illustration by Marlowe Dobbe

Bar Issue 2018

Through the Drinking Glass: The Portland Mercury’s Bar Issue

Cuckoo for Cocktails

The Last Straw

Dry Drinks Worth Diving Into

When it’s snowing outside, as it was in February, most Portlanders aren’t headed far. You walk somewhere and hope it’s uphill from home, so you can sled back on your ass if you have to. You aren’t necessarily looking for fancy cocktails or a show–just some place that isn’t your house, where you can socialize and binge on the outside world, in case you’re snowed in all the next day.

Me, though? I like to go far from home. If I get snowed in somewhere, it better be at a bar across town. Give me a good reason not to be at home or work. Besides, there’s no better weather for a proper bar crawl. That cold shock of sub-freezing air between stops makes the front door of each bar take on the droolingly welcome face of a mountain rescue St. Bernard with a barrel of brandy on its collar.

So off I went. 82nd Avenue felt like the demarcation: On one side, I was close enough to home to make it back in inclement weather. On the other, I was on my own. I packed a Lyft with a few likewise adventurous friends and headed east. I sent some frantic texts–What’s your favorite bar east of 82nd?—and my buddy Sam, who’d lived up and down the east side, responded with a list so long it gave me an instant hangover. He was on his way, and he’d be our guide.

We eased in on 92nd, down in the Lents neighborhood. On a snowy night outside Zoiglhaus Brewing Company and the Eagle Eye Tavern, you can’t tell if Lents is being built up or torn down—it’s all skeletons of apartment buildings flickering in the streetlight. When these are finished, one imagines, midweek snow or not, these bars will never have a dead night, but for now, they’re as eerily quiet as the street outside, despite being not quite totally empty.

At Zoiglhaus, the Olympics were on, so I sucked down a gold medal-winning Zoigl pilsner while the rest of the crew wisely drank Schwarzbier (black lager). Zoiglhaus’ Schwarzbier is roasty and warming, a lighter, lower-alcohol alternative to heavy stout or porter—dark beer that will neither fill nor fuck you up. Zoiglhaus is huge, but with its high ceilings and festive banners, it has the feeling of an off-season German beer hall. We watched what appeared to be a triple-blind three-way date across the bar, presumably arranged via some app at the surprisingly well-trod crossroads of craft beer and middle-aged freakiness, until the end of curling coverage on TV was our excuse to mosey.

It snowed harder, and after two blocks, we popped into the Eagle Eye Tavern. People appeared to be actively working, on laptops and phones. The vibe was so coffeeshop-quiet that playing pinball felt disruptive: It was a Simpsons machine, and it sounded like Homer was in the bar and needed 86ing. We made a mental note to return another time for karaoke—the stage was surrounded by promising props and mannequin/TV monstrosities—and made our way further east.

Nothing will make you feel dumber than squinting at passing bar signs looking for Whelan’s Irish Pub, only to have someone say: “Is it that place with the giant light-up shamrock on the roof?” And if you’re worried that the four-leafer will be the only garish green involved, rest easy: The only thing more electric-green than the lighting is one of the bar’s sour apple Jell-O shots (I’m partial to the Irish coffee pudding shots myself). Low ceilings and dark, heavy wood make you forget the snow exists, but they also carry the rather Irish sentiment that the weather always hates you regardless, and you’ll be unhappy if you leave the pub.

We soon learned that the snowy night was somehow more romantic for everyone else, as a couple planned their own trip to actual Ireland at a table by the window, and another cuddled cozily at a video poker machine. One of us decided to make our own outing date-ier by making our next stop line dancing at Duke’s. Thank god it was a quiet karaoke night at Portland’s premier country bar, because I had the wrong boots on.

We took the bartender’s exuberant advice and got an enormous quesadilla and a mac and cheese that would be better described as cheese and mac, and drank enough tequila to sing a song. I sang, the KJ sang, a couple of women did a very fine dance to Brooks and Dunn, snow flitted outside the windows, and we boot scootin’ boogied out of there.

Hungry by now for a proper meal, we headed north to Boss Hawg’s for Taco Tuesday. The tacos tasted decidedly fine—a perfectly sideways thumb—but were about as filling as just eating the three quarters we paid for each of them. You gotta love a bar with the sound on during sports, especially when the sport is figure skating and the sound is a series of classical music selections, which lent an unexpected elegance and grace to the pool players, giant taxidermied elk, and Philly cheese steak egg rolls.

Real food still awaited, and after a brief beer and a spell of yelling at the contestants on Family Feud with the regulars up at Clamity Jae’s, we found a meal across the parking lot at Bar 108 (or 108 Bar N Grill, depending on which sign you look at). Come for the cozy central fireplace and unused but inexplicably beach-themed stage, stay for the lime beef. On a cold night their steaming bowl of pho is unmissable, but don’t sleep on the pot stickers or Vietnamese hot wings, either. And if you’re okay with spice, say so, because their sauces don’t hold back: The lime beef is rightly Bar 108’s claim to fame, but a spicy, salty, smoky sauce means even the pot stickers alone make this a spot I’d happily get snowed in at night after night.

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However, we weren’t completely snowed in yet, the bars weren’t quite closing, and we weren’t as far north as we wanted to be, so we made the final jaunt up to Sandy and the Wooden Chicken Pub. With snow coming down and the roads empty, this was clearly our last stop. Despite the Olympics, all the 49ers gear, and the deepest big-screen TV I’ve seen in decades, we couldn’t stop counting the hundreds and hundreds of vintage tap handles lining almost every inch of wall space. There’s an infinite “I Spy” game to be played here—from OG craft beer handles to Miller Lite gay pride rainbows to Budweiser baseballs, they’ve seemingly got it all. Ten minutes into a now nonverbal game of “Point at the Tap Handles,” we realized our crawl was at an end. The snow had stopped, and it was as muffled and muted inside the bar as out.

Snowpocalypse 2018 had come and gone while we ogled beer paraphernalia, munched on lime beef and forgettable tacos, sang to empty dance halls, and didn’t plan a trip to Ireland. We hadn’t cuddled cozily and we hadn’t sealed the deal on a three-way. Worst of all, we hadn’t been trapped anywhere by monster snowdrifts, and we would all have to go home. Horrifically, we’d even have to work in the morning, with every flake of snow and every crystal of ice cut to reflect the sun directly into our eyes like a million needles from hell. But that would be tomorrow, and until then we’d pray for more snow.