Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Bars, Taverns and Pubs has resulted in visits and reviews of over 200 establishments since its inception in 2011 – not only in Portland, but all over Oregon, the US and even a few in Europe. Therefore, its logical that the Woodsman Tavern – a Portland icon, of sorts, would make the list.
That said, I try to avoid venues that are primarily restaurants with a bar as kind of an ancillary feature. It’s not that these establishments don’t have good beer or cocktails or attractive bars. They just don’t have the character and ambiance of a stand-alone watering hole, especially that evidenced in dive bars!
The McMenamin’s bistros generally fall into the former category although I have made a few exceptions. Beerchaser visits to The Fulton Pub, the White Eagle Saloon and the St. John’s Pub were splendid. These all, however, had historical significance or distinguishing features.
For example, The Fulton was the site at which Hammerhead Ale was originated (and I consumed my first beer with the late NW author and Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter, Brian Doyle) and the White Eagle is on the National Historic Register – its history is replete with tales such as a prostitute being murdered and it being haunted by ghost-like apparitions on the second floor.
Notwithstanding its title, the Woodsman Tavern is an example of the former category i.e. more restaurant than bar. While our two visits were well rewarded, it had the look and feel of a high-end restaurant. That said, let’s look at why it is getting great reviews – it has a new chef, an expansive menu of cocktails and whiskeys and the food – most notably, the fried chicken is superb. (Note also that most taverns do not have a “chef” per se’.)
The Woodsman is also one of the few places that I’ve visited where the Oregonian’s food critic, Michael Russell has authored a detailed review. (He’s probably never been in the Reel M’ Inn – twenty blocks down Division Street and also known throughout the Northwest for its fried chicken. According to one article, it fried up an estimated 52,000 pounds of chicken in 2016. But it’s a completely different ambiance….)
The Woodsman is in an old building in Southeast Portland and has a bright and attractive entrance with classy dark wood interior. When opened in 2011, it was evidently a hot spot in the Portland food culture – known for its high-end dishes such as roasted trout.
Eateries run in cycles. Social media reviews until recently started trending negative on the food and service. That appeared to change late last year evidently because one of Portland’s noted chefs, Doug Adams, temporarily took command of the kitchen and menu:
“Suddenly, the Woodsman Tavern is once-again among the hottest restuarants in town.” (1/1/18 Review by Martin Cizmar of Willamette Week.) Adams made his mark at Paley’s Place among other restaurants and is waiting for a new restaurant in downtown Portland to open.
The Bar Itself
It has an impressive display of hard liquors and twelve cocktail options ($12) with names such as “Dog Will Hunt” and “Married in a Fever,” and includes their trademark “Old Fashioned.”
For the bourbon and whiskey connoisseurs, I counted 120 options on the menu ranging from a pour of Jim Beam for $7 to Wild Turkey Tribute 15-Year Bourbon that will set you back $180. (Perhaps this is economic validation of the distillery’s 2011 ad campaign entitled, “Give’em The Bird.”)
They have a nice selection of wines and fifteen beers on tap including five by one of my favorite breweries – Block 15 in Corvallis. On our first trip to the Woodsman when we had dinner, I had a pint of Block 15 Double IPA and on the second trip, where we just sat at the bar for drinks during Happy Hour, I could not resist a cold Rainier for $2.
Let’s get back to the food, which should be the guiding rationale for a visit. I will talk more about the food critics’ reviews below, but The Oregonian stated, “For food fans, this might be Portland’s best sports bar.”
Since there are only two televisions over the bar – both with sporting events when we were there, I guess this is his subtle way of promoting the Woodsman’s Double Cheeseburger and implying that the food in most Portland sports bars, sucks!
The side dishes are ala-carte and either $3 or $5 and the bucket of chicken was $19, so we started by splitting what is a boring option in most places – a wedge salad. And while a little spendy at $11, it was wonderful (bacon, big croutons and superb blue cheese dressing!)
I love fried chicken – that’s how I persuaded my wife, Janet, to go with me to the Woodsman. It was a late birthday present. There was no question what I was going to order. And it’s a fantasy – your own metallic bucket filled with five large pieces. I am appalled that I was so enthralled that I forgot to take a picture!
