The cold rain fell in sheets, splattering the sidewalk. Rush hour traffic splashed down the street, the cars’ red brake lights reflecting off the puddles. This was Portland, Oregon, in winter: soggy and dark, at times as appealing as putting on wet socks.
But I was ensconced in the ultra-hip new Kex Hotel, thawing from the inside out with an aquavit cocktail. My deepest thoughts were about what dishes not to order off the menu and my weightiest concern was what time to hit the sauna downstairs.
Portland has this gift for creating gorgeous, inviting indoor spaces that are ideal refuges for camping out when the weather sucks, which is often enough to matter. Kex, a Reykjavík, Iceland-born brand, fits snuggly into that category.
Kex opened its Reykjavík hostel in 2012, in an abandoned biscuit factory. (Kex is Icelandic for biscuit). Founder Kristinn Vilbergsson spent seven years combing Portland for a home for his second outpost, settling on a historic former apartment building in the city’s Inner Northeast neighborhood. The 1912 building needed extensive earthquake retrofitting, and architects had to be considerate of the structure’s place on the National Register of Historic Places.
While construction was underway, designer Hálfdan Pedersen trotted around Europe and the Northwest, finding furniture and various architectural elements to repurpose in the hotel. The result is Icelandic in origin and sensibility, but heavy in global influences—and also firmly rooted in the Northwest.
Pedersen’s finds imbue the hotel with an eclectic, vintage charm. Rows of hand-painted horse nameplates, salvaged from a racetrack in Belgium, hang near the entrance. The ground-floor restaurant, Dóttir sports most of Pedersen’s best discoveries, including the Douglas fir floorboards, reclaimed from a train station at Fort Vancouver. The kitchen is framed with the facade of a Cairo bakery. Gray tiles in the lobby and encircling the restaurant’s central bar also came from Egypt.
Portland artist Melanie Nead designed the whimsical wallpaper lining the hallways to the guest rooms. Her only instructions were to create a pattern that had elements of both Portland and Iceland, and the finished product features spiky mountains, erupting volcanoes, migrating salmon, puffins, and pink lupines bursting with summer flowers.
While the Icelandic original is a traditional hostel, Kex Portland combines elements of both hostel and hotel. There are king and queen rooms, some with en suite bathrooms and others with shared bathrooms. The rooms are on the small side, with minimalist, monochrome design that achieves coziness with textures—wood, wool, and stone. There are 15 hostel-style rooms that sleep eight and 16 guests in custom bunk beds made by Seattle company Black Mouth Designs. The beds each have electrical outlets, large storage drawers with locks, and privacy curtains. There’s also a kitchen in the basement for hostel guests.
Food, Drink, and More
The hotel pulled out all the stops for its downstairs restaurant, Dóttir, which shows off Northwest-meets-Nordic influences. The staff here boasts an impressive pedigree, especially executive chef Alex Jackson, who spent time at beloved Portland restaurant Ned Ludd and Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters in San Francisco. The cocktails are inventive and impressive, the all-kegged wine list sports Oregon favorites, and the hotel serves house label beers brewed in Portland by Kex Brewing.
I’ve never been so enthusiastically recommended a cabbage dish, but several people told me it was a show-stopper, and they were right: It’s served as a lightly charred chunk with butter, apple vinegar, whey caramel, and breadcrumbs—a sour-and-smoky wonder to slice into. Other highlights included the salt and vinegar fries, glazed carrots, duck confit salad, and beet smørrebrød—an open-faced Scandinavian sandwich. The restaurant occasionally hosts live music in the evenings, but mercifully installed an acoustic sub-ceiling to insulate the bedrooms above.
Kex would have been remiss in not providing some outdoor spaces for when Portland’s fabulous spring and summer weather finally arrives. For now, there’s a delightful garden patio just off the restaurant, lit by the red glow of a huge vintage neon sign. And still to come, a rooftop bar, which will sport views of Mount Hood.