A Petri Dish — Bar Culture Part I

 

(Welcome back to Thebeerchaser.  Since this is a long post, if you are seeing it through an e-mail, please visit the blog by clicking on the title above to see all of the photos and the narrative is not clipped or shortened.)

Books, articles and watering hole patrons often talk about “Bar Culture.”  But how does one define this abstract concept and how does one find it?  Recently, Bridgelinera Portland, Oregon online newsletter edited by Cassie Ruud (I’m proud to say – an Oregon State University grad) featured two interviews with yours truly – The Beerchaser.  

The link below will take you to the first interview – how the Beerchaser started and how it has changed during the pandemic.   https://bridgeliner.com/%f0%9f%8d%bb-portlander-don-williams-takes-us-beer-chasing/

And the following narrative is an expanded version of the second article entitled “The Foamy Culture.” The narrative below is my response to the first question Cassie asked with a lot of photos added from bars I’ve been to over the last ten years to illustrate the elements of bar culture.   

Most are from Portland watering holes and It saddens me to add that a number of bars are from some of my favorites which are no longer open. Future posts will address the other four questions on bar culture because it is a complex topic and needs a lot of photos to convey.

I’m saddened that the photos below are from a number including Club 21, Zarz, Crackerjacks, Mad Son’s, The Tanker all permanently closed – a loss to not only their patrons but Portland’s bar culture. And those are just ones represented in some of the photos in this blog post.  There are many more on the list.

Regardless of where you live, when it is again safe, get back out and support these small business people whose livelihoods have been decimated in the last eighteen months.  Try Kelly’s Olympian or……….

What are some key elements of pub and tavern culture (particularly in Portland) you’ve observed in your years of beerchasing?

That begs the question, “What is culture?” Let’s assume it’s a set of intangible aspects of social life – in this case in an individual bar or tavern – as contrasted to a brewpub or taproom – because there are some real differences.  One way I describe this is a watering hole’s “character.”  It’s really no different in Portland than elsewhere.

It can include more global items such as its location and the exterior, the regulars, the personality of the bartender and staff such as Phoebe, the charismatic bartender at the Brooklyn Park Pub – the first bar I hit in 2011.

Consider the style of the furniture (tables and/or booths) and how they’re set up. Take, for example, the unique Captains’ chairs at Claudia’s Sports Pub.

But it’s also a conglomeration of more mundane factors ranging from the lighting, the art (often nicotine-stained murals) or knickknacks such as old beer cans, bottles of MD 20-20, hats and mugs, and  team pictures and trophies from bar-sponsored teams,. 

Don’t forget the signs/posters with trite sayings such as “The consumption of alcohol may actually cause pregnancy. ”

The music (jukebox or live-streamed or live music) is also a factor and the number and types of beer on tap and the prices.  

The atmosphere is influenced by whether there are games such as pool and shuffleboard or pinball and Skee-ball   Don’t forget a favorite – Big Buck Hunter.  Are there TV’s and if so, how many and how big?  Is video poker pervasive?  Is there a smoking patio? 

Do they have weekly events or gatherings and are these karaoke or Naughty Bingo Nights?

Are there animals present.  Not just service animals that are required under Oregon law, but are pets (and kids) welcome in the bar and on the patio.

Are the critters alive or dead?! Consider the skilled work of taxidermists with their product hung on the walls with glassy stares?  And are these mounted trophies, deer and elk or more exotic critters such as the albino goat at the New Atlas Bar in Columbus, Montana or the ferocious stuffed alligator hanging over the bar at the Blue Moon Saloon near Kalispell.

It’s important not to overlook the bathrooms or heads.  Are they unisex and are there locks on the door (or doors at all)? Do the sanitary conditions (for example vomit-stained toilet seats) motivate you to drink your beer slowly so you can wait until you get home?

And where but in Whitefish, Montana, can you see a life-size image of former NBA star Kevin McHale say farewell as you exit the men’s head at the Bull Dog Saloon?

