Turn to The Vern!

The Vern in Southeast Portland (in the area sometimes referred to as ‘The Barmuda Triangle” because of the prevalence of bars and taverns in the area) epitomizes the debate Willamette Week aptly labeled, “(Portland’s) endless war between condos and character.”

You will see below that while a number of people in their social media reviews bemoan the fact that their beloved Hannigan’s Bar – the Vern’s predecessor which opened in 1986 – and the old Vern are now history – the bar was remodeled, the interior refurbished and the menu revamped, into what is now a cozy neighborhood watering hole that still has many aspects of dive bar ambiance.

Remodeled and refurbished

Now some take issue with what WW calls the transition from “haute-scumbag chic to fresh new spaces” of the rebooted Vern. I would suggest, however, that Portland is fortunate to have entrepreneurs, Warren Boothby and Marcus Archambeault to save these establishments from development into structures such as urban storage units or commercial office space.

In the good old days…..

Alternatively, some old bars with great character have permanently disappeared and supposedly suave cocktail and beer bars – many in strip malls – have sprung up.

The Club 21 was one owned by this duo which didn’t survive and what was a wonderful bar in an iconic building that at one time served as a Greek Orthodox Church is now gone.  Fortunately, as you will see below, some of the old signs and memorabilia from the Club 21 have a new home in The Vern.

What happens when a fine establishment like the Club 21 closes…..

An example of the urbane-type establishment  is the Yard House in downtown Portland – a bar although boasting “the world’s largest selection of draft beers featuring over 100 imported and local beers bars on tap,” has all the ambiance of an Olive Garden.

That’s quite possibly because the chain of Yard House bars across the US is owned by the same corporation as the above-mentioned pseudo Italian eatery which those who love boffo buffet flock to for “Never Ending Stuffed Pastas – Pick your pasta sauce and topping plus all the soup or salad and breadsticks you want – over and over….”

Urbane or sterile??

When I reviewed the Yard House on this blog in 2016, I asked rhetorically if it “measured up.”  (It didn’t…!)

Indeed, we can thank this duo for their commitment to save and invest in such great bars as the Sandy Hut, the Double Barrel, Gold Dust Meridian and the Elvis Room, which are still thriving.

(To see Thebeerchaser’s reviews, click on the links above.)

To further the case on why The Vern’s transition in late 2018, potentially saved it, take this excerpt from WW’s 4/9/19 review after it reopened, “(The Vern) weathered multiple waves of change with one foot planted firmly in the grave. It’s teetered on the precipice of extinction for decades.”

The Vern garnered its moniker purportedly by what the Portland Mercury described in its 12/19/18 review as “a long-neglected neon sign that once flashed ‘Vern’ after a decades-old auto accident 86’d the ‘TA’ in ‘TAVERN.’”

In fact, the story reminded me of another great east-side bar that had a similar signage story – Mad Son’s Pub – which changed its name from “Madison’s” after the “i” in the neon sign burned out.   To further my assertion regarding the precarious nature of old bars, Mad Son’s, which I reviewed in 2016 and had great ambiance, permanently closed in 2017.

The Vern was suggested by my friend, Hillary Barbour, who hit a home run when she previously recommended Mad Hanna’s as a dive bar that should be visited by Thebeerchaser. (Click on the link to see the review).

National Power List!

Hillary, a Reed College grad, is now the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Burgerville and was recently honored by The Nation’s Restaurant News on their 2020 Power List in an article captioned Burgerville’s Hillary Barbour Develops a Burger that is Better for the Planet.”

It should be noted that inclusion on any kind of establishment Power List may be viewed with reproach by her fellow Reed alums.

Hillary Barbour at The Vern

The space is expansive with two large rooms and features which make The Vern a good place to raise a mug or just hang out.  These include a great backbar with cool barstools, large booths with red felt cushions, several old-fashioned pinball machines as well as Big Buck Hunter (and a big buck head taxidermy mounted on the wall), a great fire-pit and a number of typical dive bar signs – many from the Club 21 – including my favorite Schlitz globe.

Don’t forget the iconic “STEAKS” sign from the aforementioned Club 21 as well as some posters from live music events at the former bar.

Maureen and Jelly Bean

There is also a great patio where we had a nice chat with Maureen, a Vern regular who lives nearby and was out on the patio with her friendly Newfoundland breed dog, “Jelly Bean.”

The Vern could improve a few minor things such as creating a website and improving its Facebook page which leaves a lot to be desired.  However, the history of the “institution” and the stories, which go back over thirty years, remain intact notwithstanding the spruced up interior fixings.

For example, many Portlanders will remember an August 2019 Oregonian story entitled “Man in MAGA hat clashed with crowd before his alleged assault at different bar, witnesses say.”

