I CAN'T QUITE figure out the impetus behind a bar-themed restaurant, which, really, is the only way I can think to describe Sunshine Tavern. I'm not bagging on the gastropub concept either; I'm all for high-end, carefully crafted versions of bar food. Chicken liver mousse on my burger? Sure... I'm with you. But this has the feeling of a trust-fund kid slumming it in $300 vintage Levi's and John Varvatos Cons—not quite comfortable in its own skin and probably not fooling anybody.
On the ground floor of a new mixed-use condo building on SE Division, Sunshine Tavern is David Welch and Chef Jenn Louis' follow-up to Lincoln—their deservedly raved-about North Portland spot. After mastering a more upscale dining room—and I mean mastering, even the James Beard Foundation gave Louis a nod—I guess the duo wanted to tackle something a little more blue collar. Burgers. Pizza. Fried Chicken. Beer. And what comes out of the kitchen is about what you'd expect from someone of Louis' caliber, but it's hard to ignore the restaurant's trimmings.
Most egregious is the shuffleboard table that runs directly across the middle of the room. Don't get me wrong, I love bar games; I love any competition I can take part in without setting down my drink. But the only people I've seen playing were a group of eight-year-olds whose made-up rules had something to do with flinging the weights across the board to try and make the biggest dent in the backstop (get off my lawn, and so forth!). If the competition knocks your puck out of the three zone, you can't tell him to eat shit when you're within four feet of someone enjoying the salad that comes with the prix fixe menu. Same goes for the arcade games. Ultimately, you wouldn't feel good about getting up from your table mid-meal to play Donkey Kong when a maître d' has several parties waiting. The space is too small to have it both ways, and though a few details might lead you to believe otherwise—the bar is made from reclaimed wood from an old bowling alley—Louis and Welch built a restaurant, not a pub.
You could say, "avoid peak dinner hours," but that's about all they've got. They're open 5 to 10 pm Sunday through Thursday, and 5 to 11 pm Friday and Saturday. And despite my bitching, it seems to stay crowded. BECAUSE...
Sunshine Tavern has good food. The griddle burger might not seem like a bargain at $10, but spending $2 more for the aforementioned chicken liver mousse goes a long way. You can also opt for pimento cheese ($1.50), pork belly ($2), or a fried egg ($1.50). The burger is thick and juicy, with just enough of a crust. Fries are great—cut thick and plenty crisp.
There are a handful of other sandwiches to choose from as well, all with their own flair. Roasted pork belly with arugula, red onion, chili mayonnaise, and fontina. Fried duck egg with ricotta salata, roasted asparagus, and arugula. None of them look particularly healthy, but all sound like they're worth the calories.
My highlight was probably the fried chicken and waffles ($14). It provided me dinner and lunch the next day. The breading on the chicken was light but crisp, and drizzled with honey. The waffle is made with semolina yeast (usually used in pastas), and keeps a firm crust on the outside while staying doughy and moist inside. The dish falls short of the versions from Screen Door and Meriwether's, but not by much.
I've only tried one of the pizzas so far, but the roasted asparagus, red onion, garlic, and fontina option ($12) bodes well for the rest of that section of the menu—thin crust and toppings carefully chosen to balance flavors.
The beer list is solid. Eight taps feature breweries like Upright and Everybody's Brewing, plus my current-favorite pilsner—Kulmbacher Brauerei AG EKU—and a long list of bottles should cater to a wide range of tastes (my pops, for instance, was pleased with his can of Old German). The cocktail list is short and a tad underwhelming, but you also have the option of frozen margaritas from one of those slushy machines. My next trip in—when I haven't gorged myself on dinner—will include a cup of their honey soft-serve ice cream ($5), which a couple next to me was oohing and aahing about.
The menu has all the makings for a good neighborhood restaurant—and there's no reason it can't be—but Sunshine Tavern is stuck in an identity crisis. In a glowing profile in the Oregonian, the duo said their restaurant was "kind of like, all the places [they] enjoy, [they] just tucked them all together," and they "kind of go back and forth" about how casual they want it to be.
For now, it shows.