Holiday shopping reveals the true luster of this Portland neighborhood.
With a name like the Pearl District, you'd expect a pretty place. Instead, this gritty Portland neighborhood is more like an oyster with its gems—hip art galleries, trendy boutiques, and swank antique shops—hidden inside. Add in some superb dining and you have a lively locale for holiday shopping.
Yet the Pearl has only come into its own in the last five years or so. Many of the area's brick warehouses went up in the early 1900s; they were first used by the adjoining rail yards, then by commercial moving and storage companies. Eventually, some buildings just sat empty.
In the early to mid-'80s, artists began moving in and holding open houses to showcase their works. As the story goes, an art gallery dealer was showing some clients around the area and, looking at the warehouses, said something like, "What you don't realize from looking at these walls is that there's incredible creativity and artistry going on behind them. It's like a pearl tucked into a rough gray shell." The name stuck.
In the nearly two decades since, the Pearl District has gotten more polished—and become Portland's most cosmopolitan neighborhood.
Fuel up with a diner-style breakfast at Byways amidst kitschy travel memorabilia from around the United States. While you nosh, gaze at Yellowstone and other tourist hot spots through the View-Master on your table. Get there early to avoid long lines. If you sleep in, enjoy The Daily Café at your leisure; its bounteous $9.95 prix fixe brunch includes an appetizer, an entrée, and a basket of minimuffins.
Wedged against downtown Portland and the upscale Nob Hill District, the Pearl is cradled between Highway 405 and West Burnside Street. The northern edge is capped by NW Lovejoy, while NW Sixth Avenue is the eastern cutoff. With its short blocks and often-tight parking, your best bet is to explore the district on foot.
The majority of the shops and galleries are clustered between NW Everett and NW Irving, and NW 14th and NW 10th. A notable exception is Powell's City of Books, the legendary, four-story world of new and used books that occupies an entire city block on Burnside.
Perhaps by virtue of its exotic name, the district has a strong Asian influence that runs through many of its shops. Coco-Kimono is what you get when you cross French antiques with Asian simplicity. This funky store is a veritable flea market of new and used Zen-chic accessories. Head to Cielo Home & Garden for intriguing options, from hand-carved walnuts covered with interlocking Buddhas to antique lacquered wooden boxes of all sizes from China. Gallery Zen features the Northwest's largest selection of Japanese antique furniture and household items, complemented by an authentic Zen garden.
Pick up gorgeous journals, handmade paper, and letterpress cards at Oblation Papers & Press. Tea takers will get a rush from The Tea Zone with its 66 loose teas (including exotics such as Orchid Oolong, Dragon Pearl Jasmine, and Gunpowder Green) and unique teapots.
Take a lunch break at Little Wing Café, which offers overflowing salads, sandwiches, and homemade soups. Your preholiday will-power will evaporate when you see such desserts as the towering coconut cake.
For an early present, indulge in a pedicure, self-renewal facial, or a Thai massage at the sumptuous new spa Aequis. If the serene interior doesn't transport you to a place of deep relaxation, the customized treatments will.
Cater to a loved one's tactile sense at Sheepskin of Oregon, which stocks everything from cozy slippers to car seat covers. Been searching for sinfully soft, 400-plus-thread-count cotton sheets? Then French Quarter is your dream store, with its selection of luxurious European bed, bath, and table linens.
Surprisingly, there aren't many clothing boutiques in the Pearl. One standout is Odessa. The store's ultrasmart fashions from New York and Los Angeles are what almost no woman needs, but many woman want. For youngsters, try the bright cotton clothes at Hanna Andersson.
Holiday shopping must include a stop at a jewelry store, so swing by Gold Leaf Fine Jewelry. Specializing in (what else?) pearls, the store also offers an interesting selection of designs in gold, platinum, and gemstones.
Dinner in the Pearl is what really dazzles. Sophisticates young and old have crowned Bluehour the restaurant in town, delighting in its classic takes on Northwest and Mediterranean dishes, with a strong emphasis on seafood and game. For less of a pretty-people scene, stroll to Giorgio's, which presents its Italian dishes with a French flair. Café Azul serves authentic cuisine, such as fish tacos and marinated pork roasted in banana leaves, from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico.
