At 707 SE 12th Ave in Portland lies a nondescript two-story house next to a neon-lit Plaid Pantry. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parking lot is nestled between the two buildings. There is no sign, but the lights are on and there are almost always people milling around outside. This is the home of Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, one of Portland’s best-kept secrets. Holland Rhoads (12), a student at Franklin, echoed a thought I’ve often had myself: “I’d never heard of Rimsky’s before [I went], and ever since then it’s been popping up all around me. So I think it’s a lot more popular than I realized.” One of the oldest coffee houses in Portland, and inconspicuously tucked into the Buckman neighborhood, this dessert and coffee shop has created quite the name for itself.
According to Michael Conroy, who has been managing Rimsky’s for almost 22 years, the house was built in 1902 by Mary and Glenn Graves. Their two daughters, Norma and Eva, lived full lives in the house. Norma was an English teacher and Eva was a piano teacher, though both fostered a deep love for music. Norma passed in 1970, and upon Eva’s death in 1979, a family friend and executor of the estate sold the house to Goody Cable, a young woman who had been looking to purchase a space for a café dedicated to classical music.
The story of Cable’s purchase goes that one night she had a vivid dream about a woman showing her around a house, and she knew it was the perfect place for her café. About a week later, she was driving down 12th Avenue when she was struck by a sense of déjà vu. She parked the car and walked up to the yard of the house, where a SALE PENDING sign lay. She knocked on the door and managed to secure a tour from the family friend. As they walked through the house, they spoke about their and Eva’s shared love for classical music. Cable knew what color each room was from her dream before they walked in, and smelled the same perfume that Eva had used to wear in the air. The two women ended up having tea in the living room and Cable proceeded to ask when Eva’s birthday was. But before the friend of the Graves could answer, Cable guessed it correctly. The other woman was convinced that Eva wanted Cable to have the house, and she gave her two months to raise the money to buy it. Thus, Rimsky’s was born. Named after the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, this eccentric coffee spot is open from 7 p.m. to midnight, Wednesday through Sunday.
Rimsky’s attracts a younger crowd because, unlike many venues, it is open late, but still open to all ages. I spoke to a group of students from Lewis and Clark College waiting for a table who claimed it was a tradition within the group to visit the popular destination. “I think [it’s popular] because it’s open late and it’s a fun night out activity without being involved in drugs or alcohol, and very accessible,” said one of the guests.
I was introduced to this magical yet creepy place by my friend, who was introduced by her father, who used to frequent it with his friends back when he was in high school. Thus, it is up to me and my friends to keep the tradition alive. But it’s not just me. Holland Rhoads says her parents’ first date was at Rimsky’s. This was a recent story that Rhoads heard about for the first time when she visited the shop with her parents. Rhoads’ mother described the experience as “magical to return to the place of my first date with Holland’s dad, to celebrate her 18th birthday. I remember thinking that the place was the perfect spot for a first date.” Rhoads also described Rimsky’s similarly. “It’s a really unique date spot for a lot of people to go. I think it’s pretty magical too.”
Once you head inside it might take a moment to become aware of your surroundings in the soft lighting. Natasha Czinger (12), a Cleveland student and a regular, describes the wallpaper as “Art-Deco Phallic.” Christmas ornaments are strung year round from the ceiling, and fairy lights twinkle from the walls. The floor is weathered and the chairs and couches are mismatched, which only adds to the overall vibe and uniqueness of this spot. In the dining space, the table tops are clear plastic, making it easy to clean up any Ambiguity tea spills or drips of the Rasputin’s Vice sundae. The table tops possess a double use, because guests are also welcomed to leave drawings or notes under them. The tables’ distinctiveness doesn’t stop there. Each one is named after a famous composer, and a few are even rumored to be haunted. A select few will spin slowly enough for you to set your drink down and get absorbed in conversation, only to have your drink moved halfway across the table in that time. Another table will move up and down at a very slow pace and rise a full 18 inches from the start. A third table loudly shakes when you least expect it. Some customers swear by the hauntedness, even citing screams coming from the second floor. Whether that’s from frightened guests spooked by the surprises in the bathroom or from real ghosts is up to your interpretation. The bathroom is yet another unconventional area of Rimsky’s, with its under-the-sea theme complete with faux legs hanging from a dock on the ceiling and a canoe. I won’t give too much more away for first-time guests, so that they may properly experience it for themselves. “That’s definitely part of the vibe, but it totally freaked me out,” Rhoads said of her first visit to the bathroom.
Back downstairs, the walls that aren’t covered in various knickknacks and questionable art are all painted different colors. A collage of faces in the stairwell takes up a whole wall, staring at a large jester puppet suspended from the ceiling on a wooden swing. The two wooden benches in the stairwell and waiting area of Rimsky’s add to the already crowded environment, where people squeeze past each other to put their names down on a waitlist. After your party is called, they will ask for proof of COVID vaccination, so have that at the ready.
Along with their sizable menu of coffee drinks, teas, desserts and sundaes, they also have a whiteboard detailing their monthly dessert specials. I recommend their warm ginger cake with caramel sauce or the Cafe Borgia. As you wait for your food and drinks to arrive, you can enjoy the live piano music that plays most nights.
As far as Portland pricing goes, Rimsky’s is fairly affordable. Frustratingly, Rimsky’s has no website, reservations, or vegan desserts, and it accepted cash only for over forty years. Fortunately for the younger digital crowd, they now have card readers.
A final review of Rimsky’s was given by Lauren Anderson, a senior at Grant. She warns teen drivers about the “dangerous” 12th Ave that Rimsky’s sits on. “One hazard I would like to say about Rimsky’s is the one-way when you’re leaving the driveway. That thing scares the sh*t out of me and I always almost get into a car accident. Anyway, that’s on me though.”
Anderson does enjoy visiting. “It’s fun to hang out and the ambiance is lovely. And the food is really good. I think that’s why people like it,” she says. Rimsky’s is a place of whimsy and wonder, simultaneously combining tradition and the eclectic spirit of Portland.