IN THE WEE hours of the morning, Holman's can serve a slab of chicken-fried steak almost twice the size of your face, courtesy of its spry and amply tattooed ringmaster, Christian Stonebraker. His 10-hour graveyard shift is a nightly tour de force.
At one time, Holman's had more cooks on the payroll—but now Stonebraker runs the kitchen alone, fulfilling the role of prep, line, and head cook. Sometimes he's dishwasher, janitor, and night watchman.
"We have verifiable ghosts," Stonebraker says, noting that the jukebox and television in the bar sometimes turn on spontaneously after closing, and he occasionally sees deceased ex-Holman's waitress Foxy hanging out in the kitchen entrance.
It's little wonder that Holman's is haunted—the building has been around since the late 1800s, enjoying its first incarnation as a bar in the 1930s. It's been Holman's since the 1950s, and Stonebraker's stomping ground since four years ago.
Stonebraker has been in the business since he was 13 years old, working various fast food and dishwashing jobs around Pittsburgh throughout his junkie adolescence—he describes himself as a "gratefully recovered drug addict." Eventually, he scored a job as a line cook at a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant. "I threw myself into the fire, not knowing what I was doing, and came out a pretty sharp cook."
After spending some time in Ashland, Oregon, Stonebraker and his wife, Michelle, came to Portland where he cooked in several dives before finding Holman's.
Drunks are the lifeblood of Holman's. Stonebraker says that the establishment relies "tremendously" on dipsomania: "We wouldn't be above ground if it weren't for drunk people," he admits. Stonebraker makes no bones about what Holman's is. "It's a dive bar and greasy spoon that serves white-trash cuisine," he says. The menu is a refreshing departure from the self-congratulatory foodie roll call of sustainably grown this and grass-fed that which characterizes many a Portland restaurant.
"A drunk guy at 3 am? Kobe beef is just gonna be lost on him," snorts Stonebraker. But at the same time, "You can't walk in the door and still be vegan here." He seems almost apologetic about making a Gardenburger Reuben, muttering, "You don't fuck with the Reuben" as he slaps the anemic patty on a slice of rye.
At 2:15 am, Stonebraker has to abruptly abandon his post in the kitchen to avert a mounting barroom brawl. "You want a piece of this?" is invoked unironically. Stonebraker calms both parties down with finesse, genially escorting the perpetrator outside, and then shrugs the altercation off as "nothing."
Stonebraker has tools to endure the manic night-long solo shifts. "Very aggressive punk rock blasting as loud as I can get it is what gets me through," he says.
No other cooks have lasted very long at Holman's; the one before him hysterically quit mid-shift. Stonebraker normally vents by cursing at orders, screaming, "Fuck you!" and flipping off the tickets.
Punk's defiant swagger also informs Stonebraker's grooming. "My favorite thing about my job? I don't have to shave," he half-jokes, shrugging. "Hey man, it's the performance, not the package."
He takes a cigarette break whenever there is a lull. "I don't really want to quit... I like smoking too much. It's nice. It's a ritual."
At the end of his shift, Stonebraker says, "I like to wind down with some Tom Waits... I go home and drink myself into a stupor."
He glances up, soberly. "Tom Waits. That stuff is definitely as important to me as any of this," gesturing at his prep case and the hissing vats of hot oil.
It's not difficult to imagine how Stonebraker could find a kindred spirit in Waits. "Stormy nights here are the best," he says. "It's a dark, divey cave with warm, filling food. Just gimme something to warm my guts, you know?"
Is Stonebraker happy? Who knows. But, as he says, "We pretty much have our shit together." At 3 am, having your shit together sometimes feels like enough.
Christian Stonebraker likes to settle into a booth at his favorite "unknown" place, Daddy Mojo's Café (1501 NE Fremont). "I like it because it's neighborly," Stonebraker says. He can often be found there watching one of the many televisions while munching on a "wicked" catfish platter.More of the FOOD ISSUE here!