2017-06-30 13:25:03
Heads Up: Where the Ping-Pong Scene Never Sleeps

Most major cities have some sort of niche Ping-Pong scene, typically in a clean-cut setting akin to an athletic club. But Portland, Ore., is a city that takes its leisure seriously. Case in point: Pips & Bounce, a bar in southeast Portland that places at least as much emphasis on nets and paddles as it does on gin and vermouth.

“There are a lot of bars with Ping-Pong,” said Mike Jung, one of the owners. “We wanted a place that was Ping-Pong with a bar.”

As Mr. Jung sees it, Portland has “really sort of become Pong City, U.S.A. There’s a weird confluence of history, interest and enthusiasm.”

Pips is among several Portland bars featuring table tennis as a central attraction. As for the history Mr. Jung speaks of, the pong scene’s matriarch in Portland is Judy Hoarfrost.

An elite Ping-Pong player by age 15, Ms. Hoarfrost competed in the 1971 World Championships in Japan. The Chinese team was there, too, for the first time in decades. This set the stage for Ping-Pong diplomacy during the Nixon administration, with Ms. Hoarfrost and her American teammates embarking on an impromptu tour of China — followed by a 1972 visit to the United States by the Chinese team — that led to a thawing of Sino-American relations.

Ms. Hoarfrost and Mr. Jung, who runs Pips along with his brother, Eugene, now make a living off the sport at totally different ends of the skill spectrum.

In 1973, Ms. Hoarfrost’s father started a table tennis club, Paddle Palace, in an ornate downtown Elks Club that featured chandeliers above the tables. The family had moved to Oregon from Arizona shortly before she made her Ping-Pong pilgrimage to the Far East.

Paddle Place is now about 10 miles away from Portland in the city of Tigard, and is a retailer of table-tennis equipment. Last October, Ms. Hoarfrost opened a large playing and instructional space with 12 tables for the area’s better players and those seeking to attain such stature. She briefly considered serving beer to quench the thirst of corporate groups, but decided the insurance required to do so was too costly.

Conversely, alcohol is essential to the Jungs’ enterprise at Pips, which is named for the dimples on vintage paddles. Here, the Jungs’ boozy “pongtails” come with ice cubes in the shape of Ping-Pong balls, and the space is as bright and airy as a gymnasium. Opened in 2014, Pips & Bounce has become the epicenter of a nocturnal scene where bar patrons reach for paddles at least as often as they do pool cues.

Mr. Jung, whose clientele is mostly beginner-level players and skews more female than male, is not surprised Ping-Pong has such popularity in the city.

“Portland is this city that’s really serious about being casual,” he said.

That spirit pervades at Rontoms, a quirky east side lounge with a patio covered by a massive geometric wooden roof. On a recent sunny Saturday, two patrons — one male, one female — exchanged lighthearted volleys on a Ping-Pong table in a covered corner.

Farther southeast is the Nest, a dimly lighted multilevel haunt where the cast of David Lynch’s dark film, “Blue Velvet,” might feel at home playing Ping-Pong. If Dennis Hopper’s character were buying, the drink presumably would be Pabst Blue Ribbon, a favored lager among many of the older league players who are habitués of yet another southeast Portland stronghold, Blitz Ladd.

Blitz Ladd is a cavernous, leather-couched bar with roughly as many television sets as seats. The rear game area contains a dedicated space for Ping-Pong, where a local enthusiast, Tim Titrud, regularly gathers his league players, who rate somewhere between Pips & Bounce and Paddle Palace in terms of aptitude.

“We have a lot of Blitz people who come and play here,” said Ms. Hoarfrost, who on a night when Paddle Palace was closed took a new hire to Pips to show him that Portland’s Ping-Pong scene never sleeps.

To that end, when pressed to describe the difference between his bar of mostly beginner players and Ms. Hoarfrost’s athletic center, Mr. Jung succinctly said, “At Paddle Palace, people change their shoes.”