The Vern was where this saga began when at about 10:30 on a Saturday night, a guy and his wife, who told police that she “….wanted to see how people would treat her husband if he wore a Make America Great Again hat into some bars.”

(Not related to the Oregon Live story)

The female bartender at the Vern – she asked the man to leave – not because of his headgear, but based on his demeanor and actions.

And patrons said he began “Scanning the room and staring down anyone who would happen to look at him…..(and) began to accuse people inside the bar as being cowards and draft dodgers.” This in spite of the fact that he had no military service and the US discontinued the draft in 1973.

Usually a pretty staid environment..

Really??  Only one head where these belong!

Now the hat guy, who was subsequently assaulted by another woman and man outside the Growler Taproom – about ten blocks down Belmont Street -alleged that somebody at the Vern “placed a toilet seat cover on his head and that another patron threw something at him.”  That claim was questionable, but the two were later arrested by Portland Police for third degree assault.

The entire incident is somewhat humorous since nobody was seriously hurt, but the statement of a guy who filmed the debacle at The Vern before the couple left has to be one of the most misguided and ridiculous statements I’ve seen since starting this blog:

“I would equate wearing a MAGA hat while in hyper-liberal Portland to wearing Klan robes in a black community.”

Now while I may personally question the hat person’s  policy leanings, God help us when the expression of political preference – be it in speech or on apparel – is perceived in accordance with this intellectually challenged observer’s judgement.

How about pinball rather than politics……!

So what about the beer and the food at the Vern.   They have Rainier and two ciders on tap in addition to four micro-brews for which pints are a reasonable $6.

The food offerings are pretty typical of the other establishments of these two bar owners and the menu has a lot of options.  Take this WW review:

“…..customary spread of fried food snacks served with salty dipping sauces including honey-coated sweet potato jojos and cream fraiche ($7) and a plate of ‘golden nuggets’ which meld cheese curds and chicken into a singular deep-fried, bite size chunks ($8).”

While Hillary and I did not eat at The Vern, I had the above referenced golden nuggets when I visited the Double Barrel a few years ago and they were scrumptious.   (Given that Hillary is responsible for Burgerville’s locally-sourced and organic menu featuring regenerative agriculture, I wisely decided not to suggest anything on the Vern menu as she would have gotten up and left…..)

That said, the weekend brunch is one that might well motivate me to return even if it required a trip in from the burbs.

And this Yelp review from 8/13/19 certainly liked the burger.  That’s a tradition at the bars owned by this pair.  (8/13/19 Yelp)

“Everything about the burger was awesome, from the bun to the patty to the ingredients. However, my favorite topping was the crispy onion- it really pushed it up to the ‘wow- I love it, delicious’ burger list.”

Side Note – Different Bar(s) at Another Portland Vern(e)

I often convey related stories when writing this blog.   The latest occurred when I tried to call to check on the number of beers on tap.  I googled “The Vern” and hit the “Call” button on my i-Phone whereupon a very formal male voice answered “Control Room.”

Realizing no bar that I’ve ever been to had a control room, I quickly hung up and rechecked the link and the phone number and then realized that I had called The Vern(e) – but this one was a male prison in England. “The Verne is a men’s prison, located within the historic Verne Citadel on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England….operated by Her Majesty’s Prison Service.”  (Well at least it was in Portland……)

The Other Portland Vern(e)

And to end this review by again pointing out the dichotomy in views on bars that receive the Boothby/Archambeault treatment, I present a quote from Warren Boothby on their intent in their resurrection of the Vern:

“We used to hang out there a lot 20 years ago, and we want it to feel like home again for those who remember it as a place where you could be super comfortable and that wasn’t pretentious.” (Portland Mercury 12/19/18)

Comfortable and non-pretentious….

Reinforcing this sentiment is the realistic statement of this August 2019 Yelp reviewer who stated:

“What kind of bars serve $3.75 wells in 2019? Bars that close.

Granted I never went to the old Vern, but from the sound of it, not many other people went there, either. Checking out the remodel, I’m happy that somebody stepped in and saved this space, even if it’s not really what it used to be.

Again as a reminder, what it used to be was a bar that was going to close. At least this place was taken over by people who have genuine care for the space and the history and for operating great spaces. I’ll be back, and I’ll bring my crew in tow.”

They are also trying to create a community at The Vern with 50-cent wings during Blazer games, an interesting “daily six-shooter” featuring a shot of whiskey and a pint of Rainier  for $6, trivia nights, occasional DJ’s and their excellent brunches to encourage neighbors and groups to patronize.

The Daily Six-Shooter

Thebeerchaser will definitely return to The Vern.

