introduced and edited by Tony Perez
LIKE MOST OF YOU, my assumption has always been that as soon as you travel east of Stumptown Coffee on SE Belmont or north of those new lofts on North Mississippi, Portland turns into a wasteland of sandworms and roaming bands of humanoid jewel thieves (also, something about inadequate bike lanes). I'm here to assure you, fellow Buckman residents, of this truth.
However, our team of researchers have discovered, among the ruins of those forgotten civilizations, there are several strips of paved roads that provide ample drinking options for weary travelers, or those who want to watch sports on TV. 82nd Avenue runs from the airport all the way across East Portland and past the Clackamas Town Center. Nestled among used-car lots and underage prostitutes, there are dozens of places to stop for a beer and a shot, or any number of deep-fried vittles to go with your ranch dressing.
If you were to head west—first on NE Killingsworth, then on Portland Highway, past the Railside, beneath the NE 42nd overpass—you'd find yourself on North Lombard, itself an 11.5-mile stretch of imbibing options that takes you, eventually, through St. Johns to Kelley Point Park. Bars range from the kind of divey to the really divey.
Each street has its share of charm, its share of scuzz, and its share of Oregon State Lottery billboards. But which, considering all manners and styles of alcoholic consumption, is the ultimate drinking thoroughfare? It's a willfully overcomplicated question worthy of a willfully overcomplicated answer.
82nd got off on the wrong foot. In 1911, what was then Grays Avenue, served as the western border of the town of Lents (now a Portland neighborhood notable for not housing a Minor League Baseball stadium). The ladies marching up and down 82nd in those days were as suspicious of vice as their modern-day counterparts are of the vice squad. Eight years before the Noble Experiment of Prohibition was passed by Congress (and four years before it was passed by the state of Oregon), the Woman's Christian Temperance Union declared that "there have never been saloons in Lents and there never will be."
Thankfully for us, those shrews were wrong. While in 1911 the denizens of 82nd saw very little booze, very few cars, and had very little sex (operating under the assumption that the latter is difficult to obtain without the former), it seems that a century later, every business on the street is dedicated to one (or all) of the three.
Lombard (formerly Dawson Street) was always destined to be a hub of nightlife (though, let's not exclude the neighborhood's many morning drinkers). One 19th century visitor promoted the area to his associates back east as "the Manhattan of the West." James Johns founded the street's crown jewel, historic St. Johns, in 1850. Little is known of the man—and the few experts seem to disagree on the details—but he was said to be a man of great vision and foresaw great commercial potential in the area. Eventually, he became a crotchety hermit that earned the nickname Demijohn (maybe for his small stature, but more likely because he was known to carry around a small carboy of some kind of hooch). When you see grizzled old men stumbling down Lombard, muttering to themselves and taking pulls from paper-bagged 40s, you're witnessing a rich historical legacy. Think of it as our own besotted little Colonial Williamsburg.
Nowadays, each street offers its patrons plentiful drink at a reasonable price. You may not experience the cutting edge of cocktailian artistry, but what both 82nd and Lombard lack in glamour, they more than make up for in character, and funny shit written above the urinal.
We've dispatched a team of intrepid young carousers to explore the taverns, lounges, and taprooms of each far-flung locale. We're pitting each bar against its closest equivalent to determine, once and for all, which is the better neighborhood to get drunk. Each reporter will make their argument for a bar's supremacy, and I'll determine, based on my own biases and subjectivities, a winner. First street to earn five wins takes the (purely theoretical) prize—but the real winner? All of us who got plotzed on the Mercury's dime.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: You may wonder why I left Lombard's Diamond Darcy's off the list of reviews... JUST KIDDING, none of you have ever thought about going there! I left it off the list because I used to tend bar there and most customers just drink Diet Pepsi and waste hundreds of dollars on video poker. It's a sad, sad place. If you insist on including it in the competition, just choose any bar on 82nd—real or fictional—and hand them the point.]
