A bartender at Room for Improvement puts the final touches on a scorpion bowl. Photo by Angie Bryan

When I heard that Arvid Brown was opening his own bar, I was intrigued. He had mastered Middle Eastern flavors at Baharat and Thai ones at Crispy Gai – where would he take us next? And why choose a name that implied that things weren’t perfect?

All became clear when I saw the menu at Room for Improvement, which he opened in April with Nick Coffin. The concept is both simple and complex – take a classic cocktail and improve it. Making things easy, all classic cocktails are $12.

I went for the pineapple-infused, coconut-washed Negroni. I love grapefruit and pomegranate Negronis, but had never tried pineapple, and had never even considered incorporating coconut. This is why Brown owns a bar and I do not. It was clearly still a Negroni, yet had subtle undertones of pineapple and coconut without veering into tropical territory. My drinking companion opted for the Manhattan, which contained Amaretto. Both were winners. She also tried the espresso martini, made with rum, Allen’s Coffee Brandy, cold brew, banana and a salty coconut foam that just about sent her over the edge.

Room for Improvement makes its espresso martini with rum, Allen’s Coffee Brandy, cold brew, banana and a salty coconut foam. Photo by Angie Bryan

Twisted classics aren’t the only option. There’s also a $28 flaming scorpion bowl, which we were impressed to watch a woman consume on her own. The menu also features $14 veggie-forward cocktails, including the Ground Control, essentially his beloved Garden Party cocktail from Baharat (gin, Montenegro amaro, curry leaf, carrot juice and lemon) and a section of shots, including small portions of his espresso martini and daiquiri (those are two separate shots, not one mixed together – Brown is a genius, not a psychopath).

Not into cocktails? There are also mocktails, four draft beers ($7-$8), eight bottles and cans ($3-$9), and three $12 glasses of wine (an Italian red, a German white and a Spanish sparkling). Food options are limited to items such as red snapper hot dogs, soft pretzels, tinned mussels and chips, and olives.

Room for Improvement opened on Wharf Street in April. Photo by Angie Bryan

Both Brown and Coffin happened to be there during my visit, so after I paid, I introduced myself and chatted with them a bit. They feel that Wharf Street has an undeserved bad reputation as a venue for tourists and drunken 20-somethings. Room for Improvement’s customers are often people looking for a pre- or after-dinner cocktail, as well as industry types after they get off work (Room for Improvement is open until 1 a.m.). “We’re trying to build a bar for Portlanders,” said Coffin, “and that’s reflected in the prices and in who we hire.” An example of the latter is bartender Dan Purcell (formerly of The Portland Zoo), who took great care of us while we were there, and who described it as “one of the tightest-knit crews I’ve worked with.”


I asked Brown whether there was a classic cocktail that needed no improvement, and he identified the DTO, short for Daiquiri Time-Out. A $6 simple but perfect daiquiri in a miniature martini glass, ideal for ordering upon arrival so that you can enjoy it while deciding what your real drink will be. The daiquiri, said Brown, is “the holy trinity of things that make cocktails good: booze, acid and sugar.”

The holy trinity of things that make cocktail bars good is the drinks, the team and the atmosphere. Brown and Coffin have nailed all three. The atmosphere, while dark (ideal for making me look more attractive), is that of a neighborhood bar filled with conversation pieces (“lots of late-night eBay purchases,” laughed Brown). And did I mention that there’s an antique hot tub (no water) in the window that seats 10?

I can’t think of any room for improvement.

Retired diplomat Angie Bryan writes about Maine’s cocktail bars while making as many puns as her editor allows.

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