Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Bars,Taverns and Pubs focuses on the bars themselves – the beer and the grub is incidental. The grist of these reviews is the bar’s history, the regulars, the bartenders and the ambiance. What distinguishes this saloon or brewery from others?
In the case of Slow Bar, however, the emphasis will be on the food – to wit: it’s notable “Slow Burger,” which makes numerous lists as one of the best or in the case of Willamette Week’s 2017 Best Burger competition, the best in Portland.
And the focus here is on the food, because otherwise the bar at the corner of Grand Ave and SE Washington is not particularly noteworthy. The exterior has several small picnic tables with umbrellas. The entrance is unremarkable with a glass door over which is a dark green awning with scarlet letters bearing the bar’s name. Two beer barrels with flowers are placed on the sidewalk.
And the interior is essentially a large rectangular space with five large red booths – described by one Portland Barfly reviewer as “private bedroom style booths.”
There is a long twelve-seat bar with hanging red lights and elk antlers over the selection of whiskeys and drafts — also one large poster on the far wall. The high ceilings and exposed brick for the south wall are appealing.
There is none of the historical ambiance, idiosyncratic cubbyholes or illustrious symbols or tokens which characterize a good neighborhood or dive bar. But maybe that’s intentional because the bar is evidently named after the “Slow Club” in the 1986 cult classic movie “Blue Velvet” starring Isabella Rosellini and Dennis Hopper. Based on its homage to Pabst, the movie was described by the Portland Mercury as “one of the great beer movies.”
The current bar was opened in 2003 by Michael Barnash and Rob Hemmerling, two veteran Portland bartenders. It was previously a bar named Caswell’s and in my conversation with Hemmerling, he said that it was once owned by Frank Peters of Portland Maverick fame. It evidently was also the site of one of the only known “failed” Starbucks locations.
Note: Notwithstanding considerable research effort, I could find no reference to Frank Peters owning Caswell’s. He is well known for his other bars – the Grand Cafe (on the same street), Peters’ Habit and Satan’s Disco. However, one reference in Portland Barfly to the bar having a “very attractive all-chick staff….” and Peters’ affinities seemed to warrant additional investigation, so I contacted the source.
Frank stated that “………during Grand Cafe days we had Caswells for about 2 years. my gal partners got married so we sold it to Slow Bar people. We did ok and they took it to another level.” He also confirmed that the space had been a Starbucks so “it had great air conditioning.”
To see the 2013 review of Thebeerchaser’s visit to the Grand Cafe and some more about Frank Peters see: https://thebeerchaser.com/2013/01/23/a-frank-conversation-about-the-grand-cafe/
The Notable Slowburger
So let’s talk about the food. Virtually all of the social media reviews ranging from Trip Advisor to Yelp are very positive. The Southern Fry, pastrami sandwich and the steak frites all rate favorably; however, the Slow Burger, as their flagship menu item, draws close to universal raves (except for one factor which concerned a few of the experts as will be seen below)
“This is a solid burger. Satisfying, juicy, and extremely filling.” Yelp 9/7/17
“HOLY COW! This is an amazing burger. Place looks like a hole in the wall, but don’t let that fool you. This place has AMAZING food and drinks.” Yelp 9/6/17
Even back in February and April of 2006, the burger drew plaudits as evidenced by these reviewers in Portland Barfly: “Additionally, Slow Bar has the best burger in Portland and serves the best Manhattan” and “….the food is always excellent. One of the 3 best burgers in town.”
And the papers and food review websites echo the compliments:
Willamette Week in its 2017 “16 Best Bar Burgers:” “No other burger is more deserving of the top seed in our rankings. It is the unholy monster of Portland bar burgers, the behemoth that made even fancy-restaurant burger-makers take note.” The paper in a May 23, 2017 follow-up article even went on to assert, “Haven’t Had the Slow Burger at Slow Bar? Then You Don’t Really Even Live Here.”
SeriousEats.com in a March, 2012 article entitled “The Towering Triumph of Slow Bar’s Slowburger,” describes it this way:
“The beef is quite tender, arriving with a lovely crust on the top and bottom and a semi-loose grind that keeps most of the juice inside the meat and off your plate (or hands). The thick slice of nutty Gruyère melting on top of the patty is a good match for the simple beef.”
However, notwithstanding these laudatory comments, it goes on to add a caveat:
“The mighty Slowburger is simply to heavy for bread this dainty and the pickle relish alone, eats through the bottom bun halfway before you finish……As it stands, expect to get a lot of that relish all over your hands.”
And Thrillist in its 2016 expose on the “Eleven Best Burgers Ranked by our National Burger Critic,” after rating the Slowburger Number 8 finished its review by stating:
“For me, the thick patty was flavorful but a giant meaty mouthful, and the even temperature throughout gave it a little bit of a meatloaf flavor. On top of that, the lead lettuce and onion ring slid off as you’d try and bite down, causing most of the toppings to drop out of the back, like a cargo plane opening up its bay door.”
