After six posts on pubs and taverns in Europe based on our Rick Steves’ Best of Europe Tour, Thebeerchaser takes comfort in returning home – to the roughly 700 watering holes in Portland. And what better way to regain the origins of this blog than reviewing a Portland classic dive bar – Slabtown.
As evidence of its status, it is the only bar other than the recently Beerchaser reviewed Slammer Tavern (September 2013) that has been named one of the favorite bars in the ”hallowed” – at least in my eyes because of its value as a reference source – Willamette Week Drink Guide (Favorite Bars) for the last six years.
And as we walk you through our visit to this NW Portland institution, we will provide some highlights from the WW past reviews:
2013 – “Old-school rock and roll venue, Slabtown is, as ever, a play-town for putative grown-ups (with occasional all-ages shows served up from the back entrance) with pinball, air hockey, Skee-ball and Pop-a-Shot.”
I was pleased to have Portland lawyer, Scott Whipple, a Beerchaser regular and esteemed graduate of Iowa’s Grinnell College (where they still talk about his accomplishments on the basketball court) accompany me both to this bar and our second stop that night at the Skyline Tavern.
We sat at the bar next to a great old guy with a white beard, overalls and a baseball cap named Fred, who while I talked to the friendly bartender, Dave, wanted to engage Scott on topics such as “quality trading” in the stock market, World War II and the global economy. Ben, another quality barkeeper who has worked there for 4 1/2 years was there working with Dave on my second visit.
Dave was very helpful, has worked there for 18 months, is a Wilson High graduate and the grandson of John Howard, the former and very well-regarded President of Lewis and Clark College.
2011 - “….Slabtown has changed, man. But don’t freak out – it has changed for the better.
The owners booted the video poker machines for more pinball and video games (this place is like a Chuck E. Cheeses for adults) upgraded the sound system a bit and incorporated a wider range of music into the schedule….The building seems further from collapse than ever before….”
Its History – Slabtown has been around since the ‘70’s under three different owners It was originally a strip club and was also known as “Cal’s Fort.” It has an interesting “altar” near the entrance, paying tribute to fabled rock musicians Wendy O’ Williams and Freddie Mercury. The bar was also used as a set for two scenes from the “Portlandia” show.
The Slabtown neighborhood is also one of Portland’s most historic neighborhoods and oozes with history as evidenced by this excerpt from the July 13, 2013 The Oregonian
“For a century, Wallace Park was the site of trading for Native Americans, (Tracy) Prince writes in “Portland’s Slabtown.” The book (published by Arcadia Press) traces the Slabtown neighborhood’s history……when Native Americans outnumbered white settlers 1,000 to 275, through its blue-collar decades, and into its current “Trendy-third” reputation for its Northwest 23rd Avenue boutiques…..
It was a working-class neighborhood home to marginalized groups — Native Americans, Chinese and European immigrants, gypsies, and black Portlanders.”
Why the name “Slabtown? “….back in the industrial days of lumber milling, the slabs of the rounded tree edges made good fuel and were to be found all over this area.” (KGW.com 9/7/2010). The slices of wood piled up at the George Weidler Lumber Mill on NW Northrup Street commencing in the 1870′s.
The Menu – It’s entirely vegan since last June! This is the first time Thebeerchaser has encountered this situation although it was not a problem. Neither Scott nor I could tell the difference between the excellent large order of vegan french fries we had that night versus what we are used to……..
A very positive change initiated in July 2012 was the introduction of Falafel to their kitchen with a new chef. You can see the reviews are superb:
Yelp 6/6/13: “Dive BAR! but right now they are renting the kitchen out to an amazing FALAFEL CHEF… So good you must try…”
Yelp 5/9/13: “Best falafel sandwich I’ve had in Portland and quite surprising to find it at a dive bar.”
Yelp 10/12/13: “Lover’s of delicious food: this is a serious find. It is a serious dive……But the people who make the falafel are serious about their craft. I’ve never had a better gyro, and I’ve been to Greece and eaten them there, so I feel like I am qualified to speak to Gyro power.”
The Vending Machines – It may well be that Slabtown is the only bar in Portland where one can purchase both guitar strings and drumsticks (not the kind one eats) from a vending machine.
You can also see Scott waiting in anticipation at the kissing booth, which, understandably, did not get any participants when we were there. There are also a number of old classic pinball machines, air hockey and skee-ball and Pop-a-Shot that did see a lot of action.
2010 - “…You can order a basket of French fries and play pinball for three hours and no one is going to try to grab your boobs…”
But perhaps the machine that ended up with more than several of our dollars in its belly, was Pop-a-Shot.
Scott immediately gravitated to the machine and we played no less than five games in which he marginally came out on top in four of them. Scott sang the Grinnell Fight Song as he shot. After we went back into the bar, Dave the bartender, said to me, “He’s a competitive guy, isn’t he?” (If you only knew, Dave….)
As a Concert and Performance Venue – When I asked Dave and Ben how they would best describe Slabtown i.e. Dive Bar, Neighborhood Bar, Music Venue, Ben stated, “It’s something different to each person and can be each of those.” Dave, however, chose the Performance Venue option because of the history and the percentage of the bar’s receipts resulting from these shows.
Indeed, check out the calendar on the Slabtown Website or Facebook page - a full calendar with different types of music – live and otherwise – some with cover charge – some free – almost every night. They also have all-ages shows to open it up for more patrons and obviously, closely control the alcohol for underage folk. Also Bingo and Industry Night events on Tuesdays.
2008 – “….Slabtown strikes a near perfect balance between style and scum with dirty rock and plenty of breathing room to relax over cheap food and plentiful beer…A fine after-work drinking spot if there ever was one.”
As a sign by the entrance said at one time, “This isn’t the Pearl – It’s Slabtown! You’ve been warned.”
So noted! And that’s a good thing. Check them out while you have a gyro….