Since January 1, 2017, Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Bars, Taverns and Pubs has featured nine venues consisting of two breweries or brew pubs, four neighborhood bars, a sports bar and the Multnomah Whisky Library which really defies classification. You may have noticed that there are no dive bars in this categorization..
The above does not count six additional brewpubs/breweries visited, but not yet posted including the relatively new digs at Breakside’s and Ten Barrel’s Pearl District facilities and Flyboy’s new location in Tigard.
Also included is our visit to three enjoyable and classy breweries on the North Oregon Coast – Astoria’s Fort George and Buoy and the Seaside Brewery in late April. Stay tuned in the next few months for narratives on all of these.
So it is fitting, and possibly imperative, to return to my favorite type of watering hole – the classic dive bar. And the latest bar visited needs no rationalization why it fits that description. Gil’s Speakeasy has been around since 1939 and derives its moniker from the Prohibition saloons which weren’t identified by signs or external labels.
These places that served alcohol had to stay hidden. The regulars (and usually the cops) knew where they were, but admission was selective.
Note: This blog has previously shared the concern about the disappearance of some of Portland’s most sacrosanct dive bars. In this case, take a look at both a past and a more recent photo of the iconic Club 21 as the historic structure awaits demolition. With development in SE Portland, Gil’s Speakeasy could see the same future.
Former City Club of Portland’s Interim Executive Director and now consultant, Greg Wallinger, and I visited Gil’s on my first trip to the saloon. Greg was also on a previous successful Beerchasing event at The Rambler – one of my favorite neighborhood bars.
Our plan was to meet for a brewski at the Charlie Horse Saloon – also a dive bar which is on SE Morrison, but we were greeted with a locked door and a sign stating, “Closed for Remodeling.”
Parking in that vicinity is a challenge and based on the picture below, which is typical of ongoing development, it’s not going to get better.
As I walked the three and one-half blocks to the Charlie Horse from my car, I remembered seeing what looked like it might be a bar on the ground floor of a large, three-story apartment building on SE Taylor.
We made the return trip and I was correct. Though it had no sign with the name of the place and only a slit-type peephole in the door, a classic neon Pabst and a Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum sign indicated that this wasn’t a coffee shop and we walked into what PDXbars.com’s “Best Bars” succinctly (and accurately described) as, “Small, hard to find bar with a huge personality.”
Followers of this blog understand how a dive bar earns the label (and can be reminded by examining the following post) https://thebeerchaser.com/2011/09/18/analyzing-dive-bars-head-first/— but one characteristic of which I’m fond are the signs and bric-a-brac lining the shelves and much of the interior of dive bars.
As you walk in, you’re greeted to a spacious, albeit appropriately dingy, space divided by the large bar into two sections. The bar has a wonderful and very typical collection of signs, old bottles, photos and memorabilia throughout.
And I might add, that while dive bars have their faults, one item which seems to fit in well in most, is a good juke box. In this case, it had a slew of albums ranging from those by Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, to Pearl Jam, Guns N Roses and even the popular vocal group from the ’50’s, Dion and the Belmonts. (The last one seems a little counterintuitive as I don’t think any of the regulars would appreciate hearing the group’s main hit, Teenager in Love even though it hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March,1959.)
The focus on the bar’s left side is a large shuffleboard game described by Willamette Week in its “2015 Best of Portland” issue:
“Shuffleboard is no longer only the sport of septuagenarians on cruise ships. With its crowded floors, greasy snacks and affordable beer, Gil’s Speakeasy has all the necessary components for a great shuffleboard experience.”
Another distinguishing factor is the ceiling at Gil’s which is filled with chalked comments, drawings and signatures (reminiscent of The Twilight Room visited back in 2011 – a month after I started this journey).
I asked the bartender, who was a nice woman named Katie, (or it might be KT) “Who’s Gil?” and she replied that he is the co-owner of the bar (since 2004) and her husband – Brett Gilhuly. The couple also own the Twilight Cafe and Bar at 14th and Powell, which is a bar that hosts rock groups most evenings.
When interviewed by the Portland Tribune in August 2012, about the historical lack of signage, Gil stated:
“If you could ﬁnd it, you were more than welcome to come in, and if you couldn’t, find something else.”
He followed by asserting that when he took over the bar he never gave a thought to the lack of a sign.
Unless it was in the woman’s bathroom, I could not find the old foosball table that was referenced in some reviews. (Katie told me in a subsequent phone call that it broke down and they took it out about a month ago).
But speaking of toilet facilities, the men’s head was a tribute to dive bar “climate” (although not comparable to that found at the Yamhill Pub which should have been declared an environmental hazard.)
We ordered two beers after reviewing the twelve on tap which, of course, included PBR and Rainier, and Greg opted for Santiam Brewing’s Pirate Stout, while I had a Seaside Brewing ESB – my first of a number of future encounters with this excellent pale ale.
The beer list is certainly adequate and like most dives, at a very reasonable price. For example, you can get a pint of PBR or Rainier for $2 or $1.50 if its Happy Hour (small pitchers are $3!) The most expensive pint if it’s not at HH is $4.50 for quality beers such as Boneyard, Lagunitas or Oakshire.