Is there food and what type (usually plentiful) and whether it’s cooked on site or prepackaged?    Some of the cooks at dives and neighborhood bars are really quite accomplished at their profession. 

I guess, however, it does not take a trained chef to prepare the fried ravioli – available for $5 at The Standard or the Chicken Gizards (only $2.75 when they are the special-of-the-day) at the Yukon Tavern.  And oh the Burgers!!!

Are the trappings dive bar vinyl booths and card tables or more refined dark wood with fire places (often in dive bars too)  with volumes of books (real not decorative).

Two more factors that are important are the bar counter and back bar.  Is your beer served on a Formica stand or a dark, classy wood counter with an attractive backbar filled with a multitude of attractive liquor bottles or knickknacks which evoke stories? 

The Gold Pan Saloon , an historic dive bar we visited on a road trip to Colorado that dates back to 1879, had an impressive long, rich mahogany bar in Breckenridge.

In talking to the bartender, she told us that the bar and the beautiful backbar were shipped around Cape Horn to its’ destination in Colorado during gold mining days. I couldn’t verify the story, but it would not surprise me.

You throw all these elements – abstract, tangible and then add the people and the staff together and the result is a “Community” – and each bar or tavern is its own unique community or cultural institution.

Stay tuned to Thebeerchaser.com for future posts with the remaining four questions in the Bridgeliner interview about Bar culture.

Cheers

Crackerjack’s Pub – Open the Door and There’s a Prize Inside

 

Crackerjack's Pub in NW Portland

Thebeerchaser at Crackerjack’s Pub in NW Portland

One of the joys of Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Portland Bars, Taverns and Pubs, which commenced in 2011 and has resulted in review of over 60 establishments, is that it motivates one to discover hidden gems.  While I have visited some classic venues such as The Goose Hollow, The Lutz, The Mockcrest Tavern, et. al., many have been neighborhood bars I never would have otherwise discovered.  And some of them are the most memorable.

The Willamette Week annual "Bar Guide" - a great resource for Beerchasers.....

The Willamette Week 2014 “Bar Guide” – a great resource for Beerchasers…..

As evidence, consider one of my favorite resources, Willamette Week’s Annual Bar GuideThe just-published edition has 150 of the paper’s favorite bars (this included six strip clubs which Thebeerchaser does not review on this blog….).  And only twenty-one of those visited by Beerchaser’s to this point, were in the 2014 listing.  For context, remember that Portland has about 750 taverns! 

Crackerjacks Pub and Eatery is a perfect example.  Although it has been a gathering place at 28th and NW Thurman for fifteen years, it has never made the Willamette Week list.

While I don’t rank the bars I review, I can say that my two visits to Crackerjacks were among the most enjoyable of any since this journey commenced.

A Cheers-type Ambiance

A Cheers-type Ambiance

A small-curved bar...

A small-curved bar…

 

 

 

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It has a Cheers type of ambiance and Sam, the wonderful female bartender who made us feel like we were regulars on our initial trip, kidded me about my nickname – “Dirt,” which you can see on the logo above and the caricature below.

I don’t have enough space to explain how that moniker was bestowed my freshman year at the Oregon State SAE house.  Suffice to say it was when I weighed 120 pounds and spent Saturday mornings running obstacle courses in an ROTC counter-guerilla training group called “Raiders.”

When I walked in a week later on my follow-up visit, Sam yelled so every patron could hear, “Dirt Williams is back!”  It reminded me of the shouts of “Norm!”  at the famous TV bar in Boston when he entered Cheers.     

The birth of "Dirt"
The birth of “Dirt”

The following reviews –  the first by The Portland Mercury and the other from City Search sum it up well:

“This longtime neighborhood pub sports everything a dive-bar aficionado requires: strong drinks, cheap happy hour specials, an easy balance of hipsters and old-timers, “sports” on the big screen—when I was there, MMA was being featured instead of the Winter Olympics… priorities and all—satisfying pub grub and pizza slices, ’80s music on the jukebox… 

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You can either plop down alongside the curved bar, or cram your pals into any of the spacious booths that sprawl throughout the establishment.  Don’t forget to drink and laugh heartily.  Crackerjack’s was dropped from the heavens for exactly this.”  (Steven Humphrey)”

Memorabilia to enhance the environment

Memorabilia to enhance the environment

Or take this review from City Search:

“Neighborhood Pub the way it should be – Man, I love this place. I love the atmosphere, the owner, the servers and the food. I always feel like I’m at home. At a home with free pool and tasty little corndogs, mind you……I don’t know a better place to get a salad in a bar. And the patio is great for an afternoon beer.”      

