I KEEP MAKING EXCUSES for Bible Club. Whenever I bring up the new cocktail bar, I feel obligated to say, "It's speakeasy-themed—but not a speakeasy." Yet my arguments are weak against the evidence: The bar is in an old house (actually, it was once a coffee roaster), it has no sign (except for one that says, "No Minors"), and the interior is filled with Prohibition-era paraphernalia.
Despite its unadorned facade on SE 16th, just barely off Westmoreland's main drag, Bible Club is one of the most aggressively beautiful bars in Portland. It's just so full of stuff. It demands to be slowly explored, visually and tactilely. Virtually everything in the bar—from the tools the bartenders use, to the glassware patrons drink from—is American made pre-1930.
Fun fact: That glassware is largely from the amazingly named "Brilliant Period" of American cut glass. This bit of trivia isn't in parentheses because it's the basic experience of Bible Club; it's not, as owner Ricardo Huelga (AKA Ryk Maverick, look it up) has billed it, a "museum you can drink in," but rather a museum with an interactive element that happens to be an excellent bar, like a historical reenactment park.
Working those 100-year-old shakers are new-to-Portland cocktailer Nathan Elliott and ex-Kask/Grüner bar head Jessica Braasch.* The drinks are almost uniformly delicious. House highlights include a proprietary vermouth blend brokering a treaty between Redbreast 12-year Irish whiskey and Green Chartreuse in the Tipperary ($16). And a Bible Club tonic, incorporating anise and other oddball spices mixed with the heavily botanical French gin Citadelle, is the rare occasion when a house tonic is better than the bottled stuff ($12).
The menu of 20 cocktails also includes a Coffee Cobbler ($10), featuring brandy and cold brew coffee from neighbor Kahveology, and a Fernet Champagne Flip ($15) with ginger syrup and a whole egg. Bubbles aren't necessarily a new idea—a flip was historically a beer drink before it was an egg drink—but the champagne lifts the drink to new heights. It's effervescent and creamy, zingy with ginger and Fernet's trademark bracing bitterness. I love this cocktail.
One of the few missteps is the Shandy Fizz ($10), a mix of beer, grapefruit liqueur, juice, and an egg white—it's somewhere between a radler, a shandy, and a sour, which might be delicious were it made with a better beer than the current lager on draft (Gilgamesh).
Oh, and if you want a mug of that disappointing beer on its own, it's $8. The prices at Bible Club are going to be a roadblock for all but the geekiest or wealthiest cocktail fans. Luckily, in this town of cash-laden bartenders and committed nerds, the market is there—but it'd be nice to see this neighborhood get some more approachable bars.
The food (from onetime Racion chef-owner Anthony Cafiero) is limited to a handful of items in each of three categories: $5, $10, and $16. The smoked olives and warm biscuits (each $5) are sneakily delicious, but the potatoes and French onion soup (each $10) are too rich and salty for the more subtle drinks. The $16 items are impressive, especially the crispy duck leg confit and the meat and cheese board, but they frankly aren't as compelling as the burger around the corner at Kay's.
But everything's so beautiful! It's money well spent on the fragile prettiness of the edible floral arrangement atop your cocktail, and the adorable doily it sits on; the softly scratching, period-authentic music; the array of "Repeal the 18th Amendment" signs; and the guy in the back whose only job is to hand-wash all that museum-quality glassware.
The problem with this is that no matter how good the experience or how compelling the docent—and Braasch is truly a delight behind the bar, the absolute antithesis of the sneering mustachioed waistcoat you worry will work at a place like this—do you really want to go to a museum more than once or twice during an exhibit? Are there regulars at Colonial Williamsburg? Bible Club makes a strong play at transcending novelty, but given the class of people who can afford to treat it as anything but a totally satisfying living museum (bartenders, cocktail geeks, people who regularly have people to impress), they'll predominantly be preaching to the choir.
* Braasch must feel right at home amid the sensory overload of Bible Club, as Kask was also a tiny space filled to the gills with stuff. In my opinion, Kask was one of the best, most cohesive bar designs in town, and it's sad to walk in now and see it meaninglessly streamlined, its personality wiped away along with most of its extensive cocktail list and the chalk art that once decorated its walls. Still, the new mac 'n' cheese with jalapeño and hot dog bodes well for the possible future of—it pains me to write the name of this restaurant in Kask's former location—SuperBite.
6716 SE 16th