WHEN YOU WALK into the World Famous Kenton Club, you can almost hear the walls talk. Those intricate wooden panels have absorbed decades of jolly carousing, rock 'n' roll blasting from the jukebox, and the occasional pool hustle. There's an overwhelming feeling that you've entered a special kind of time machine taking you back to much simpler days—when there were fewer beer choices and hairy-chested macho men like Burt Reynolds were considered gods.
It's the special type of establishment that's getting harder to find in Portland these days, especially one that straddles the line between public house amenity and dimly lit seediness so well. The Kenton Club achieves this ideal by offering a consistently potent calendar of (mostly) free punk, garage rock, karaoke, and DJ events that keep the youthful crowds buzzing while making sure not to alienate the local barflies with unnecessary changes.
The beautifully spacious hardwood floor in front of the stage is perfect for sweaty dancing to crackly 45s or starting a drunken circle pit. And the strategically designed smoking patio is at once vast and intimate. Of course, you still have the obligatory row of video poker machines manned by surly codgers, but this is an essential element that only adds to the charm of a classic watering hole dripping with historic sentimentality.
The Kenton Club opened in 1947 and quickly became a well-reputed biker bar. The "World Famous" tag was applied because of its role as a backdrop to the 1972 Raquel Welch movie Kansas City Bomber, in which she played a fiery roller derby heroine. Strategically displayed movie posters and photos throughout the bar pay homage to this starry dalliance, but the slightly obscure nature of the film provides more questions than answers. Nonetheless, the rough-and-tumble bar portrayed in Bomber is in stark contrast to the sudsy haven it currently represents for both punters and staff alike.
"It's the best job I've ever had," bartender Justin Leach happily tells me when I ask about his four years of service. "It was my favorite bar for a long time before I was lucky enough to get hired here. I love the atmosphere and the staff, especially the owners, Daryl and Doreen."
He's talking about the Waitts, who purchased the Kenton Club in the fall of 2006. It's their dedication to creating an authentic venue deeply connected to the community that has helped Kenton Club maintain such an enthusiastic clientele in the neighborhood and throughout the rest of the city.
So does this optimistic bastion of communal libations on the north end of Interstate Avenue still qualify as a "dive"?
Leach still thinks so. "It's like the modern Portland version of dive," he says. "With a lot of love added." Indeed, there are precious few bars left in town that embody this statement and still pour stiff, cheap drinks. It's nice to know that there's still a respectable place where you can drown your sorrows without killing your soul.