Hola, Pépé Le Moko!

We’ve all got a running list of important, perplexing life questions–like, how to find true happiness (most likely by eating really really fresh mini doughnuts), how exactly to hike from Macleay Park to Pittock Mansion (I get lost every time!), why all the chocolate ice cream disappears even when the only person who could have eaten it is supposedly on a cleanse, and perhaps first and foremost, when is Pépé le Moko going to open? Today, that’s when, so cross that one off your list, and please focus–we’re lost again in the Arboretum.

Last night, we stopped in–or rather, descended upon–dashing restaurateur Nate Tilden (Clyde Common, Olympic Provisions, The Richmond Bar) and esteemed Clyde Common bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s latest and much-awaited venture, a sultry subterranean speakeasy hidden deep in the Ace Hotel building’s catacombs.

Pépé’s entryway, just to the left of The Cleaners on SW 10th Avenue, is unexpectedly cheery–it’s light, bright, and white, throwing you off the bunker bar trail. When you walk in, there’s a friendly hostess perched at the top of the stairs, and for now, Tilden himself is tucked into the tiny provisions-lined kitchen, accompanied by supercute Riley Henderson and a big bowl of to-be-shucked oysters on ice.

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But once you’ve gone down the stairs, it’s an entirely different world altogether–dark, sexy, cozy, touchy feely, and by that I mean that while trying to navigate your way to your table or barstool, you’re probably going to accidentally touch and feel a bunch of strangers, but don’t worry, it’s dark enough that they won’t know it’s you if you keep moving. The low lighting, cushy booths and banquettes, narrow nooks, and low, curved ceiling lend a womb-like feeling that will titillate romantics and send claustrophobics into the fetal position–just a word of advice, if you aren’t keen on small enclosed spaces, don’t venture past the upstairs oyster bowl until you’ve had some hypnotherapy.

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Upon being seated, we were graciously served glasses of sparkling rosé and a bowl of crunchy-salty quicos (Spanish corn nuts) while we looked over the cocktail menu. There are a half dozen or so offerings, and we loved everything we tried–the Hotel Nacional Special (aged rum, lime, apricot brandy, pineapple gomme and bitters), the Espresso Martini, and the Grasshopper, essentially a Fernet milkshake topped with fresh mint and served with a jaunty paper straw.

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The eats side of the menu is a short and sweet collection of oysters on the half shell with plum vinegar mignonette and fresh horseradish, a handful of $3 drinking snacks–the aforementioned quicos, Hawaiian peanuts, cumin-roasted pistachios and shrimp chips, and a half dozen $5 bocadill0s–Olympic Provisions’ Chorizo Rioja and Mahón cheese, sardines and pickled fennel, baba ghanoush and feta, OP’s Sweetheart ham and zucchini pickles, cannellini beans and black garlic, and Nutella with Jacobsen sea salt–which arrived warm, crispy, and wrapped in butcher paper.

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Time flies when you’re sipping fine cocktails, eating bunker bocadillos, and complimenting each other on how great you look in the dusky lighting, but alas our movie was about to start down the street at Living Room Theater, so we had to ascend back into the real world and go on our merry way. Pay Pépé a visit yourself, perhaps as part of your Valentine’s Day wooing process, provided your date is very secure with intimate underground spaces and boozy milkshakes (if they aren’t, maybe try finding another one here).

407 SW 10th Ave. * Open daily 4pm to 2am * 503.546.8537 * pepelemokopdx.com * Reservations accepted 

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