One of the wide-ranging debates in contemporary society – rivaling that of climate change, the future of Congress as a viable institution and gun control is that of the definition of dive bars i.e. how does one determine if the PBR he is drinking is consumed in a true dive bar or a trendy hole-in-the-wall that tries to masquerade as one (or is there even a level below “dive bar”?)
Some will reference the late Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart’s threshold test for obscenity when he wrote in his legendary opinion about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
Others try to identify specific dive bar characteristics,as exemplified by reference sources used by Thebeerchaser in his journey to visit bars, taverns and pubs in Portland – and subsequently, other locales including Europe, Alaska, Colorado, the South and Oregon regions east of the Cascades, and on the Oregon Coast.
For example, my favorite from pages 9-10 of Seattle’s Best Dive Bars by Mike Seely:
“Some dives have vomit-caked toilet seats in the bathroom; others have cracked vinyl booths in the barroom. Some have nicotine-stained murals dating back to the Depression; others have drink prices that seemingly haven’t wavered since then……..But really, no collection of characteristics can be melded to truly define what makes a bar a dive…..The term “dive’”is bestowed with a spoonful of love….What they have in common aren’t so much attributes, but a state of mind — you just know one when you see one.
Dive bars is one of the subsets of venues reviewed on the home page of this blog and of the approximately 115+ bars reviewed since August 2011, about fifteen have been so categorized including Portland’ dives the Ship Tavern, Bar of the Gods, Joe’s Cellar, the Yukon Tavern and Darwin’s Theory in Anchorage Alaska to name a few.
The Yamhill Pub in downtown Portland is the latest addition to the class, although I would submit that this historic bar may be submerged one additional step below “dive” to “grunge,” as discussed below. In this scholarly discussion, I will first quote in full, the summary paragraph from Portland Barfly, because it so eloquently captures the “aura.”
“A genuine dive-bar lurking midst the downtown shopping arcade, the Yamhill Pub maintains an unreconstructed seediness through blaring juke, food…
(and, for that matter, toilets) best avoided, actively-encouraged graffiti upon the smoke-stained walls, pennies-a-serving pitchers, and a fiercely-protective cadre of underemployed regulars (seniors, rockers, bike messengers) willing to throw themselves in front of Hummers to prevent the forces of gentrification. Intimidating for the first-time visitor, but that’s sort of the point.”
And this excerpt from one of the Bar Fly reviewers in 2011 is edifying albeit puzzling, “Yamhill IS the bar in all of Portland, if not the world. I love it and will never stop drinking there.”
You will not find the Yamhill Pub in the annual Willamette Week Bar Guide nor will it ever be one of the five Portland watering holes in Draft Magazine’s exclusive list of Best 100 Beer Bars in the United States.
I visited the Yamhill three times – once with the Portland State University Athletic Department’s erstwhile, Denny Ferguson. He also accompanied me at prior visits to the Cheerful Tortoise and The Cheerful Bullpen. I also had an afternoon beer on my second visit with Merrill Lynch financial wizard, Mike Jones (also a Beerchaser at the Oregon Public House).
What “distinguishes” the Yamhill?
The Bathrooms – the bathrooms are most often characterized with adjectives similar to this description in 2010: “Bathrooms are disgusting,” and brought current by this Yelp reviewer in 2015: “The restrooms (were) just sick,” – both patrons evidently not disturbed by the fact that one of the heads has no lock on the door.
The Graffiti –as you can see from the picture, every conceivable space in the one-room bar is covered with words and phrases accumulated through the years since it’s opening in 1939, and the same is true on the bathroom walls.
While some neat classic beers signs and one for Camel Cigarettes were displayed, there was a real paucity of the good memorabilia – okay junk – that typifies many dive bars and adds to the character because there are usually stories behind them. Unfortunately, the graffiti, rather than offering the usual range of intellectual expressions and philosophical albeit trite drivel, was either indecipherable scribbling or obscenities ranging from one or two words to more graphic short phrases.
The only exception I found, notwithstanding a zealous search, was this truism which might be a suitable campaign slogan for Hillary Clinton:
“To be one with your weaknesses, is your greatest strength.”
And immediately below this phrase to add context – if not a verifiable scientific hypothesis: “You smell better when you are asleep.”
The Clientele – unlike a number of social media comments suggested, we did not find a group of hostile regulars who resent any new patron as an interloper. The approximately fifteen-seat bar was filled on each visit with a diverse group (male and female and a broad age demographic) ranging from tattooed punkers, a jovial drunk, some blue-collar serious beer drinkers to a few office workers – presumably downtown employees.
On my third and final visit over the lunch hour, I sat at the bar next to a guy who was on his second Rainier Tall Boy when I sat down. After spilling a good part of the second can on the bar which went on to his t-shirt, he told me that he was “getting ready” for his 1:30 court appearance for second degree trespassing. (I did not suggest to him that the judge was probably not going to be impressed with his pre-function.)
The bartender on each visit was friendly and his conversation with those at the bar was ongoing. Unfortunately, it was difficult to the point of unattainable to carry on a conversation because the rock music pumping out of the juke-box was so loud.
The Food and Beer – Most of the dive bars reviewed at least have decent grub which helps one appreciate the usual lack of selection of quality beers; however, at the Yamhill, there is a microwave for popcorn or for a limited menu of frozen “treats” such as wings, corn dogs, chicken strips or lasagna and mac & cheese (the latter two obviously to be avoided). Kevin, the owner and bartender, told me that you can also bring your own food in although besides a Subway and the YUMM Chinese restaurant, there’s not much near by. (Warning – you might get beaten up if you bought food in a YUMM container.)
And by the way, don’t look for a website with their menu, the beers on tap or anything for that matter. They do have a surprisingly decent selection of beer with ten on tap, including Blue Moon, Widmer Hefeweizen, Georgetown Porter, Oakshire Amber, Sam Adams Nitro Stout and Alameda’s Yellow Wolf Imperial IPA. (Mike and I downed draft Blue Moons – as expected, the standard orange slice on our class was missing!)
Denny and I had PBR’s – $1.50 during Happy Hour and the bartender affirmed the astounding claim that the Yamhill is the top seller of PBR in Oregon (“We have four kegs of it on tap daily“).
Not only that, but at one time in the ’90’s they were #5 in North America!! Before I could scoff, he pointed out this PBR sign from 2012 – Number 18 in North America in PBR sales. Perhaps it’s the special they advertise “$3 for a pint of PBR and a shot of Old Taylor Whiskey.”
Thebeerchaser has used more quotes than typical in this post; however, they are so rich that they are worth sharing and it is fitting to close with the following two:
“The Yamhill Pub is a glorious sh*t crater. It’s a hole, a mess, a f*ing dive. The walls and floors and sundry surfaces are more graffiti-ed than not, and the pub certainly came by every squiggle honestly. Plastic cups do for the dirt-cheap well drinks, and the very idea of ordering any kind of cocktail seems vastly inappropriate. The only thing that clashes with the Yamhill’s perfect image of a dive is the surprisingly decent collection of taps. Even in the midst of punk squalor, Portlanders still demand a decent IPA. The Yamhill Pub is amazing. It’s perfect. Never go there. You’ll ruin it.” (Joe Streckert – Portland Mercury)
And this one from a regular I chatted with briefly about Thebeerchaser blog. He ended our conversation with the lament, “Mark my words, this place will be gone in five years and that will be a tragedy.”
Although the Yamhill Pub is a grunge pit – He’s correct.
The Yamhill Pub
223 SW Yamhill