Having visited seventy watering holes in Portland during the last fifty-four months, Thebeerchaser can assert that there are really no bad establishments in this group of bars, taverns and pubs. While some may be a little bit drab, the service may be less than stellar or the atmosphere has little charm or ambiance, all can be equated to a bull market – “When it is good, it is fantastic and even when it is bad, it is still pretty good!”
It can also be stated, however, that a few of the saloons I’ve visited have a charisma or charm that registers as soon as one enters. Those gems which I’ve reviewed and come to mind are Crackerjacks Pub in NW Portland, the Old Oregon Saloon in Lincoln City, Darwin’s Theory in Anchorage, Alaska and The Sink in Boulder, Colorado.
Well, I am adding another Portland bar to that group – Sloan’s Tavern in NE Portland – right near Legacy Emmanuel Hospital. In an era where many new bars have sleek corporate-type environments with more taps than you could sample in a lifetime, it is refreshing to discover a family-run operation that epitomizes a charming old-fashioned gathering place.
The bar was opened by Bob Sloan and his wife, Shirley in 1979. The Sloans owned and operated a custom auto body and paint shop next door – started in 1954 and still operating – they specialized in Freightliner trucks. As evidenced by the amazing pictures in the bar, Bob Sloan also did skilled body and restorative work on classic autos. When a café next door to the body shop run by an elderly lady closed, they bought the property and opened the bar. (The entire property was originally a creamery that opened in 1926.)
A charming aspect of Sloans is the décor, and Shirley, a beautiful and personable lady of 80, who graciously answered all my questions, pointed out that none of the furnishings were purchased new.
The bar stools – described affectionately by one reviewer as “adult high-chairs” – acquired from a diner, are classic as is the supplemental horseshoe bar near the west end of the establishment. Bob Sloan died in 2013, and Shirley still is owner, manager and does the cooking – and she is an excellent cook.
I might add, that one of the factors in making the evening one to remember was being accompanied by two friends:
Beerchaser Regular, West Coast Dave Hicks, a San Francisco-based legal consultant who has been on more Beerchasing expeditions than anyone except yours truly.
Portlander, John Horvick, Vice President and Political Director at DHM Research – Oregon’s premier survey research and polling firm, also joined us. Unless you have been living in a cave or alternatively blocked all broadcast and print media to escape the 2016 political races, you have undoubtedly heard John speak or seen one of his quotes in the papers or media.
He is a young leader in Portland as evidenced by his recent term as President of the City Club of Portland. John was born in Nebraska and graduated from the University of Minnesota after first spending most of his college years at University of Nebraska on a bowling scholarship…..!
In fact, his dad was a professional bowler and even though John wore loafers rather than bowling shoes while we drank, he was animated when discussing bowling hall-of-famers such as Don Carter, Dick Weber and Earl Anthony (1938 – 2001) who he reminded us was from Cornelius, Oregon.
When asked about his time in the fast lane(s) – so to speak – John replied, “My bowling days were at Nebraska. I bowled for three years, and also taught the University bowling class. My students included NFL players and a first round pick pick in the WNBA. I had a great run bowling in college, but ……as my coach would remind us, no one ever retired on their bowling winnings.”
John hung up his bowling shoes in his senior year and graduated at Minnesota where he got in-state tuition and funding for a research project.
Distinguishing Characteristics of Sloan’s
The Food – Consistent with the family-owned orientation, the bar closes at 10:00 PM each night and is not open on weekends. When Shirley stops cooking in the afternoon, there is only a minimal menu of nachos, burgers, etc. available. But this former North Dakota girl stated, “Lunch is our prize!” She makes all the sauces and soups and puts together a great sandwich and lunch specials such as fish and chips with slaw ($6.25) In fact, try the Emanuel Special (ham, turkey and jack and cheddar cheese on a French roll – $6.25) named for the regular lunch customers from nearby Legacy-Emanuel Hospital.
And the prices are very reasonable, for example, a great Reuben and fries for $8.25 or a 1/3 pound burger with fries for $7.25. Although they only have seven beers on tap and a slew of bottled beers, the environment to consume it is certainly far superior to some of the “beer shops” with 50 to 100 taps and the ambiance of a dental reception area. Besides, you can get a $1.50 draft PBR – all the time!
The Décor – The individual lamps and bar lighting, wall hangings, carpet, booths and bar stools, the mirror on the ceiling by the bar along with an old time rotating Schlitz beer globe all give a very comfortable neighborhood bar vibe as do the photos of classic cars on the wall.
Shirley describes it as “My living room,” and based on the amount of time she spends at the bar, the description is apt. While the Freightliner truck cab jutting out the side of the building is notable, the truck grill built into the bar itself, is also pretty cool.
And in what was described in 2012 by Willamette Week as “the best juke box in Portland”, you can watch a Chicago Coin’s Animatronic Big Band Box go into action while one of your favorite oldies is played. It’s one of about ten still working in the US and was manufactured in the 1950’s. As described in the “WW 2008 Bar Guide”:
“The true gem of the place is the jukebox—an ancient machine, it’s capped with a glass dome containing a miniature (eight-piece) plastic band (and singer) that moves in time to the music (mostly oldies).”
There were some comments on social media that referenced Sloans as a dive bar. From one who has great affection for such establishments (see Thebeerchaser post “Analyzing Dive Bars Head First” – September, 2011), these reviewers don’t have a clue as to what constitutes this category and the mislabel is the equivalent in this wacked-out 2016 political scene of describing Donald Trump as an intellectual….
I’ll close by quoting excerpts from two authoritative sources – Portland Barfly and Willamette Weeks Annual Bar Guide for an apt picture of what you will encounter at Sloan’s Tavern and why you should visit it:
Portland Barfly: The absolute cutest bar in North Portland, by far! A retro-lover’s paradise – everything is vintage, down to the 50s diner coffee-maker. A former greasy spoon, this spot cleaned up into a perfect date destination with its deep booths, and fantastic mirrored ceiling. Command the bar in the really fun swiveling captain’s chairs! Beautiful wall hangings, combined with kitschy relics of bars past – it’s like the ultimate estate sale you hope desperately to stumble upon (though, sadly, everything is NFS).
Willamette Week 2013 Bar Guide: Throughout a vibrant but never cluttered ’70s interior, the high art of low culture has been lovingly assembled to breathtaking effect utterly shorn of irony or, strange as this may sound, excess….The blend of fashion-forward cocktails with time-swept food (our visit, the food special was beef stroganoff; the drink special, house-infused cucumber gin) reflects a clientele with both neighborhood holdovers and gay and lesbian transplants.
It’s the sort of hard-earned integration of clientele easily spoiled by nightlife tourists, but Sloan’s schedule and locale just far enough from several beaten paths have thus far prevented the wholesale invasion. There’s no better way to avoid weekenders than to avoid weekends.
Sloan’s Tavern 36 North Russell Street
This is a great place. I didn’t know the husband had died, but the food has always put it over the top.
You’re right and the entire atmosphere makes it one of my favorites. Shirley Sloan is a gem.
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