidenced by the menu’s surprise hit: a $6.50 vegetable plate with a fresh and downright fluffy hummus, made from the owner’s mother’s recipe.
Drink: Lemon drop (vodka, peach schnapps, sugared lemon, 151 rum, set on fire).
Nacho Papa: Silverado
It’s 9 p.m., and a parade of a dozen go-go boys in briefs take turns at the various platforms to strip down and show their goods. In business for 34 years, Silverado is in a plain building with American flag bunting in the window, sports on the TV, a pool table, video poker, and pumping techno music. Despite the show inside, Portland’s only gay strip club would be easy to miss without the rainbow flag waving outside. While most of the food is deep-fried, the club serves fresh salads, and I chomped into a Floburger (named for Flossie, the original owner), encompassing two patties, crisp bacon, and Cheddar, with a side of fries. A massive nacho plate is a popular order, with spicy beef, jalapeños, black olives, and salsa. On Sundays, instead of church, the dancing starts at 5 p.m. and goes until midnight. By 7 p.m., it’s standing room only.
Drink: Bartender Jon Michael Phillips Jr. will put his Spanish coffee up against anyone’s in Portland, including city’s iconic Huber’s. “I also use Bacardi 151, a bigger glass, some crème de cocoa, and charge $8 instead of $10,” he said.
DayGlo Delight: Club 205
Located in outer Southeast Portland right off a freeway exit, Club 205 is a very popular stop. When I walked in on a bright day, my eyes didn’t adjust quickly enough to the dark, and I inadvertently bounced off a dancer’s firm enhancements. In this environment, there’s a competition for your attention: an exceptionally flexible dancer performing among a sea of Mylar balloons; the DayGlo accents adorning Melanie, who won Best Waitress at the 2013 PDX Strippies; and the extensive specials menu on the chalkboard that included halibut with mango salsa, blackened salmon, Hawaiian short ribs, and a from-scratch beef and vegetable soup.
Drink: This is definitely a domestic draft crowd, but if you’re buying a drink for the lady, Mel will probably bring her a grape bomb (grape vodka, Red Bull, and cranberry juice).
Stay Out of the Pool: Safari
Safari just spruced itself up by installing a new golf simulator and patio pool—for the dancers, not the patrons. Customers will have to content themselves with a hand-carved prime rib dip, a roasted ribeye—rubbed with garlic, special seasoning, thyme, and rosemary—or a mean bowl of hot or cold borscht, all prepared by chef Rich Heiner, who emerged from the kitchen wearing a kilt. “It gets hot in the kitchen,” he said. At least he wasn’t the only one who may or may not be traipsing about without underpants. You’d have to ask him yourself.
Drink: Palm the Booty, named for bartender Rachel’s showstopper, is a puckering concoction of pomegranate vodka, Malibu rum, and cranberry and pineapple juices.
Better Be Tippin’: Club Skinn
I’m not making this up: the homemade chili at Northeast Portland’s humble neighborhood bar, Club Skinn, might be my favorite in town. With a delicious infusion of onion, bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and jalapeños, and a perfect ratio of beans to ground beef, the chili’s spice sizzled all the way down. The stage and bar are pretty close together and one dancer came over and accused me of staring without tipping—a big no-no. After I protested my innocence, she started making fun of my Sperry Top-Siders, asking me if I had a boat or something. A kind, slender, redheaded dancer came to my rescue and shooed her away. Then—to my surprise and delight—she ordered a huge bowl of magnificent chili for herself. Pro move, kid.
Drink: PBR—in a can, of course.
Kick Up Your Clear Heels: Spyce
Spyce aspires to be a little classier, a place where patrons might have ties to loosen rather than tank tops and ball caps. Located in Old Town Portland, the tall-ceilinged club has high-backed sofas providing Scotch-drinking, aspiring Mad Men with plenty of sight lines to the ladies wearing Lucite heels and little else, on its four stages. Like other clubs, Spyce serves plenty of meat, although in chef Alan Garl‘s kitchen, the burger and the pulled-pork sandwiches come on grilled brioche buns, while the grass-fed ribeye is from Fulton’s in the Blue Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and comes with perfectly sautéed green beans.
Drink: Bartender Brittany pours a mean Pink Taco (Hornitos Reposado tequila, X-Rated passion fruit liqueur, limes, soda, and cranberry).