A SALOON is a saloon, and Bit House Saloon is proof of that. This place is for drinking—damn near every kind of it. It feels like a bar-industry pissing contest brought to life: "We'll specialize in single barrel whiskey," and someone countered, "Oh yeah? Well, we'll have single barrel tequila." "We'll have cocktails on tap!" "We'll have two regular blendies!" "Alcoholic otter pops!" "House whiskey barrel-aged beer!" "Six-dollar rosé all day!" and so on, until someone buys a barrel of cachaça from Brazil just to prove a point.
It's easy to imagine two ornery pioneer publicans having an argument like that when Bit House's building was new in 1896. But it's 2015, and BHS is the brainchild not of competitors but collaborators: Jesse Card of the Knock Back and Robert Kowalski and Jayson Criswell of the new and improved Lutz Tavern. Throw in food from Dustin Clark of Wildwood fame, and you've basically got the Portland bar version of the Avengers.
Accordingly, there's a lot about Bit House that seems to exist mostly to impress industry people. The full menu, for instance, is available until 2:30 am every night.
Clark's letting his Midwest flag fly here: chicken wings, armadillo eggs, American cheese, fried bologna sandwiches, rocky mountain oysters—these are the comfort foods of the great under-celebrated suburbs of this country, but with a Portland flair. The bologna's made in-house. The armadillo eggs (pickled jalapeños wrapped in pork sausage and stuffed with cheese; $9, $7 at happy hour) sublimely spray hot grease and cheese on the first bite. Sometimes that flair is excessive: It's $15 for an elk and beef burger and fries.
And that single-barrel cachaça? It's from Brazil's Novo Fogo, and according to the menu, it's the first single barrel of cachaça ever in the US. Those single-barrel spirits are available in flights by the half-ounce, ounce, or ounce-and-a-half, and they're dispensed through an old gun system found in the basement of Bit House's building. (That cachaça—one ounce for $13—sips like what's left in the pan after making bananas foster, or a rum-filled butterscotch candy.)
Bit House pays tribute to the history of its neighborhood and city subtly but consistently—there's a sort of period-piece feel to the place, from its long, tall front bar to its plush booths, sturdy chairs, and bank of pinball machines. There's also a patio with a fire and a beautiful stretch of seats in a covered half-an-alleyway that could be called "cozy" or "sexy," depending on your company.
But who cares where you're sitting: What are you drinking? Those single-barrel spirits are good for geeking out on, but cocktails on draught are pretty of-the-moment, too. Try the King Pin ($10): Hennessy, bourbon, nocino, house sherry blend, bitters, and absinthe, topped with a house-made pecan-smoked fig. It tastes like the last night of a long weekend spent in a cabin, staring into a fire, tipsily fascinated by every pop, crackle, and wisp of smoke. (Speaking of warm and geeky, the hot toddy lineup is bottled in individual servings and kept warm in a sous-vide bath.)
Of course, the whole drink menu isn't packed with leftfield libations. The fall cocktails feature more typical fare, including an exceptionally solid take on a Cape Codder called Cape Fear and Loathing ($8), featuring vodka, pear liqueur, allspice dram, and darling of the Pacific Northwest cranberry scene, Starvation Alley juice. Another winner is the Carcassonne Sour ($10—noticing a pattern of reasonably priced fancy cocktails yet?), a velvety egg white cocktail of Pernod, Dolin Génépy, orgeat, lemon, and lime that's as French as street mimes and far more palatable.
The most impressive thing about Bit House is its attention to detail. For a bar that's trying to have it all to succeed so broadly is insanely unlikely. Did I mention there's a whole page on the menu for shot-and-a-beer boilermakers? That they advertise non-alcoholic "Temperance Tails?" That the wine list includes a house red blend from Cana's Feast ($8, $6 happy hour) and $6 rosé all day every day? And yet, there's rarely a misstep. Only in its occasionally overwhelming enormity and its slight tendency to overextend to impress industry geeks (those are are hardly faults) will Bit House risk alienating some less adventurous bargoers. For the rest of us, it's a welcome new chapter in Portland history.
Open daily 3 pm-2:30 am. Happy hour daily 3-7 pm. Thanks to Chauncey, Nick, and Jesse for previewing their fall cocktail menu. More on Blogtown!