The Portland Dive Bar Preservation Society
ON THE CHICEST STRIP of Division—stretching from SE 10th, past the Tidbit food-cart pod at SE 28th Place, all the way to SE César E. Chávez—an alarming number of new mixed-use buildings have sprung up in the past half-decade. Naturally, a bunch of darling eateries have gone in to feed all those new neighbors. D Street has been en fuego for the last four years, and not even vegan chipotle Rocky Road ice cream can cool things off.
Sure, a few vintage establishments remain as outliers. There's Tom's Restaurant and Bar, where patrons can get old-fashioned chicken-fried steak slathered in gravy. And the Oregon Theater, where old-fashioned porn enthusiasts can slather themselves in their own gravy.
A third landmark remains a welcome haven amid encroaching development. The sign reads "'reel M'INN," so this isn't a place for English majors. Since the 2009 ban, it's not a place for smokers anymore either. Perhaps if that ban had gone into effect earlier, original owner Bill Purdy—who, along with his wife Sheri, bought the previous bar on the site in 1994—wouldn't have gotten emphysema from all the smoke. Health concerns, and age, incentivized the Purdys to sell the Reel to current owners Paul Meno and Cathy Myers in the late '90s. But it's not like the Reel joined modern society.
To illustrate this, let's start with the booze. The Budweiser bowtie neon outside indicates this isn't your modern tasting room or growler station. It's accompanied by Coors Light and Pabst neons, and those are just the ones above the front door. Yes, there's Widmer neon inside and, surprisingly, a few craft beer tap handles from the likes of Breakside, Hopworks, and Worthy, but you're more prone to see the bartender pull pints of PBR. If draft's not your thing, there's a whole chiller of cheap macro lagers. I never stray from the $2.50 pounders of Vitamin R (Rainier beer, served to me on Coors Light beer mats). There's a full bar behind the L-shaped counter, too, but nothing too fancy—no endless stream of local craft-distilled spirits. They've got Jim Beam, not Johnnie Blue.
The biggest draw—and the Reel's greatest claim to fame—is the fried chicken and jo-jos. What can I say about them that hasn't already been said? They're glorious. They're a heaping basket of brownish, pallid crispness, where the healthy, natural Draper Valley Farms chicken is majestically fried to remove any lingering trace of healthiness and, visually, is indistinguishable from the jo-jos—thick, fried potato wedges. The six-pack caddy of dipping sauces is the pièce de résistance. Sure, you can probably find fried chicken at some of the hipper spots on Division, but that's only for people stuck in contemporary Portland.
More than anything, the Reel M Inn is an escape. Yes, there are several TV screens airing sports, four video slots, and a Big Buck Hunter console—but more than that, it's an escape from what Division has turned into. Let's hope it never changes.