ROUND ONE: Hip vs. Hipper
Red Room 2530 NE 82nd, 256-3399
The Red Room is quite possibly the hippest bar on 82nd Avenue, if we define "hipness" as a function of the relationship between total number of band posters and total number of tweakers. (Local cred and bonus points awarded for hosting a band called "Ramblin' Rod's Bastard Children"—holla, fellow Smile Contest losers). While a retro/ironic arcade system and stage plastered with celebrity mugshots might not stand out in other parts of town, the rock 'n' roll-friendly ambiance and lack of visible drug activity make it an outlier in its neighborhood. But the Red Room isn't content to rest on its rep as the cool kid on the street: from a sign reading "This Bar Has a Strict No Douchebags Policy" to the ever-changing "$1 Mystery Shots," it's clear that this bar knows how to hustle, and knows how to show its patrons a good time. Hell, even the bathroom graffiti is friendly: "You're so pretty when you smile!" the ladies room informed me. Thanks, hon. Ramblin' Rod didn't think so, but it's still nice to hear—and after a couple of mystery shots, you're not so bad yourself. ALISON HALLETT
Slim's 8635 N Lombard, 286-3854
To me, Slim's will forever be the sort of pretty girl made to look prettier by standing next to her ugly friend. I remember stumbling into the old Dad's across the street, and walking, quite literally, into a 60-year-old dude getting punched in the face. I 180'ed and took a barstool at Slim's. So nice! So cordial!
Slim's is a dark, cavernous place where you might not expect the bartender to hug patrons. Your expectations would be wrong (I witnessed two hugs on my last visit). Strangers smile at you and make small talk. Drinks are strong. Beer is cheap. Food is just slightly better than what you'd expect (all of the above applies to breakfast hours as well!).
The live music I've witnessed has ranged from crappy to really crappy, and the DJ on my last visit played a few interesting reggae covers of '90s pop songs. So what? Did you ever go to Dad's? Old guys got punched in the face there!
I've been told that Slim's is St. Johns' "hipster bar." The claim is unfounded; Slim's is far too friendly and unassuming for that. That is, unless up north they still go with the traditional definition of hipster: too big of a pussy to punch you in the face. TONY PEREZ
WINNER: RED ROOM
82nd 1, Lombard 0
ROUND TWO: Best Bar(n)
The Farmer's Barn 7421 N Denver, 283-3044
There are no farmers at this barn. In fact, there's nobody. The place is deserted, except for a couple of incalculably ancient, silent old men, withered video poker addicts, and a handful of amiable, rowdy pool players. It would be plenty to keep the place lively if it were as small as it looks from the street. There must be some kind of trick, though, because it's easily twice as big inside as it is outside. The bar itself separates a huge amount of seating and video poker from three smallish pool tables, and the path from one side to the other requires single-file walking and drunken negotiation if you meet oncoming traffic. And even though they're cash-only and beer-only, you will get drunk. With two-dollar beers, bar food quickly assembled by your bartender/cook/dishwasher, and the silence of a ghost-town saloon, it's almost as cheap and sad as drinking alone at home (plus, they sell single cigarettes for a quarter). Of course, if you like company, or company under 55 years old, you should head elsewhere. Maybe all the clientele the Barn wants is three or five belching sexagenarians, but I can't help but think if they took cards and served liquor, they might fill out their absurdly huge, empty space. THOMAS ROSS
The Farm House 3612 SE 82nd, 777-8126
If not for the thick wood beams they're connected to, the lights look like they could kill you: big, chunky chandeliers made of dull wood, metal, and glass. Luckily, the whole backroom karaoke bar has an air of old-fashioned sturdiness, backed up by a staff that looks three-feet tall behind a sunken bar. The front of the house is a family restaurant, but I can't think of why you'd want to be here when the sun's shining. At night, it feels like a small-town grange hall, without any obnoxious little kids. The nightly karaoke seems to be less about how hip your song selection is and more about how well you sing—and the regulars are inexplicably good. The KJ slaps more asses, pinches more nipples, and gives more hugs than he plays songs, but he goes until at least 2 am, when the bar stops serving alcohol. If your house isn't as cool as the Farm House, you still don't have to go home, because they're open 24 hours. Between the dirt-cheap bar food and the couple of pool tables watched over by a larger-than-life statue of Jack Daniel by the fireplace, you could probably get away with living here for at least a week. TR
WINNER: THE FARM HOUSE
82nd 2, Lombard 0
ROUND THREE: For Upper-Middle Class White People Bitching About Gentrification
The Observatory 8115 SE Stark, 445-6284
For the beleaguered citizenry of the Montavilla neighborhood, The Observatory's arrival in late '08 was tantamount to discovering a Perrier oasis in the middle of a desert (covered with prostitutes instead of sand). The casual upscale vibe of the Observatory certainly provides stark contrast to its surroundings, and its violently supportive clientele speak of it in reverent tones usually reserved for its gustatory cousins in the Pearl. But in a head-to-head drinking battle against similar faux-fancy bars on Lombard, the Observatory loses big time.
