Okay – admit it. When you saw the title of this review was Club 21, you thought I had abandoned the guideline to exclude strip clubs from the venues reviewed on Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Portland Bars, Taverns and Pubs. But that’s not the case. Club 21 is a great NE neighborhood bar in an iconic 1930 building (at one time a Russian Orthodox church) co-owned by Marcus Archambeault and Warren Brophy, who also own two other Portland bars – Gold Dust Meridian (see Thebeerchaser review in October 2012) and The Double Barrel.
Unlike some multiple bar owners who stay with one theme, they are creative - each bar has its own marketing, menu and ambiance based on the clientele, the building design and the neighborhood history.
Club 21 has great character and lawyers Scott Whipple and Dan Duyck and young O”Neill Electric Project Manager, Ryan Keene and I enjoyed our beer and a dinner there one late weekday afternoon.
Whipple is a Beerchaser regular having accompanied me to Ash Street Saloon and the Dixie Tavern downtown, in the early 2012 days of this “journey,” then to Slab Town and the Skyline Tavern in October 2013.
He and his law partner, Duyck, were along for Gold Dust Meridian and Bar of the Gods and Ryan and his girlfriend, Laura, Beerchased at Quimby’s, Sniff Café and most recently, Stammtisch. (If you’re interested in seeing any of these reviews, just use the “Search” feature at the top right of Thebeerchaser logo.)
When we arrived at 5:00, there were few in the building, but a steady stream of regulars quickly filled both the inside and an expansive patio on the sunny afternoon. And the regulars were friendly and talkative when we asked them to tell us about the bar.
According to our bartender, Leslie – who has worked there 3.5 years, Club 21 has been the name of the bar since 1958. After its time as a place of worship, it became the eastside annex of Jake’s Crawfish.
The owner of Nick’s Coney Island bought the building and named his bar, Shadows. In 1958, it became Club 21 – just because it’s on 21st and NE Glisan. Marcus and Warren purchased it in early 2011.
In the photo below, that’s Dennis in the center – he works at Franz Bakery, and first came to the bar in 1966 – where he met the woman who is still his wife in the early ‘70’s.
Dennis and his friends remember the structure when it was a church and talked about sitting on what used to be the altar when they first started patronizing.
As an undated Portland Mercury review asserted,“Be sure to say hi to the regulars they’ve been drinking there before you were born. No but seriously. They have!” (Unless you are as old as Thebeerchaser….)
And the dark and cozy environment reeks with personality with accoutrements such as old Schlitz lamps and classic Blitz beer signs, three antler heads, a stuffed duck, a classic nude painting, four old-fashioned pin-ball machines, Big Buck World and a small nook in the wall with religious statuettes.
In fact, even the men’s bathroom has character – you have to open a door and walk through a small narrow hallway to get to it. (The door on the right is the entrance to the maze in the photo below.)
The current owners remodeled the infrastructure (kitchen, plumbing and code issues) while being careful to maintain the spirit of the building. They improved the interior and reformed the menu. Subsequent reviews show they accomplished their goal:
“Yes, I think they’ve done a knock-out job bringing this historic building back to life. It still feels like a dive bar, but now it has some much appreciated style going for it”. (Barfly 12/13/11)
“Club 21 is back in action, following a change in ownership (now in the same capable hands as Gold Dust Meridian), and a lovingly-rendered makeover of the old gal.
Don’t worry – she looks like the best Club 21, ever. And, no more of that embarrassing body odor. These are all good changes – enlarged patio, enclosed and ventilated kitchen, new paneling, everywhere, annoying mini-flat screens, nowhere, a drool-worthy collection of beer signs and booze memorabilia.”
And this from Willamette Week (10/12/11):
“(Club 21) still looks like a little fish tank castle on the outside and feels like a ski lodge on the inside. But the former dive bar, which took only a slight hit in patronage while closed for upgrades this summer, has stepped up its style game considerably.
Its former duct-taped booths have been replaced by new upholstery; dingy old beer mirrors replaced by…well, even older Pabst paraphernalia; two pinball machines have turned into four; the patio now seats dozens of young blue-collar regulars…”
And everybody raves about the food, which once was described as, “….burgers that (came) from a stack in a frozen bag from Sysco.”
Willamette Week continues:
“The obscenely cheap food specials are out, but replaced by still-cheap and altogether more satisfying options, including an epic build-a-burger menu with endless variations (how about a housemade veggie patty on Texas toast with smoked Gouda.”
And we leaped at the chance to try their menu specialty, “Build-a-Burger (BaB)”. (My selections are in bold) and as one City Search reviewer labeled it - “A fat kid’s dream.”
BaB is seven-step process commencing with picking your “foundation” – one of five options ranging from Oregon beef or prime rib, to fried or grilled chicken to a veggie burger and then your bread from one five (whole wheat) and selecting one of eight types of cheeses (pepper-jack). Keep going with the sauces (sea and salt peppercorn, smoky pepper, 12 spice BBQ, Cajun, habanaro, Jamaican jerk) and condiments (A-1 sauce, sweet & saucy relish).
Check out the menu below which further illustrates the process.
If you want one of the eight extras for just a buck, add an eighth step (bacon, ham, fried egg, avacodo, caramelized onion, onion straws, sautéed mushrooms, anaheim peppers, pickled habanero, tomato bacon jam and grilled pineapple) – the works for only $8!
since it was Happy Hour – every day from 3:00 until 7:00, we got a buck off on the food and $.50 off on our beer. Side orders included fries tater tots, onion rings, green salads or Caesar salad).
All of us chowed down, supplemented by one of only four beers on tap (Rainier, Vaorizer, Boneyard or Kolisch). We were so stuffed, we couldn’t even take advantage of the all-day breakfast special consisting of two eggs, hashbrowns, and toast for $5.
And Club 21 has a great juke box and live music periodically (“We’re not a rock show venue, but feature a few bands a several times each month.”) Also check out some specials such as “Bottomless Mimosas” and “Comedy Brunches.”
They do not have a website but rely on minimal marketing through Facebook.
So if you are looking for info on the web about Club 21, be careful to be specific about the name and location. Otherwise, you will end up at the websites of venues with the same name in:
Galveston Island,Texas: (in the Historical District. Rated #2 out of 13 on Trip Advisor for nightlife) “Island Chic. Sophisticated. Relaxed. That’s the low-down on 21, Galveston Island’s premier spot for great times, great atmosphere, and great friends.”
Pueblo Colorado: (The only strip club in Pueblo - rated at 2.5 stars out of 5 – mostly because “The dancers were burned out.”)
Or you could end up at the websites for the nightclub on West 52nd Street in New York City or a luxury retail story in Singapore. Nevertheless, it appears that Marcus and Warren are going to stick with the name Club 21 and the history it embodies.
But if you want a no frills, old school environment with exceptional burgers, a charming atmosphere with friendly regulars and helpful staff, no mixed drinks, a diverse juke-box and a good, albeit limited, selection of cheap draft beers, head to Portland’s Club 21.
And Marcus, why not hitchhike on Build-a-Burger (BaB) with BaBS (Build-a-Banana Split). First you select the ice cream flavor, then topping…….then……!
Club 21 2035 NE Glisan
(To view the map with all the bars reviewed by Thebeerchaser, click on the “View Larger Map” link at the bottom of the map below)