Unless you’re new to Portland, chances are you’ve heard of Dot’s Cafe. This SE Clinton Street eatery has achieved something of a legendary status among its loyal devotees. A few clicks on any Portland restaurant ratings site and you will come across comments dedicated to the affectionate descriptions of late night binges on Dot’s famous cheese fries and the comforts of darkness in this dimly lit haven. But even these glowing reviews don’t tell the full tale.
Dot’s is more than just another hip joint in which to hang out, have a few drinks and get some late night eats. Started in 1992 by siblings Jennifer and Monica Ransdell, Dot’s Café (named after Monica’s love of polka dots and her vow to name her first born child Dot) was one of the first eateries of its kind in Portland. “At that time, this neighborhood had nothing open except Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturday nights at the [Clinton Street] theater,” says Jennifer, “We had gone to New York and when we came back to Portland we were lamenting the fact that Portland didn’t have anything late night for young people that wasn’t a club or a dive bar.”
“In New York there were places like Life Café where you could go late either dressed up or in sweats with a book. We wished Portland had a place like that,” Jennifer explains.
At the restaurant where she worked, Monica spoke to her then-boss about the idea of a place like those she and her sister had seen in New York. He recommended their current location on Clinton Street. “We didn’t plan it all. I was 24 and Monica was 26. I was on my way to grad school and Monica was thinking of moving to New York,” says Jennifer, “We went to check the place out- it was a hole in the wall and didn’t cost much money and we each had a thousand bucks so we decided to open a restaurant. Within a month and a half we were open.”
That and a co-signer (their mother) on a small business loan and the Ransdell sisters were in business. A friend, Kurt Van Vlack, who had just come back from working in Alaska, offered his services for free to help the sisters get their dream going. Love bloomed and Monica gained both a life partner and second business partner. Today, the three work side by side with their staff making sure that Dot’s is true to their original vision.
A Portland institution for over 16years, Dot’s rebuilt (with the help of friends and neighbors) after a fire in 1994 nearly destroyed the Ransdell’s dreams. “An arsonist burnt down the entire restaurant and we were closed for seven months. We were too young to have really great insurance and a lot of people just rallied around us and did fundraisers and donated things to help get us going again,” says Jennifer.
When you enter Dot’s Café, you cross the threshold into a bygone era. The walls are covered in gold wallpaper embossed with black velvet, an assortment of retro, multi-colored chandeliers hang strategically around the restaurant giving Dot’s its signature low-lit glow and a collection of kitschy 70’s paintings (including those of the velvet variety) crowd the walls. The art is something else Dot’s is famous for and most of its current pieces were donated or lent to the Ransdells by patrons after the fire. The Ransdells say that people still come in and ask, “did you know that I donated that to you, like, 14 years ago?’
Jennifer and Monica grew up in SE Portland and reminisce about how the neighborhood and Portland in general have changed over the years. They’re especially proud of how the early days of their restaurant marked a transition for Portland’s social scene. “Portland evolved- it became a place that people moved to right around the time we opened. The whole thing sort of started happening at the same time,” explains Jennifer, “It’s nice, because people come to us and say, ‘You were one of the first places we went in Portland.’ There are so many great places to go to now that I don’t know if that would be true today but it’s nice to be in people’s memory of Portland.”
Dot’s mass appeals extends beyond the young hipster set or the late night service industry crowd, it’s also a place where you can see a sixty year old couple eating dinner a few tables from the urban mom with her toddler in tow. “I think it’s a fun place to go and I still have a lot of fun when I come here at night so I hope it’s that kind of place for people,” says Jennifer.
Like the company it keeps Dot’s menu is just as eclectic, offering everything from bacon cheddar fries to Greek salads and spicy hummus dip. It’s a place where 1/3 pound Patti melts sit side-by-side with black bean quesadillas and where the Vegan Vavoom (a falafel pita with spicy tofu sauce) makes peace with the BBQ chicken sandwich. Dot’s Café also serves old fountain favs like the Lime Rikki and cherry or vanilla cokes while still serving up cocktails and PBR.
It’s a formula that’s worked for Portland and its visitors for the past decade and a half and it makes one wonder, “If Dot’s can accomplish all this with a little dim lighting, tasty food and a cozy atmosphere- what could the Ransdells do if they gave the UN a makeover- Dot’s style?”
2521 SE Clinton St
Portland, Oregon 97202
Hours: Daily- strongnoon to 2:00am
All ages until 10pm em
Cash/check only em