Anyone looking for a casual drink during the restaurant's busy times should take their business elsewhere, as its nigh near impossible to find a stool at their admittedly gorgeous bar. Worse still, their menu of specialty drinks suffers greatly from poor mixology—at least those on the scotch/bourbon side of the street. The staff-suggested vanilla rusty nail was cloyingly overloaded with the extract, and barely drinkable—which is more than can be said for their (also suggested) spiced Manhattan, whose ingredients were so mismanaged and out of whack, it was abandoned completely after sip number two.
While the Observatory may be a welcome relief to the famished Montavilla diner, the neighborhood's lushes will find more solace at the somewhat more downscale Roscoe's next door. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY
The Fixin' To 8218 North Lombard, 477-4995
You have to question the wisdom of opening up a trashy-dive-themed bar in a neighborhood so rich in authentic dives. In St. Johns, the irony of the Fixin' To's lovely trailer-home logo doesn't resound quite as loudly as it would in the Pearl. Someone with more column inches could probably write something about a self-identified canary-in-the-coal-mine of impending gentrification, or setting up monuments that themselves destroy the culture they're supposedly an homage to, or some dickish Saussurian thing about, like, the signified versus the signifier. And they'd likely be right. Still, the bar's cool.
The food options stick dogmatically to the trailer-trash theme: Ritz-crusted chicken strips, jalapeño corn pudding, Fritos pie. I had Southern-style chicken dumplings, and as far as bar food goes, I was pretty well pleased. You can choose from a range of beer and shot pairings—Jack and PBR Light was the special of the night—and I was pleased to see Dogfish Head among a pretty solid tap selection.
If it weren't January, their large patio area would be enticing—for now, shuffleboard will do. The only place the Fixin' To really breaks character is forgoing video poker machines. That's cool... no need to add injury to insult. TONY PEREZ
WINNER: THE FIXIN' TO (BY FORFEIT)
82nd 2, Lombard 1
ROUND FOUR: Chinese Restaurant Bars
Chinese Village 520 SE 82nd, 503-253-7545
A few years ago, the Chinese Village was the sort of grimy dive where Jack Burton would pull over the Pork-Chop Express for a quick shot or two before getting back on the road: shadowy, dirty, with an interior slathered in worn-down wood and plastic. After a remodel, though, the place feels dangerously close to... nice? It's not, mind you, but with a regular karaoke setup, a shorthanded but friendly bar staff, and a few welcome relics of its skeevier days (like the carved wooden gate labeled "HINESL VILLAG"), it's still a fine place to grab a drink while gearing up for some big trouble. ERIK HENRIKSEN
Tiny Bubble Room 2025 N Lombard, 289-9104
"Load 'em up load 'em up load 'em up whoooo whooooo whoo oh look at that WHOOOOOOOOOO!" One upside to the disappointing Oregon vs. Auburn game: It turned the girliest-named establishment in Portland into an impromptu sports bar, full of shouting neighborhood fans decked out in green and gold. I'm relatively sure that not a single shaft of sunlight has entered the charming, retro-cool Tiny Bubble Room since the mid-'50s, but that doesn't keep the vibe from being any less friendly—particularly when it came to Joe, a "53 and a half"-year-old dude rocking a prospector-style beard who happily dispensed sage advice ("it's pool night at the Mousetrap. DON'T GO THERE") before making an abrupt exit. "I gotta squirt on down the road," Bearded Joe explained. "I got three more TVs down the road I need to hit before the game ends." EH
WINNER: TINY BUBBLE ROOM
82nd 2, Lombard 2
ROUND FIVE: Renaissance Bar
Agenda 2366 SE 82nd, 771-2962
The old Steinhaus is no longer, leaving behind its dingy memories of stale beer and blues cover bands. What a happy change of events, then, that the frumpy building, perched dangerously close to busy SE 82nd, has been reborn as Agenda, brought to you by the same folks who rescued nearby Roscoe's from seedy divedom.
There are plenty of reasons to embrace Agenda—there will continue to be live music, first of all, but instead of tired old white guys plunking out shitty 1-4-5 blues progressions, booker Dave Neeson has lined up a host of local rock, punk, and indie bands to play on the weekends. And you can still get a cheap yellow beer if you must, but there's also a solid selection of fancier micros, plus a couple of pinball machines, a pool table, and more. In other words, it's a swell neighborhood SE Portland dive circa 2011, with clean floors, clean air, clean tap lines, and a dirty bathroom. (Can't have it all.)
The best thing about Agenda, though, is the patio in the back—it's among the best in town, with plenty of room for smokers and non-, plus dartboards for good measure. When the weather finally turns dry, there's no reason for you not to be spending your time here—and, really, I implore to you to please do. On a recent Friday night, Agenda was all but abandoned, so just remember: Bars this welcoming don't grow on trees, and the empty ones won't stick around forever. NED LANNAMANN
Twilight Room 5242 N Lombard, 283-5091
Hamburgers make a good analogy for sports bars. Hamburgers around the world don't stray too far from a few key ingredients. Some have more toppings than others, some have specialty sauces, but you pretty much know what you're going to get.
If the sports bars of Portland are hamburgers then the Twilight Room is one with everything on it. You've got pool, karaoke, local jam bands, raffles for the regulars, video poker, four different TVs, a lame arcade game in the corner, countless neon signs and tchotchkes, vending machines that serve handfuls of year-old candy, etc.
Rather than being a sensory overload, The Twilight's kitchen sink aesthetic is actually quite charming, like it's working extra hard just to please you. That spills over into a neighborly staff (the bartender served me immediately, remembered my tab and what I was drinking) plus friendly regulars. Just like the Twilight Room's decorations, the patrons are numerous and diverse: college kids, working stiffs, hipster couples, hen parties—I even saw an old cowboy playing Lotto!
In the end, the Twilight isn't unique enough to drive across town for, but if I lived in the neighborhood I'd be damn proud to call it my bar. DAVE BOW
TIEBREAKER: WHICH IS MY DAD'S FAVORITE BAR IN PORTLAND?
WINNER: TWILIGHT ROOM
82nd 2, Lombard 3
ROUND SIX: Neighborhood Taverns
The Lion's Eye Tavern 5919 SE 82nd, 774-1468
All neighborhoods need a bar that residents can proudly call their own. Someplace you can go to on a Tuesday night when your friends are visiting and you're not ready to take them "out" yet. Dark enough to be seedy, cheap enough to be fun, the Lion's Eye Tavern is that sort of bar for the southern side of 82nd. Offering up more than 25 different kinds of mostly local beers (they don't serve booze) and a decent amount of sake (the house pour is potent and at $3, a steal), this bar caters to those who like to drink, but don't need any pretension to do so. The video jukebox plays a good amount of forgotten hits, while the two pool tables (free on Sundays) have steady, but friendly games throughout the night. The lone TV is turned up for Blazers games and muted almost any other time. A soon-to-be heated back patio area is a pleasant refuge from the somewhat cramped interior, although brushing shoulders and starting up a conversation is kind of the point at a place like this. After all, you're still on 82nd. Chances are somebody has an interesting story to tell. LANCE CLELAND
Mock Crest Tavern 3435 N Lombard, 283-5014
The Mock Crest Tavern has been around for over half a century and many of its patrons probably remember the groundbreaking. HAHAHAHAHAhahahaaaa... but seriously, there are a lot of old people there—in the cute way! I felt like I'd walked into the teachers' lounge at a middle school after hours and things were getting wild and crazy.
