Walking down Congress Street on the West End of Portland, you’re sure to notice many things: ongoing construction where Joe’s Smoke Shop used to be, shenanigans in Longfellow Square, a wealth of places to eat and drink whatever you might be craving. But a place you might not see is The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box.
Nestled between Etain Boutique and Optimal Self Health and Wellness Center, it has minimal signage and tinted windows that make it inconspicuous, if not nearly invisible. Even those who have been there multiple times have walked right past it on return visits. The craft cocktails, however, make it worth the quest.
Founded by Nathaniel Meiklejohn (better known as Nan’l) in September 2014, the Jewel Box has been a unique and much needed addition to the West End. Its focus is on cocktails, drawing on Meiklejohn’s many prior years of experience in the Portland food service industry. Where some cocktail bars can tend to take themselves a little too seriously, the vibe at the Jewel Box is just the opposite.
The atmosphere is cozy and inviting right away, with the majority of the lighting coming from candles on the tables and the walls. A rounded bar is the centerpiece of the room, which also has seating by the windows that makes for some of the best people watching in town, especially since no one can see in from outside. There’s a smaller standing bar in the corner and an upstairs loft area where you’re guaranteed to look like you’re having the best time in the room. The decor could be described as modern sparse Victorian, featuring a beautiful and cool mural of who else but two bearded ladies right behind the bar.
Now, for the drinks. The menu of offerings is constantly rotating. At least once a month, patrons can expect an entirely revamped menu, though the $10 cost per cocktail always stays the same. There’s also a section of half-cocktails for $6, a great option for those who might not be able to handle another full strength beverage and understandably so.
These drinks are strong. They might look tiny and beautiful, and they might taste like candy, but one is all it takes to kick your night off into third gear. Feeling adventurous in spirit, I opted for the Trust Fall, which comprised bourbon, rum, orange liqueur, bitters, apple cider syrup and egg white. True to it’s name, I felt a bit wobbly upon finishing it, but that didn’t stop me from also trying the Grizzly Ginger (rum, fernet branca, lime juice, ginger/honey syrup). Both were perfectly mixed, well balanced and delicious.
Since the cocktails are the main event, it makes sense that the beer and wine selections are sparse. One tap of rotating Liquid Riot beers for $7, plus $3 cans of Narragansett efficiently covers the high and low ends, while a short wine list contains a few reds, a rose and some bubbly for any celebratory needs.
A night at the Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box feels like a mini vacation from Portland, which is something everyone could use around this time of year. The drinks are always great, the music is always cool (J. Dilla on this particular night, in honor of his birthday), and you’ll always leave feeling happy and refreshed. Just be careful not to have too many Trust Falls, tasty as they are.
WHERE: 644 Congress St., Portland
HOURS: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily
AMENITIES: Inviting atmosphere, unique decor, strong and well-crafted drinks, amazing people watching, cool loft area, disco ball, great R&B music playing most of the time, friendly staff.
BOTTOM LINE: The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box is Portland’s version of a speakeasy. Duck into this inconspicuous cocktail bar and enjoy the candlelight, the people watching, the friendly service and the creative and thoughtfully crafted cocktails. Best if you’re within walking distance.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes