Smiles await among the plush curtains. A welcome hello and an echo of laughter greets you as small candles flicker at each table. Veteran bartender Michael Rowe tosses together another creation that can only be found where you now sit. Early is the hour for late conversation at the Box Social Drinking Parlour.
Opened four years ago by Eric and Shannon McQuilkin, The Box Social – as the locals call it – packs a big punch into a small space. Located on burgeoning North Williams Avenue, this adventurous establishment has found a niche that only it can fill, and the McQuilkins couldn’t be happier, as Eric explains.
“We live six blocks from here,” he says. “We’ve been in this neighborhood for about eight years and we basically wanted to be a part of the street. We felt what we could offer is craft cocktails, small bites and ambiance, and leave the big bites to all the great restaurants that surround us on this street.”
Anyone who’s lived in Portland for more than five years can attest to the dramatic change that North Williams Avenue has undergone. Construction cranes dot the skyline of a street transformed. A new bike lane on the left side of the street has taken so much getting used to, even bike traffic has dropped.
“These represent obstacles because people try to avoid the street as they figure it out,” Eric says, although he’s not too terribly worried. “Even though people are trying to figure out how the street is going to shape out, in general it’s picking up and becoming more populated.”
“We’ve got so many great places opening up around us,” he continues. “Quality is going in all over the street. It makes us proud to be a part of it.”
Becoming a part of what would be one of the hottest streets in Portland didn’t come easy, however. “We were shooting for a warm ambiance,” says Eric, “but we looked at the building and other than the beautiful wood in here, it was pretty metallic and concrete. It kind of happened organically once we got the vision.”
The vision was for an establishment that would lend itself to an intimate encounter without being ostentatious. This would be the kind of place that would harken back to another time; a small, dimly lit prohibition-era parlour where sweet nothings were uttered in hushed whispers, despite a din in which no one could be overheard.
“We very much wanted a masculine bar,” Eric explains, “but with a lot of feminine elements. We wanted it to be nice, but not so nice that it wasn’t casual and fun and chill; kind of like a nice date spot, but also easy to come in alone and grab a drink, whether it’s at midnight or five in the afternoon.”
No matter the time of day, expect to be greeted with drinks and small bites that will leave you wanting. Considering the McQuilkins have staked their family business on making world-class cocktails, deliverance is far more important than expectation.
According to Barfly magazine, Box Social is described it as a place to “take a date if you want to get in their pants.” Other reviewers have pegged their drinks “as subtle as they are strong,” something Eric doesn’t deny.
“We have an old-school mentality of value,” he states matter-of-factly. “We don’t want to be measuring out one-and-a-half or quarter ounces. We’re charging for our cocktails and we want them to get their money’s worth as far as the booze content and the flavor profiles are concerned.”
And get their money’s worth they do. The liquor wall itself is a trip around the world. Exotic adventures await from the moment you sit down.
Take, for instance, the humbly named El Guapo, which is composed of top-shelf tequila, lime sour, and Corazon. Set floating atop this bright red sparkly sensation is an inverted lime, in which rests a shot of mezcal. Relish in the savory as you lick the rim of salt and smoky pepper. Hold on to that taste as you pull the sweet red goodness up through the straw and complete one ultimate flavor profile.
Jump into the modern day with a Ru Paul Sparkle Pony. This bright and refreshing bubbly will convert even the most ardent grapefruit hater. It’s a flute of brut combined with St. Germain, aperol, and rhubarb bitters. A grapefruit wedge makes itself at home in the center of the glass. Could you think of a better drink to enjoy on a warm summer day?
Although The Box Social leaves the complicated food to its neighbors, don’t expect it to skimp on what small bites it offers. After a night of cocktail indulgence, you’ll need something to fill your stomach, and these bites that are as impressive as the drinks that came before them.
When explaining their food philosophy, Eric says that they “were shooting for simple ingredients of high quality,” and they’ve largely achieved that goal.
The Nibble Platter is certainly a success. Don’t let the diminutive name fool you. These subtle nibbles wind up being quite a few explosive bites.
Served up on a giant plank, exotic cheeses, plump olives, and aged meats lie before you in exquisitely presented patterns. The Olympic provision salami contrasts beautifully with the spiced almonds, smoked Gouda, and toasted baguette. The decadent habanero honey drizzled across the creamy mahon cheese will leave your taste buds wanting.
Once you’ve rolled your eyes back to the front of your face, wash it all down with your good friend Doc Holiday, represented by vodka, art in the age snap, fresh cranberries, ginger, honey, lemon and champagne on the rocks. Does it sound ridiculous? It should, because it is, but in the best kind of way.
These are drinks born out of decades of experience, and we should all feel privileged to enjoy them. “The drink development comes in a variety of ways,” Eric says, “but it’s primarily my wife and her twenty years of experience in the bar industry. It’s also our bar manager Michael, who’s also been in the industry for twenty or so years. Collectively, they have a huge wealth of resources to draw on.”
And it shows.
These are drinks you aren’t likely to find elsewhere. “We’ll all sit at the front-of-house meeting and let anyone who wants to bring a drink to the table bring a drink to the table,” Eric says. “It’s a group effort. We all taste it and give our two cents.”
Judging by the drinks provided, those are some valuable cents. And expectant Portlanders can find this change to be around for some time to come. As so many before them have fallen so deeply in love with our fair city, the McQuilkins are here to stay.
“We love Portland,” Eric says without hesitation. “It has the best food in the nation, in my mind. Best drinks in the nation. Best quality of life. And, of course, the people in general are just good stock.” Judging by The Box Social’s success, Portlanders wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.
The Box Social Drinking Parlour is open daily from 4pm to 2am. Happy hour is from 4pm to 6pm and 11pm to close. For menu information check out their menu at bxsocial.com or give them a call at (503)288-1111. They are located at 3971 North Williams Ave., Portland, Oregon, 97277.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.