The minute I was through the door, there were white folks dancing to live blues music, creamy pudding shots being served at the bar, and a menu advertising some saucy something called a "three-dollar munchbox." The place was crowded so we ended up by the bathrooms, by an old PC laptop the bar keeps for customers to surf the internet. It was a pretty cozy experience—packed like pills in a seven-day organizer or Precious Moments figures on a mantel. There were fried pickles, shots with generous beer backs and hot, high-rise mom jeans as far as the eye could see.
If I'd spent the whole night at the Mock Crest I know the ample booze menu and delicious pudding shots would have kept me happy long enough to get lit and dance with the nearest three-dollar munchbox. Maybe when I'm a little older...DB
WINNER: THE LION'S EYE TAVERN
82nd 3, Lombard 3
ROUND SEVEN: For Your Blue-Collar Relatives Who Think You're a Total Pussy
Buckley's Catch 2320 SE 82nd, 788-9044
With all the boutique sports bars that have opened up in Portland in the last few months, it's refreshing to find one that you can take your grandfather to without him questioning his lineage. Boasting a deep fryer called the Bergermeister and with plenty of cheap domestic pitchers to go around, Buckley's Catch is all barstools and sweatpants. It is the kind of sports bar you bring the gang to when you want to grease up and curse at the television. There aren't a lot of amenities here—the layout reminds one of an old hamburger joint—but there are enough touches of charm to make you appreciate your stay. A shuffleboard table sits below a long tabletop, making it easy for spectators to hurl insults at the participants, while there are enough televisions situated around the room to guarantee you get to watch the game you want. The staff is amiable and the clientele are quick to offer up a slurred, unfocused opinion. Your grandfather would be proud to watch a game with you here. And if he were anything like mine, he would order up a basket of the chicken gizzards and tell you how soft today's players are. LC
The Wishing Well 8800 N Lombard, 286-4434
There is the glitz and glare of Las Vegas, and then there is Reno, the city where dreams go to die. Despite a glowing neon that promises radiant palm trees, the Wishing Well is a heaping dose of "The Biggest Little City in the World" right in the heart of St. Johns. With a slumped shoulder acceptance that life ain't getting any better anytime soon, their bar pours the stiffest of stiff drinks to a clientele that runs the gamut between shady and stabby. The Wishing Well also serves well-lubricated Chinese food that you should only eat on a dare—a cruel, cruel dare. It's not a place you bring a date—unless you are paying by the hour—but among the barflies perched at the bar there is a certain defeatist charisma to the place. Sure, its best days are long past, but don't take the grubby charm of the Wishing Well for granted. You'll recall it fondly when St. Johns becomes the new North Mississippi and the building is razed in the name of gentrification in order to make room for a sustainable vegan tapas restaurant and live/work lofts you couldn't possibly afford. EZRA ACE CARAEFF
WINNER: BUCKLEY'S CATCH
82nd 4, Lombard 3
ROUND EIGHT: For Masculine Men
The Eagle 835 North Lombard, 283-9734
I'll admit I was a little nervous to head into Portland's best-known bear bar, treading into terrain that's reserved for the city's manliest queers. For a brief moment before I pushed open the door (which has a sign literally stating, "THIS IS A GAY BAR") I thought maybe there would be some ladies inside I could blend in with. Nope. The plunge indoors on a Saturday night revealed 20-odd beefcakes who resembled Tobias from Arrested Development to varying degrees. The Eagle is the kind of gay bar you see in movies, the kind I'm glad exists in real life. It's a smallish, red-lit place with concrete floors, a welcoming, laidback bar just bordering on the edge of seedy. Thursday is naked pool night, hardcore porn plays on constant loop every evening, and one of the bathrooms even has a locking door. Don't mistake the leather and harnesses for signs of a bad attitude—despite my painfully obvious status as an interloper, there was no animosity in the air, the White Russians were plenty good, and the bartender was plenty nice. My friends and I squeezed into a booth next to a clean-cut chatty guy who made the trek to the Eagle all the way from Northwest and we talked easily, distracted only occasionally by the giant dicks gleefully massaged onscreen around us. This bar is a classic and, among Portland's gay bars, a bachelorette-free haven. I cut out after one drink and let everyone get back to their bear-ness. SARAH MIRK
