I remember lamenting last Halloween that Portland was severely lacking in themed bars. This year, the city answered with a handful of very specific concepts like the Elvis Room (two themed bars, each representing a different period of Elvis’ career) and Creepy’s, the wall-to-wall dolls-and-kitsch-and-movie-memorabilia bar from the White Owl Social Club ownership crew. But while the Elvis Room hits its mark, Creepy’s proves that what makes a “theme” bar great is not strict adherence to a specific thing, but a rangy and still-specific sort of sincerity.
Okay, yes, good drinks and food help, too. Creepy’s has a fairly simple menu, taking cues from great dive bars nationwide. From the unbelievably salty Uncle Bud’s Deep Fried Peanuts (coming from the west, I’d never eaten a peanut shell in all my years, but I don’t regret it) to the Hot Breast Sandwich (an enormous chicken breast, uncontained by a sesame bun and slathered in slaw and pickles and hot honey sauce), the food at Creepy’s doesn’t disappoint. In some cases it even shines, like the sriracha hush puppies, which overcome the almost-played-out flavor of sriracha with a lime crema for dipping, or a winter kale salad with fried shallots and a sweet, umami white miso dressing.
Among the regionally displaced delicacies is a breakfast sandwich made with Taylor Pork Roll, a processed meat product from New Jersey. Whether it’s a slightly tragic joke or a nod to those among us who eat breakfast at 3 pm (bartenders), this is one of the most satisfying breakfast sandwiches in the city, even though Creepy’s is never open in the morning.
Cocktails run the gamut from classics to weirdo originals, and never cross the $10 line. The mint-chocolate grasshopper is modeled after the current iteration at the drink’s supposed New Orleans birthplace Tujague’s, which means it’s cream-based but not a milkshake, and topped with a brandy float. It’s still green, creamy, and bracingly minty, but it doesn’t feel like a whole meal or even a heavy dessert. The Lift Tickler, with local Aviation gin, elderflower, lime, and cucumber, sounds like a sickly sweet cocktail for beginner gin drinkers, but the nontraditional choice of Aviation and a Thatcher’s elderflower liqueur make it a tasty quencher.
One of the other fine nods to non-Portland culture is the Creepy’s Frozen Coffee—your typical icy whirl of cold brew, liquor, coffee liqueur, and cream, but served in an iconic (for New Yorkers) blue and white Greek coffee cup, with “IT’S OUR PLEASURE TO SERVE YOU” in gold letters on the side.
Meanwhile, the creepiness: Yes, there are a lot of dolls. Some of them jump to life on a timer, a demonic monkey clanking his cymbals, or an animatronic bartender getting high on his own supply. There’s an enormous painting of John Quincy Adams with moving eyes, and a bevy of much queasier velvet portraits of children, clowns, monsters, and aliens. And if you’re not a fan of taxidermy, beware: they’ve got everything from a bison head keeping sober watch over the pool table to what I think was a full-on bobcat in repose just chilling on the bar. But there’s also a lot of very specific movie memorabilia and the finest collection of vintage beer logo sweaters, in reverent frames, along the wall next to a pool table and pinball machines.
Currently, the bar is also decked out for the holidays. Vintage lights saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” add splashes of color, and Santa hats abound (because what could make a too-real life-size chimpanzee creepier?), even on the tap handles. The TV isn’t showing Christmas movies, but I wouldn’t doubt that’s coming. Instead it continues to show classic sci-fi and psychedelic cartoons from the ’60s and ’70s, and the folks behind the bar are often more than happy to expound on the lost art of rotoscoped barbarians or practical special effects.
Somehow, none of this feels forced. The “hipster dive bar” is such a perceived scourge because it often feels calculated to appear naturally weird. Creepy’s genuinely feels naturally weird. The sweaters seem to prove this point the most clearly: Not only do they imply a genuinely obsessive and probably very longstanding career in collecting, but they actually aren’t creepy. Like, at all. Yet you don’t question why they’re at a bar called Creepy’s.
The trick here is a subtle one, but it’s central to the myth of the hipster, and by extension the hipster dive bar: One person’s kitsch is another person’s pastime. Creepiness, like hipsterdom, requires irony, but irony is in the eye of the beholder. The creepiest thing about Creepy’s is the unease of eating a breakfast sandwich with a side of fries at midnight—but honestly, nothing could be easier.