I REMEMBER the first time I fell in love with a bar, and what it felt like when it broke my heart.
Max's was beer only, and it smelled incessantly of piss and popcorn. There was no TV—just a jukebox, a piano, and a slanted pool table. Every now and then, they'd let motorcycles ride through the bar. It was commonly understood to be the inspiration for Moe's on The Simpsons, even if someone inevitably called bullshit (I'm with the "yea" crowd). Even though it was only a few blocks from the college campus, Max's wasn't full of students. We'd sit at the bar with giant frosty mugs and listen to old drunks tell us their war stories—and I wasn't so cynical then; it all sounded romantic.
Last summer, I was back in Eugene for a wedding. After the reception, some friends and I gave into our nostalgia and made a pilgrimage. Max's was filled with flip flops and flat screens. The bartender was mixing cocktails for sorority girls. We were—in our late 20s and early 30s—the oldest people in the bar (a fact a young lady at the next table was quick to point out).
If Max's had a Portland equivalent, it was undoubtedly the old Lutz Tavern. For 60-some years, the Lutz served cheap swill to blue-collar folks and Reed kids that didn't mind walking those extra few blocks. It was beer only, cash only, and served the bare minimum of food that the OLCC required. It had its own (disputed) notoriety—many credit the bar as the birthplace of Pabst as its current cultural signifier—and a great many people loved it.
In September of 2010, the Lutz closed down. The owners were borrowing money to keep the doors open, and eventually decided that time was up. After a farewell bash, they closed up shop. A year later, it was reopened by the crew behind Clinton Street Pub and Crow Bar. Even though I laid no claim to the Lutz—I always enjoyed it, but I only drank there a handful of times—I fretted over flashbacks of my Max's experience.
On paper, my fear was justified. If it's inconvenience that keeps the assholes away, I saw signs of trouble: They were offering liquor and accepting credit cards. Instead of spicy pickles and cold cuts, they were serving burgers, wings, and other bar-food staples. It was a little sleeker, a little cleaner, a little darker... a little "hipper."
But it was also a great neighborhood bar.
The new owners lost some of the clutter (and a lot of the lottery dollars), but the space is hardly unfamiliar. The red leather booths remain, as do the long, curved bar and the vintage phone booth. You can still choose from a selection of cheap tall boys ($2 each), and their microbrew selection includes taps from Boneyard, Bear Republic, Double Mountain, and Everybody's Brewing among others (pints go for $4).
The kitchen might be the most welcome addition. Our waitress' recommendation of the Brokeback Burger ($9, with fries)—their version of a Western burger, with bacon, BBQ sauce, crispy onions, and an off-the-menu addition of peanut butter—went over well at our table. The patties are nothing to write home about (and nothing to complain about either), but they do well with their toppings.
The fried pork loin sandwich ($8) is comically large. Served on a normal-sized bun, the breaded loin touches—even eclipses—each side of the basket. It's not hyperbole when I tell you that this sandwich was bigger than my face. When I laughed and commented on the size, the waitress told me that mine wasn't even on the bigger side. While I could only eat about a third of what they put in front of me, it's no reflection on the flavor (mustard and pickles go a long way). The hand-dipped corndog, similarly, was about as big as I've ever seen.
Video poker, thankfully, is gone, but the back corner has a few pinball machines (Congo, Medieval Madness, and The Getaway, for you enthusiasts). TVs are present, but easily ignored if that's not your thing.
I'm sure there are plenty of regulars from the old Lutz Tavern that'll disagree with me. I understand. I spent an exhausting 15 minutes that night at Max's, explaining to the girl that called me old why her favorite bar paled in comparison to its old incarnation. You can't go home again, I guess. But if you can put all that behind you, there really isn't a comparable bar in the neighborhood (and if you can't, the Hidden East is still a total shithole). It may not be your grandfather's favorite bar anymore, but it'll probably be somebody's.