Free Pool....
Free Pool….

 

While Thebeerchaser is certainly no gourmet, one of the best parts of this bar was the food – excellent on both  visits.  My good friend and Beerchaser, San Francisco consultant, Dave Hicks, (see prior reviews of The Horse Brass Pub and The Belmont Station) and I watched two simultaneous NCAA Elite 8 games on the big screens.

Dave had an excellent hamburger and I had four pieces of delicious friend chicken and French fries for only $11.50.   While they have twelve beers on tap, I opted for the LLL Pilsner in a bottle and Dave had a Dead Guy Ale.

A hamburger rivaling anything in New Haven
A hamburger rivaling anything at Princeton, NJ
Scrumptious fried chicken
Scrumptious fried chicken

 

Dave went to undergraduate school at Princeton (his nickname was “Lucky”) and then to law school at the University of San Diego including a semester studying law in Paris.  He honed his musical talents singing bass at Princeton in the famous a capella group The Nassoons.

One of the treats during our visit was the great line-up of  ’70’s  tunes being played on satellite radio – the line-up ranged from Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac to Hall and Oates and the Eagles.  Dave talked about his thrill of seeing them live at the LA Forum in January this year and meeting lead guitarist, Joe Walsh and his wife, Marjorie, back stage.

On my second visit, after a bowl of fantastic Portuguese bean soup, I had an amazing Southwest Chicken Salad – huge pieces of chicken and very little lettuce unlike the converse in most pubs’ version of this dish.   According to Sam, they recently overhauled their menu and serve nothing that has been frozen.  We asked to meet the cook and had the pleasure of greeting Jimmy, who has held the position for the last eight years.

Sam and Jimmy - Crackerjack's ace cook.

Sam and Jimmy – Crackerjack’s ace cook.

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About the only negative comments I could find were from a 2007 Yelp review, “..The fries are decent.  The only problem is that the clientele’s average age is about 38.  Kinda like ‘Cheers.’ I guess I should have picked a better fantasy.” 

Okay – since a lot of this bar’s clientele are regulars and the above review was 7 years ago, logic dictates that the mean age has now risen to 45 – and I was a significant deviation from the mean!   That maturity opens the door to reminisce just a bit about the original Cracker Jacks….

Still tasty, but instead of a decoder ring, a tiny decal.....

Still tasty, but instead of a decoder ring, a tiny decal…..

This delicious concoction of caramel popcorn and peanuts with Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo on the box were first sold at baseball games.  Anyone attending a Major League game has mentioned the treat in the seventh inning stretch when singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game“.  On June 16, 1993, the 100th anniversary of Cracker Jack was celebrated at Wrigley Field.

Baby Boomer’s can remember the neat “prizes” in every box such as puzzles, baseball cards or decoder rings – now they are cheap decals.  And speaking of decoder rings, this raised another great memory – Captain Midnight and his decoder rings a Saturday morning TV favorite…..

Captain Midnight and the amazing decoder ring (Thanks to Jerome Holst and TVacres.com)
Captain Midnight and the amazing decoder ring (Thanks to Jerome Holst and TVacres.com)

But if you want a prize inside that has not diminished in value, make a visit to Crackerjacks Pub.  Open the door, walk in and tell Sam and Jimmy, “Dirt and Lucky sent us!”

 

 

 

 

 Crackerjacks Pub and Eatery              2788 NW Thurman

(To view the map with all the bars reviewed by Thebeerchaser, click on the “View Larger Map” link at the bottom of the map below)