Now let’s look at how some experts describe this one of six entr’ees. Martin Cizmar, who for the last seven years has been the Arts and Culture Editor at Willamette Week, is succinct, but on point. (I am sad to see him leave the weekly this month. He wrote great reviews of not only restaurants, but every kind of bar, tavern or brewery in Portland and always creatively captured the character of the place. (He’s moving to Washington D.C. to write for an on-line publication.)
You should read his entire review of The Woodsman: http://www.wweek.com/restaurants/reviews/2018/01/02/the-woodsman-tavern-is-entering-a-new-golden-age-under-chef-doug-adams/
He is a an outstanding writer and seems a lot less pretentious than his counterpart at The Oregonian:
“….the best fried chicken in town….(Adams’) ultra crispy recipe in which the honey is drizzled onto just out-of-the-fryer batter.” (WW 1/1/18)
Now compare that to the more ostentatious description by Michael Russell:
“…..Adams’ fussed over bird , each crunchy piece wearing a shaggy brown coat reminiscent of a teddy bear’s fur, drizzled in honey and served with a clear glass bottle of hot sauce on the side.” (Emphasis supplied !??)
And not to get overly compulsive, but this one from a Thrillist ranking of the top 15 fried chicken places in Portland by Andy Cryza (9/2/15 – before Adams arrived…) Woodsman was the top-rated option. (Reel M Inn was #3.)
“…..Perfectly fried, with the juices locked into the premium bird, which is cut up into five generous pieces…..And the breading – occupying the zone between crisp and light – is kissed with a smack of honey which, when mixed with the salt, takes it into a danger zone hovering near meat-candy perfection.”
But if you don’t like chicken there are other worthy choices. I was able to persuade Janet, if I gave her a little bit of my chicken, to get the Double Cheeseburger ($16). It was immense and the Canby, Oregon, Laney Family Farm’s beef scrumptious. The fries were a perfect complement.
I described Michael Russell’s writing above as somewhat pretentious e.g. he started his review with the following: “…the restaurant has languished of late (last year) behind food that seemed to have lost its sense of place.”
I changed my opinion – a little. He was a little more down-to-earth when he wrote this about one of the Woodsman’s twelve starter options:
“Take the bologna sandwich. It’s impressively thick cut of pink meat seared gently, surrounded by melted American cheese like fondant on a wedding cake and topped with sweet pickle on a sesame-seeded bun. It’s a borderline obscene take on the classic….I’ve ordered it on every visit.”
At least he shied away from the toy creature analogy he made above with the fried chicken and didn’t compare the bologna to the Porky Pig stuffed animal he got at Disneyland……
And to affirm that this menu option may be worth the seemingly steep price ($12), let’s look at a non-foodie’s view – just your typical Yelp comment on 1/17/18:
“Now I know what you’re thinking, what the hell is in Bologna anyway, but this (sandwich) was freaking delicious. I don’t know what’s in Bolgna, I probably don’t want to know. But I’m on board.”
Finally, while the bistro is also known for its chilled seafood and a seafood tower for $95 along with “Oyster Hours” all day Monday and from 5:00 to 6:00 on other weekdays, I loved our meal there because the food was good but also plentiful. The picture below shows the box that we took home with our leftovers (It was filled and some of which survived to lunch the next day…)
As another Yelp review who shares similar views succinctly stated:
“The food big. Big food. Platters….Reminds me of a place when I was a kid. Logger means, man.” (Yelp 1/15/18)
Most of the recent social media reviews are very positive although some question the prices especially since it is an ala-carte menus. Another complaint which rang somewhat true with us on our first visit was the physical spacing:
“I don’t mind sitting at tables or booths, but why does anyone think that being 6 inches from a stranger is comfortable.” (Yelp 1/14/18)
However, if someone is going to do a hatchet job on the Woodsman Tavern, they will have to come up with something of more substance than tables being a little too close. Besides, you should check out their fried chicken……….
The Woodsman Tavern
4537 SE Division Street