THE RICH AND RARE ran dry sometime around 10 pm, and everybody cheered.
In no other bar in Portland—on this night or any—would the sudden unavailability of a cheap brand of Canadian whisky occasion even a groan. But this was the last night of the Matador on W Burnside, and after 43 years, these were the last shots of Rich and Rare that would ever be forced down within its walls.
So while a guy roamed around in a bear costume somewhere in the back room, and people paid their respects to the squalid bathrooms and puzzled over a photo booth that had shot more nudes than Hugh Hefner (but had since ceased working), one corner of this storied Portland dive celebrated a terrible whisky with genuine enthusiasm.
Which probably says enough about the passing of the Matador—one bar, it seemed, that we never worried about closing. But we'll say more. Because even in a city used to capitalistic chaos reshaping its gustatory landscape, this felt like a wake-up call.
Portland, in recent weeks, had seen the closures of no end of local favorites—Central Eastside stalwart Produce Row Café is on ice, the Fez Ballroom on SW 11th is gone (along with sister spot Sand Bar), Tiga on NE Prescott closed its doors. The preceding months had seen more still. People griped and cursed, but when news arrived on September 10 of the Matador's impending demise two days hence, a shocked curiosity seemed to preempt anger: What the hell is going on, Portland?
And the answer, of course: lots of tiny, unique, independent things, along with several fairly universal ones.
The Fez closed, its owner told employees, because it was bleeding money. Produce Row is dark largely due to personal reasons its owner wouldn't discuss with the Oregonian. Tiga's owners said in a statement they wanted to "consolidate our efforts."
At the same time, it's hardly a new or novel thing for restaurants and bars to fall under, especially in cities with property values—and therefore rental rates—rising as rapidly as Portland's. There are constant grim reports of bar closures in cities like New York and Chicago and San Francisco. Just this month, Newsweek published a piece titled "Yuppies Are Killing the Dive Bar."
The Matador's demise, like so many of the others, is part of that tradition—but also not.
Casey Maxwell, who'd owned the bar since 2006, tells the Mercury that, yes, his landlord had demanded higher rent as part of a new lease; since its last lease, the bar found itself across the road from a Providence Park swarming with Timbers fans.
"They needed one thing and I just didn't feel like I could fulfill the obligation of signing a lease for another 10 years," Maxwell says.
But it wasn't only the rent increase. Even if the 104-year-old building's owner—a woman named Carol Anderson, who didn't respond to the Mercury's attempts to reach her—had come to Maxwell with the exact same terms he'd been laboring under for nearly a decade, he says he might have had second thoughts. Business was down, and the building brought a slew of maintenance challenges that he says Anderson wanted him to foot the bill for.
"I'd just be making myself an indentured servant," he says.
That’s not to say Maxwell’s shying away from blame. In 2011, he opened the The Conquistador on SE Belmont, and he says the enterprise took his attentions from West Burnside. But he also thinks the same gentrification blamed for displacing eateries around town is partly to blame for his situation—because it's also been too good at creating new ones.
"In the old days, people even traveled to the Matador from other neighborhoods," he says. "Now it's tough. You can't blame people when there's a great bar on every corner."Maxwell did try to save the Matador, he says. Even as he realized he couldn’t continue on, he tried to pull in a third party to assume the lease. Those talks collapsed on September 10, and Maxwell announced the bar’s closure shortly after.
If the loss of the bar is a shock, it's also hardly reasonable to assume the rest of the city's dives are going away—at least, not yet.
Not far from the Matador, the Yamhill Pub, at SW 2nd and Yamhill, has long held the unofficial title of Portland's diviest dive. It's situated, like the Matador, in a neighborhood that's improved around it. Adorned in crude graffiti, it's also at least twice as dingy.
And Kevin Hill, the Yamhill's owner of two decades, says it's doing just fine. The improvements to Portland's downtown have even made the bar something of a tourist destination.
"That's the real payoff," Hill says. "Things change."