And a tip of the hat (with no logo or slogan) to Warren Boothby and Marcus Achambeault for their continuing stewardship in preserving Portland’s watering hole tradition, notwithstanding a contrary view.

I regard the guy below as one who perhaps should make an effort to allow pragmatism to transcend his naive nostalgia when he wrote on Yelp on 4/23/19:

“Not a dive bar anymore. Sadly the Vern lost its charm in the remodel and we are left with yet another basic-yuppie bar. Well drinks went for $3.75 and now it’s $6. No more pool tables, no more bathtub in the smoking area, and ultimately no more personality.

This place that once felt like a quirky safe space feels awkward and uncomfortable. Trying way too hard to be something else, and it’ll never be the same.  I’m going to be switching my favorite dive bar to Bare Bones just up the street.”

The Charm still remains – it’s just different.

I guess I’ll have to visit and review the Bare Bones Cafe and Bar, but it appears to me to be more of a café than a bar. The Vern will continue the tradition of its predecessors. Go there and don’t be reluctant to wear your t-shirts or hats with slogans regardless of whether they are political or show a college sports theme such as “Go Beavs!!” 

The Vern         2622 SE Belmont Street   Portland

Dont Get Mad — Get Mad Hanna!

Beerchaser regular, Jim Westwood, at the entrance to Mad Hanna

While one can cruise the infamous Barmuda Triangle (also known as “The Stumble Zone”) in SE Portland and find numerous dive bars, unearthing these hidden treasures in other quarters of the Rose City, has become more challenging – particularly with the closure of some historic dives.

In the eight years of Thebeerchaser blog, I’ve reviewed quite a number of memorable dive bars.  I attempted to memorialize (if you will) the Portland all-stars in this category in a February post:  https://thebeerchaser.com/2019/02/09/thebeerchasers-best-portland-dive-bars/ .  It captures the essence of my four personal favorites.

Now my second visit to Mad Hanna was after publishing the aforementioned post or it would have been an addition to the four favorites.   And it is in NE Portland, which does not reflect the wealth of dives in the southeast quadrant.

Mad Hanna (hereafter “MH”), while clearly exhibiting the notable characteristics of a dive, borders on the temperament and character of a neighborhood watering hole.  As evidence of this slightly schizoid ambiance, see  both the martini glass and the Pabst sign which decorate the front of the establishment which is otherwise dumpy and rundown – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Notice the martini – gin with an olive – in the upper right part of the sign….

We have to be careful here because one description in a link to the MH website describes it as a “casual, playful tavern.”  (No dive bar should have the adjective “playful” characterizing it, so we will scratch that phrase as misguided…..), but it does have positive mood or presence similar to another one of the NE dives – The Standard. And it self describes in the caption to it’s own website:  “The Best Dive Bar in Portland.”

While I spend a considerable amount of time researching the establishments I visit, I had never heard of MH until reconnecting with a friend, Hillary Barbour.  She lives in the general area and said that it was a bar that deserved recognition by Thebeerchaser, so my first visit was with Hillary.

I first met her in 1994, when she was a research assistant for the Portland City Club and I was on the Research Board of this civic organization.   She was a recent graduate of Reed College and earned the endearing moniker, “Barbour the Magnificent,” by some of us on the Board because of her superior performance and enthusiastic work ethic.

After a few jobs trying to discover what she wanted to do with her life, she worked as a key staffer for Congressman Earl Blumenauer for almost fifteen years and became the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Burgerville in 2016.

Barbour the Magnificent on her throne at Mad Hanna

As a recent Reed graduate, Hillary spent a lot of time at the City Club trying to  convince us that she was really politically moderate, had worn dresses to most of her liberal arts classes and that most of the students at Reed were just like those at Oregon State University except that they major in Nuclear Physics, Bio-chemistry or Chinese Literature rather than Forestry or Animal Husbandry.  

Actual picture of Cerenkov radiation surrounding the underwater core of the Reed College nuclear reactor

Note:  Some Portlanders may not know that Reed is also the only undergraduate educational institution in the world to operate a research nuclear reactor.    Those who live near campus might consider acquiring a Geiger counter to supplement their portable generators if they view this excerpt from the Reed website: “We are dependent on incoming freshmen who want to run the reactor…..”

Hillary asserted that Reed’s intercollegiate sports program including rugby, ultimate frisbee and soccer, was less expensive and more inclusive that those of the PAC-12 – maybe it was the PAC-10 in 1994….

Ultimate Frisbee in between time at Reeds’ nuclear reactor…

And finally, she tried to explain the Reed’s Student Ethics Code to members of the Research Board  – it differs from most (maybe all) universities in that it is:

“….a guide for ethical standards themselves and not just their enforcement. Under the Honor Principle, there are no codified rules governing behavior. Rather, the onus is on students individually and as a community to define which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.”

