Confession: Sometimes I forget that the Old Gold family of bars is gold-themed, and not cigarette-themed. I often forget the names of even my most frequented bars, and think of as many cigarette brands as possible until remembering the OG family’s bar at the Zipper building is called Paydirt. I figured that once the group’s third and newest bar opened with the name Tough Luck, I might break that habit—but no dice.
It probably has to do with the fact that the “theme” of these bars is only in their names. There’s no preponderance of prospecting tools, nor much by way of gold decoration. Instead, Old Gold and Paydirt owners Ezra Caraeff (full disclosure: he’s a former Mercury music editor),* John Naekel, and Chip Addabbo specialize in no-bullshit bars that somehow split the difference between neighborhood watering hole and destination whiskey joint.
A huge part of that no-bullshit attitude has long been Woodlawn’s favorite son and prototypical surly Portland bartender Andrew Finkelman, whose whiskey expertise and classic deadpan publican attitude were integral to Old Gold’s success. With Tough Luck, Finkelman joins Caraeff, Naekel, and Addabbo as a partner.
Old Gold and Paydirt are both known for their whiskey collections, and Tough Luck is no different—I don’t know if these guys would even consider opening a bar in a space that can’t fit a library-style rolling ladder along the backbar—though the rest of the spirit selection is no slouch. In fact, the menu features a list of house cocktails next to a list of “house old fashioneds” (a delightful and surprisingly novel move for a spirits-driven bar), almost half of which don’t showcase whiskey. Of course, a bourbon or rye old fashioned pretty much always hits the spot (TL’s rye version is an easy standby: James Oliver rye with both orange and Angostura bitters), but a mezcal or even a gin option reveal the ambition of this Great Wall of Booze. Spirits education, or some casual form of it, is at the heart of serving this simplest and oldest of cocktails with non-whiskey—even clear—liquor.
The food comes from chef Lauren Miller, who brings a fancy pedigree (Imperial, Bar Avignon) to the mix. It is appropriately positioned between the seriousness of a chef-driven, conceptual menu and the unexpected actual concept: down-home Kentucky meets Korean drunk snacks. I’m not usually a fan of battered fries, but the tom kha beer-battered fries at Tough Luck are hell-bent on changing minds: crisp, lime-and-lemongrassy fries littered with candied peanuts, cilantro, and basil? Okay, you win, Miller.
The menu is meant to change frequently, but some excellent dishes seem to be mainstays: a “grilled kimcheese” with aged cheddar, crisp asian pear, and, obviously, kimchi ($9); char siu pork belly fried rice (topped with an egg, thank god) ($14); and a mess of a pimento cheese and kimchi ketchup double cheeseburger ($13, w/ fries). If the menu overwhelms, daily cocktail and food specials are almost always killer, like a recent Ritz-cracker crusted fried chicken wing dish.
One reason the backbar and shuffle/ouija board decor are so big is simply that they can be. In what’s maybe the largest departure from Tough Luck’s older siblings, the more intimate Old Gold and the long, narrow wedge of Paydirt, those two walls feel miles apart from one another. The building, at NE 18th and Dekum, was for a while the spooky skeleton of a convenience store, and Tough Luck has even reclaimed some of the parking lot for a huge wraparound patio.
So the kitchen is talented, and the place is huge, yet prettily designed—“order at the bar” signs adorn every table. Absence of table service is bound to irk a small but vocal portion of Yelpers, but it’s part of what maintains the liveliness and homeyness of a good neighborhood bar. Yes, it’s dark. The renovation and opening of Tough Luck seemed to happen at breakneck speed, and supposedly better patio lighting and something to properly illuminate the beautiful array of bottles are still forthcoming. Yes, you have to wait for a bartender’s attention. But because Tough Luck is a neighborhood bar at heart, you can wander as you see fit, your party can grow and shrink as necessary, you can play shuffleboard and go outside between rainy spells. If there’s bullshit here, you brought it. Don’t like that? Tough Luck.
*Even fuller disclosure: The Old Gold belongs to a softball league, and this year, my day job’s team won. I’m not on the team, and this is not relevant, I just wanted to make sure that fact made it into print, while rubbing it in.