The Portland Dive Bar Preservation Society
TAVERN ON DENVER, in North Portland's Kenton neighborhood, has the lifeblood of the area running right through it. It's like the community's living room. Not only that, but it has the coldest beer in Portland. That claim is not scrawled on some sign outside, enticing you to frequent their establishment. That's the no-bullshit truth.
When my wife and I lived in the Kenton area, we made our inaugural pilgrimage to Tavern on Denver within the first few weeks of living there. At the time I was obsessively watching 1987's Barfly, a film adaptation of a Charles Bukowski novel starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. As we ponied up to the bar, a regular piped up and asked the bartender by name for his usual. Her name happened to be Wanda, which is Dunaway's character's name in the film. I was sold on the place before we even ordered a drink.
We ordered two frosty mugs of Hamm's from Wanda. For the first few sips we marveled at the ice crystals floating at the top of our mugs. The beer was ice cold from start to finish. Again—coldest beer in Portland.
It's been called Tavern on Denver for close to two decades. Prior to that, it was called Stan's, and Acropolis before that. TOD, as the locals refer to it, is open from 11 am to 11 pm, depending on how busy it is (sometimes they'll close around 10 pm). It's a cash bar that serves beer and wine only. The most expensive liquid you can purchase is a $6.50 pitcher of Budweiser, Coors Light, or Michelob AmberBock. A mug of Hamm's is $2. Aside from the bags of chips, beef jerky, and peanuts behind the bar, all the food comes out of a microwave. The highlight of the menu is 13 li'l smokies for $1.50. They come to you swimming in barbecue sauce with a couple of toothpicks piercing some of them.
From the outside, TOD isn't too inviting. It shares a stark, rundown concrete building with Cason's Fine Meats (another charming, antiquated local business), and has only one small window obscured by neon signs. But once you're inside, the warm wooden walls, ornate mirrored bar back, pool table, shuffleboard, and dusty kitsch behind the bar tell another story.
When we lived in close proximity to TOD, my wife and I watched many Trail Blazer games there, imbibed our fair share of refreshingly cold beers, and had comical and interesting conversations with the drunken, non-PC, weathered, wise regulars. Good times were always had.
While doing "research" for this piece, as I was sipping a frigid AmberBock and scratching notes on a Keno ticket, I had an experience that revealed the true heart of Tavern on Denver, and showed its dedication to the surrounding community.
A group of four belligerent thirtysomethings came crashing into the bar. The bartender, Brenda (a lovely gal who also works as an in-home caretaker), approached the rowdies to check their IDs. When she discovered that one of their IDs was cracked, she told them that, per Oregon Liquor Control Commission regulations, she could not serve them. Naturally an eruption of inane blathering ensued and the four stomped out the door. Brenda, unfazed by the interaction, slowly walked behind the bar and grabbed the phone to dial up neighboring bars Kenton Station and Kenton Club to warn them of the possible impending party that shouldn't be served.
I told Brenda how impressed I was with how she dealt with the situation, and how great it was that she called the other local bars to inform them about what was coming.
"I don't like bullshit, so I don't deal with bullshit," she said. "There's your boat, it's floating down the river."