For simple Greek eats—or some thumping, late-night fun—head over to Jimmy Mak's Bar and Grill. This small jazz joint doesn't look like much on the outside, but inside the house is hopping until 2:30 a.m. on weekends.
Though the Pearl has more than its share of shops and restaurants, suitable lodging is hard to come by. Not to worry. There are several hotels within a short walking distance, some of which offer special holiday rates. Or hop aboard the new Portland Streetcar to reach them. Most of the district lies in the newly extended Fareless Square, so you can ride there for free from downtown and pocket the usual $1.25 fare.
Stroll over to the Mallory Hotel, which boasts a surprising amount of historic charm. The gilded lobby is a welcome respite after a day of urban shopping. Also hoofable is the more utilitarian Mark Spencer Hotel, which has better proximity to the streetcar.
Farther afield is one of the city's newest hotels, the Paramount, which offers up styling on a par with Pearl District sensibility. Then there's the Hotel Vintage Plaza downtown. The attentive staff and swanky rooms make up for its distance (a longer walk or a quick cab ride) from the Pearl. Or stay at The Benson, one of Portland's historic gems, with its lobby of Austrian crystal chandeliers, Italian marble floors, and lustrous walnut walls.
Finally, for a low-cost take on the Pearl, check out the Tiki Tote Moniki sculptures on NW 11th between Johnson and Kearney. The colorful totem poles—the first of four planned public art projects—prove that the theme of the Pearl is still creativity
P L A N N I N G Y O U R T R I P
All phone numbers are area code 503 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Portland map and Oregon & Washington TourBook. Contact the Portland Oregon Visitors Association, 275-9750, (800) 962-3700, www.travelportland.com . For Portland Streetcar information, call 823-2900 or visit www.portlandstreetcar.org. 
Aequis, 1306 NW Hoyt St., Ste. 201, 223-7847. Cielo, 528 NW 12th Ave., 445-0111. Coco-Kimono, 402 NW 12th Ave., 525-0319. French Quarter, 536 NW 14th Ave., 223-3879. Gallery Zen, 525 NW 10th Ave., 221-3184, www.galleryzen.com. Gold Leaf Fine Jewelry, 634 NW 12th Ave., 224-7349. Hanna Andersson, 327 NW 10th Ave., 321-5275, (800) 222-0544, www.hannaandersson.com . Oblation Papers & Press, 516 NW 12th Ave., 223-1093, www.oblationpapers.com . Odessa, 718 NW 11th Ave., 223-1998. Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, 228-0540, (866) 201-7601, www.powells.com. Sheepskin of Oregon, 1218 NW Glisan, 242-0079. The Tea Zone, 510 NW 11th Ave., 221-2130.
Bluehour, 250 NW 13th Ave., 226-3394. Byways, 1212 NW Glisan, 221-0011. Café Azul, 112 NW Ninth Ave., 525-4422. The Daily Café, 902 NW 13th Ave., 242-1916. Giorgio's, 1131 NW Hoyt St., 221-1888. Jimmy Mak's Bar and Grill, 300 NW 10th Ave., 295-6542. Little Wing Café, 529 NW 13th Ave., 228-3101.
The Benson Hotel, 309 SW Broadway St., 228-2000, (888) 523-6766, www.bensonhotel.com . $139-$255. Hotel Vintage Plaza, 422 SW Broadway St., 228-1212, (800) 243-0555, www.vintageplaza.com . $124-$164. Mallory Hotel, 729 SW 15th Ave., 223-6311, (800) 228-8657,www.malloryhotel.com . $90-$165. Mark Spencer Hotel, 409 SW 11th Ave., 224-3293, (800) 548-3934,www.markspencer.com . $69-$129. Paramount Hotel, 808 SW Taylor, 223-9900, (800) 426-0670, www.paramounthotel.net . $109-$195.
Photography by Basil Childers
This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.