Vancouver, Washington’s newest brewery doesn’t exist just yet. But you can already taste some of its beer at a swanky restaurant in a knockout location, with the additional novelty of pouring your own pint. Barlow’s Public House, located on the shore of the Columbia River, is the first outpost of the forthcoming Barlow’s Brewery, which will be located further inland on Mill Plain Road. While a dreary winter’s night isn’t the best time for a visit, set a reminder to drop by once the weather gets warm.
Vancouver’s Waterfront project celebrated its grand opening last September—and it isn’t quite finished yet, either. The shiny new mixed-use development will reportedly cost $1.5 billion all told, and looks to be a blend of anonymous-looking retail and residential spaces placed square on the north bank of the Columbia River, just west of the I-5 bridge. The bustle of construction characterizes business hours, while an eerie quiet falls at night, its unfinished spaces looming empty.
Since Portlanders aren’t the ones paying for it, it’s easy from our vantage point across the river to predict that this prefab neighborhood has some cool potential. Even though its architecture and design aren’t particularly inspiring—a notable exception is the cantilevered pier that extends, unsupported, above the water—the Vancouver Waterfront offers something that’s stupidly difficult to find in Portland: a place to drink while looking at the river.
Barlow’s Public House is one of a handful of eating and drinking establishments now open at the Waterfront, with more presumably on the way. The space itself is weirdly stiff and formal, but it’s got floor-to-ceiling windows, and its second-story patio extends along the entire length of the building. It’s going to be a visually stunning place to knock down a few while taking in the view, although summer will be its truest test. On a recent visit, Barlow’s had three of their own beers ready, filling out its selection with a solid selection of guest taps.
About those taps: Barlow’s gives you the ability to pour your own beer (or wine, or cider), and pay for the privilege. The wall facing the bar is an imposing bank of taps and computerized screens. Your bartender or server pre-approves your credit card and then gives you a special card to unlock the taps, allowing you pour to your heart’s content while the card keeps a tally, kind of like a gas pump. (Much like pouring your own gas, it’s the kind of thing Oregon would never allow.)
Before you go crazy showing off your kegmeister skills, be aware that the beer ain’t exactly cheap: The prices clock in around $.45 to $.50 per ounce, which adds up quick, especially if you’re sampling from numerous taps. The good news is that you can test each and every beer before you commit, or dabble to your heart’s content. The bad news is that you’re basically paying for your own labor and your own mistakes. (Don’t spill any!) You can save some pennies by ordering a 16-ounce pint and having them pour it for you (prices are typically around $6-7).
Barlow’s beers, so far, are satisfying in their modesty. Sam’s Ale appears to be their flagship, and it’s a basic, balanced pale ale to suit all comers. Stay Frothy, a New England IPA brewed with Trap Door Brewing, is a bright yellow refresher that’s flavorful without being over the top. And Circum-Pacific IPA, brewed with Von Ebert, is similarly simple and crisp, with an unblemished hop flavor and a very light brass color.
They’re solid beers to pair with Barlow’s southern-influenced menu, which can be characterized as “good enough” and includes a Louisiana seafood boil ($24), fried green tomatoes with Dungeness crab ($12), jalapeño cornbread ($7), and shrimp and grits ($21). The Texas nachos ($14) are an enormous plate of bright yellow corn chips under a pile of chicken, guac, and sour cream; there are cheese and beans in there, but you’ll have to do some digging. And the gumbo ($8)—available with shrimp, sausage, chicken (an additional $4 each), or all three (an additional $8)—is reasonably tasty, but eat it fast or the rice will absorb the sauce and turn into gluey mush.
But you’re not here for the food, and maybe not even for the beer. You’re here for that spectacular riverside setting with the Columbia rolling by, just as it’s done for thousands of years. It’s absurd that a place that’s sometimes called River City has a ridiculous lack of places to eat and drink alongside its two gigantic rivers. You’ll have to cross one of those rivers to get to Barlow’s, but you can’t get any closer to the water without getting wet.