Willamette Week chided the Thrillist critic for his trifling gripe and petty whining stating, “Thrillist’s national burger critic, Kevin Alexander, declared it too unwieldy for his presumably tiny hands. But Portland is not a welcome place for short-fingered vulgarians.” (We can therefore assume that the paper would also not approve of a visit by the current President……)
I returned to Slow Bar on a Wednesday evening with my wife and we split a Slowburger and a green salad. (The salad with goat cheese and an assortment of nuts was very good.) We had no beer and were both stuffed after we finished and our tab was a very reasonable $20 plus tip.
But we ended up eating a lot of the burger with forks because the bottom bun had soaked through. (Not an overwhelming conundrum given a lot of society’s contemporary problems.)
Okay, enough on the burger routine with one more aside. These articles on great Portland burgers made me realize that I need to expand my horizons. Although I have visited 85+ bars in Portland, aside from the one at MadSon’s Pub (RIP) and Stanich’s, I have not been to any of the venues where the great burgers listed by the experts come off the grill.
The Thrillist comment about their #1 pick – Stanich’s Nick’s Cheeseburger with Grilled Onions – is worth repeating: “This burger is a national treasure that I’d like to keep discovering over and over again.”
So what else distinguishes this bar from others? The juke box get repeated mention for its excellent selection of heavy metal selections. “A jukebox that will make you piss yourself with joy.” (Portland Mercury 7/15/04)
The night we were there, selections included Metallica, Portland’s Poison Idea and Red Fang (their single “Blood Like Cream” while eating the burger seemed a little bit out of harmony…..) and Acid Wash. The juke played loudly and aggressively which seemed somewhat incongruent with the dimly crimson-lighted environment.
With ten draft beers, their tap list is not expansive but adequate with micros from $5 to $7 and includes a traditional Rainier at $3. They have a decent selection of wines with about ten interesting cocktails including their popular Manhattan – “our own Slow Bar single barrel Woodford Reserve Bourbon.”
Given the non-descript interior, perhaps one of the draws to Slow Bar is the diverse and interesting crowd that frequents the bar. The following gives an idea of the eclectic group:
Portland Barfly – “….a steady stream of Portland’s most beautiful trickle through the narrow corridor between the stainless-steel bar and large custom booths….”
Willamette Week (8/3/2004) “….a bizarre Southeast Grand Avenue homage to ‘seedy bliss,’ where business suits, Burnside skate punks and Milwaukie suburbanites all collide. In Portland, were every club boasts its own culture and devotees, Slow Bar is a prime candidate for the swing voters of the nightlife world.”
I was also a little bit amused and surprised by co-owner Barnash’s reactions on Yelp to two critical reviews, especially since the overwhelming majority of the comments were very positive. Before responding, one should also remember that some people on social media have the judgement and discretion of former Secretary of Health and Human Service, Thomas Price…..
Yelp 4/23/17 – “I’m amazed you could give us such a horrible review when the food critics and writers and other Yelpers all disagree with you.”
Yelp 2/27/17 – “I know all my servers well as they have all worked with me for years (because it’s a rad place to work and they kick ass) so if you have had bad service both times you have been to my establishment, then I firmly believe that it’s you not them. I see you left the review at 2:30 A,M.”
On my first visit, I intended to have lunch with my former Oregon State Bar colleague in the early ’80’s, Bernie Stea.
After many years, we had recently reconnected at a great lunch in Camas, where he and his wife, former Portland radio personality, Deb Jaynes, are managing brokers at the Carl Group, a real estate investment and development firm. We subsequently had a memorable lunch experience at Northeast Portland establishment NEPO 42. https://thebeerchaser.com/tag/nepo-42/
Bernie had a meeting in downtown Portland and our plan was to meet at 12:15 at Slow Bar. He called me at 12:30 to tell me that he was stuck in a traffic jam on the Fremont Bridge. I wondered why he chose that route rather than just coming across the Hawthorne which is more direct.
However, from our years working together, I learned not to question a guy who graduated from the University of Maryland Law School as a member of the prestigious Order of the Coif honorary and who also did budgetary manipulations on his Osborne computer that were both esoteric and somewhat terrifying……
Bernie called again at 12:45 asking where I was, to which I replied, “Slow Bar.” He then somewhat sheepishly informed me that he was sitting in Low Bar in downtown Vancouver. In order to salvage his pride, I did not remind him that I sent him a link to Slow Bar the day before confirming our lunch appointment.
We agreed that we would try Low Bar next time which looks interesting and consistent with venues visited on Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Bars, Taverns and Pubs.
You should check out Slow Bar. While it may not have the distinctiveness of some other SE watering holes – most notably in the Barmuda Triangle, it has some features warranting a visit. And as Frank Peters said, “They have done a really, really ‘Tip of the Cap’ job in a very difficult business during a very competitive time in a marginal area. ‘Many are called—–Few are chosen.'” FJP
Although Frank’s bars are not operating any longer, they were always colorful and oozed character. Perhaps Michael Barnash and Rob Hemmerling should hire the former OSU Beav and Maverick as a consultant…….
Slow Bar 533 SE Grand Avenue, PDX
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I loved Caswells. I loved the food, the atmosphere and especially the waitresses who wore amazing creative vintage outfits. So fun…. still miss that place.