Greg's Backyard 3554 SE 82nd, 774-3371
In a fair competition, we'd pit Lombard's gay bar against a gay bar on 82nd. Sadly, there are no real gay bars on 82nd, so I had to settle for reviewing the one straight bar that sounded the gayest: Greg's Backyard. This folksy restaurant turned out to be pretty much the least queer place in the entire city. For the décor and menu, the owners have smushed every tried-and-true American restaurant motif into one thickly carpeted room: sports blaring from big-screen TV competes with Norah Jones blaring from the radio, Italian food on the menu competes with Southern-style BBQ and hamburgers. It feels kinda like Denny's with a full bar. All this adds up to make Greg's Backyard a good place for families, even ones with two daddies. As long as you're a family that loves to take in "the game" while chowing down on $8 steaks and sides of oozy mac 'n' cheese and classic jojos, you'll have a home in Greg's Backyard. SM
WINNER: THE EAGLE
82nd 4, Lombard 4
ROUND NINE: Love in the Club
Tik Tok 3330 SE 82nd, 775-9564
I've seen some shit at the Tik Tok. Some cute stuff: Hello, adorable iddle-widdle chocolate liqueur shot! Some questionable: Umm, you guys remember that creepy white van with the boarded-up windows we saw outside of Chinese Village? Well, now it's here at the Tik Tok, still idling, still filled with clothes, still with that strange-looking guy in the passenger seat. The bestest thing: This was a few years ago around 10 pm on a weeknight, when my friend and I stopped off at the Tik Tok to have a few. The place was hopping, a DJ was spinning, and there was a little lady person (she was a midget, I'm trying to be polite) grinding it out on the dance floor with a tall dude. They went outside and we watched them climb into a car parked out back, right in front of the bar windows. She gave him a blowjob right there while he sat in the driver's seat. A little-person blowjob! Then they came back in, she sat in his lap for a while at the bar, and then they freaked the eff out on the dance floor. It was awesome! Tik Tok, you are a bundle of 24/7 fun. Stay sweet! COURTNEY FERGUSON
Mousetrap Tavern 2305 N Lombard, 285-9995
If you want to make a date feel like the most beautiful woman on earth—and damn near the only woman on earth—take her to the Mousetrap Tavern on billiards night, where attendance is approximately 99.7 percent male. She will be the object of furtive and blatant gazes alike, which will either encourage her brazenness or her willingness to cling to you, depending on personality type. "I feel like I have to defend you," my date noted proudly on a recent visit. "It's like being on a viking ship!" And indeed it was—only with slightly more contemporary music. My date left me next to a jar of Hot Mamas long enough to slip a dollar into the jukebox in search of romantic hits, coming up with gems from the catalogs of classic greats like the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Thin Lizzy, and Queen.
As an alternative to the ambiance of the evening, the Mousetrap is open for Sunday breakfast, and from 9 am-1 pm one can obtain a simply stated "side of meat" for a thin $2.50, which—let's be frank—is all the simple pleasure a girl could need. When you're ready to seal the deal, don't skip the bathroom on the way out, where a reasonable 50 cents will score you a sexy surprise treat—it could be a French tickler, or it could be an illustrated guide to "erotic sensual positions," but either will tempt you back for more. MARJORIE SKINNER
WINNER: TIK TOK (Close, but c'mon...a blowjob!)
82nd 5, Lombard 4
GRAND PRIZE WINNER OF THE BEST AND BOOZIEST BAR STREET IN PORTLAND: 82nd! (Expect a framed certificate in the mail.)