Now the regular menu at Gil’s is what you might expect at a dive bar – a few salads, chili and nine different sandwiches ranging from $7 to $9, but the really distinguishing factor is their daily specials, which are notable enough to require itemization:
Saturday – Chili Dog – $3
Monday – Three Tacos $1 – also Dirty Bingo night…
Tuesday – Turkey and Mashers with Salad – $6.50 or Turkey sandwich – $5
Wednesday – Pork sliders – $1.50
Thursday – Prime Rib – $10 from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM (See note below) or French Dip – $5 all day
Friday – Sloppy Joes – $1
Tell me where you can score a better deal and the past reviews are good. For example, this one from Yelp on 4/17/14, “In my top 5 dives in Portland. this place is great. drinks are reasonable, strong pours, and the food is great and affordable. check out their turkey dinner. delicious, home made, cant be missed. place is cozy.”
As we look at the prime rib special, take a look at this quote on dive bars:
“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….” (Seattle’s Best Dive Bars by Mike Seely – pages 9-10)
Now while the price may not be the same as in Depression days in the quote above, look at the price of the prime rib special from this review in 2010:
“Been here 10+ times. Best prime rib in Portland. Thursdays prime rib with salad and bread $10.00.”
Well, if you walk in Gil’s on a Thursday from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM, you can still get a 6 1/2 ounce of prime rib at Gil’s for $10.00 (for which Gil is the personal cook) or up to a 16 ounce slab for $25. (There were no recent reviews commenting on the prime rib.)
And to conclude, I asked Katie if she knew who had originated their motto, since Gil’s slogan asserts that they are “the nicest a%$ holes in town.” She didn’t know and I thought the people I met at Gil’s were quality individuals, but to digress for a moment on a more scholarly note on what is becoming a more compelling, contemporary issue, you might want to check out a recent New York Times best seller by philosopher, Aaron James, entitled “Assholes – A Theory.”.
“James presents a theory of the asshole that is both intellectually provocative and existentially necessary. What does it mean for someone to be an asshole? The answer is not obvious, despite the fact that we are often personally stuck dealing with people for whom there is no better name.
Try as we might to avoid them, assholes are found everywhere and in multiple iterations: smug assholes, royal assholes, the presidential asshole, corporate assholes, reckless assholes. The list goes on. Asshole management begins with asshole understanding. Much as Machiavelli illuminated political strategy for princes, this book finally gives us the concepts to think or say why assholes disturb us so….”
The above could be an absorbing topic of discussion especially while swilling a $2 pitcher of PBR with a friend. And while you’re at it and considering the current political environment, you might want to reflect on a related best-selling tome by former (January, 2012) Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter, Dr. Harry Frankfurt, Princeton Professor Emeritus and author of the brilliant book “On Bullshit.”
Dr. Frankfurt in his 2005 book asserts:
“The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”
To remedy this sad state of affairs, Dr. Frankfurt proposes (and brilliantly succeeds):
“……..to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory analysis…..My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not.”
And in what will remain as one of the treasured pieces of correspondence related to this blog, I offer Dr. Frankfurt’s response when I informed him that he had received the title of Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter:
From: Harry G. Frankfurt
Sent: Monday, January 30, 2012
To: Williams, Donald
Subject: RE: Hello Dr. Frankfurt
Dear Mr. Williams,
First of all, thank you for the honor of naming me the January 12, 2012 Beerchaser of the Quarter. I have looked at the blog in which you announced my receipt of this distinction, and I was impressed by its wit, its charm, and its erudition. Also, I enjoyed the pictures. I intend to follow your blog regularly. Anyhow, thanks very much for writing. Sincerely, Harry Frankfurt
From: Williams, Donald [DWilliams@schwabe.com]
Sent: Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Subject: Hello Dr. Frankfurt
Dr. Frankfurt, during your distinguished career as a professor and an author, you have undoubtedly received many honors and much acclaim. I would like to inform you about one additional plaudit, although it pales with those previously received. You were named the January 12, 2012 Beerchaser of the Month on my blog www.thebeerchaser.com<http://www.thebeerchaser.com
One of my lawyer friends in the firm gave me a copy of your book, On Bullshit a few years ago and I loved it. While I could be described as a purveyor of bullshit at times during my tenure at the firm, I did not often have the opportunity to write creatively. Memos regarding law firm statistics, strategic planning and operational issues tend to be on the dry side. My blog has been a wonderful chance to remedy that and I wanted to share some excerpts from your book with my followers in the context of an essay, which I tried to relate to my bar tour and the presidential election cycle.
I am looking forward to reading the rest of your works now that I am retired and thank you for the hours of enjoyment I got from reading your book and sharing its wisdom with others. Sincerely, Don Williams
And if you get too enthused in your discussion and are concerned that you drank too much beer in too little time, there is a breathalyzer right by the door to determine whether you need to catch a cab for the ride home. (“Wait 10 minutes after last drink for best results….”)
Regardless of whether you want to talk about a best seller, mingle with friends, have one of their daily specials or just have a pint of Rainier and reminisce about the good old days, you should drop by Gil’s Speakeasy, one of Portland’s venerable watering holes.