Westwood offered explanation of Honor Guide…

Jim Westwood, a hard-core Beerchaser regular, who is also a former Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter and one of the most skilled appellate lawyers and intelligent people I know, was also a City Club leader at that time.   He accompanied me on my second visit to MH.

So as we were drinking a PBR, as a conversation piece, I asked him for his interpretation of this somewhat abstract university credo.  He mumbled something about the substance of jelly-fish and then referenced protoplasm and amoebae…

But we digress….. Back to Mad Hanna……Why wouldn’t you like this bar?   While the outside might be somewhat off-putting, the inside has everything one could ask for in what is colloquially labeled “a watering hole.”

It has great old beer signs – such as Pabst, Oly and Rolling Rock and a good, although not excessive, selection of brews ranging from the standards to a few micro-brews  (Happy Hour = $4 micro – $2.50 standards and PBRs’ are $2) all of which are listed on a blackboard rather than an electronic display.  I was impressed with their line-up of ten cocktails – see below – which get good reviews.

There’s also an impressive pool table, a poster of Wonder Woman and a few, but not too many video poker machines in addition to arcade (video) games.

Adds to the ambiance….

There were a couple of TVs but ones which are of moderate size and for which the glare doesn’t disturb the somewhat dingy but very comfortable ambience.  And instead of low-scoring soccer games or Sports Center blaring on the main screen, there was a muted Charlie Brown animation film captivating the audience.

Dive bars are often characterized by hard-core regulars who react with mild to more aggressive hostility to newcomers, but on both of my visits, you are unnoticed when you walk in and stake out a location and head to the bar to order.  That’s because scattered groups of regulars are engaged in active discussions or in friendly interactions with the amiable and helpful bartenders.

People, whether on the excellent patio in the back (see below), gathered around the bar or sitting at tables in small groups, were having a good time.

Sterile environment – operated by the same corporation that runs the Olive Garden.

Now there are a few of the bars or breweries visited on Thebeerchaser’s multi-year tour which either reflect sterile, corporate-type settings or environments or worse, a benign neglect or seeming apathy of the owners.  A less genteel way to convey this is that the character of the bar “sucks!”

The only two Portland examples I can cite are The Yardhouse in downtown Portland and Bar 33-Brooklyn just north of Sellwood.

A lot of potential, but apathy greets you at the entrance

(If you want to learn the rationale for my conclusions, click on the links above, but suffice to say that if you really are thirsty for a beer, have at it.  But if you want a “bar experience,” don’t waste your time.)

Mad Hanna is the antithesis of these bars and I would suggest that it’s because of the attitude of the co-owners —Crystall Maddox and Liz Hanna, who not only came up with the good name, but also make efforts to instill community and the spirit that seems to radiate within the walls.

They get a nice mention in a 2017 feature in Portland Drink entitled “Visit One of Portland’s Many Female-Owned Bars” 

For example, their Facebook page is informative and filled with information and they also have a nice, but not overly sophisticated website with scores of pictures of people having fun and the inviting description below:

“Mad Hanna, your neighborhood living room, drinks are cold and the welcome is warm.  Need a laugh or ear to bend, swing on by and you’ll find it.  Fresh squeezed juice and house-infused liquors mean delicious hand-made cocktails. 

Enjoy ping pong, horseshoes and conversation in the sunny backyard or stay inside for pool, jukebox and sass from the best bartenders in town.  When you’re here your part of the family – we got your back!”

Let’s look at the evening activities:  Tuesday and Thursday they have DJ NIghts from 8:00 to midnight and on Saturday from 4:00 to midnight. On Wednesday, it’s Open Mic Night from 6:00 to 110:00 PM.  Don’t forget Karoke on Sunday……and periodic movie nights.

And their DJ booth is unique – also a great place to sit when they are not spinning discs.

As a side note, the Rovon Inn used to be the name of the bar prior to the change in ownership in 2012 that brought us Mad Hanna.   It was involved in a dram-shop lawsuit back in 2011 involving a drunken driver who allegedly drank there and at another establishment before being involved in a car wreck that killed a woman in another vehicle.)

While both times I was there, it was a typical Oregon winter day – cold and drizzly, but even so, there were people bundled up on the back patio and I can just visualize the activity during good weather – although as the sign indicates, under control…….!

 

 

 

Earlier I mentioned the tap list, but MH is also known for it house-infused cocktails and jello-shots they have a good collection and get excellent reviews in print and social media:

“……a chalkboard cocktail menu juggling the sublime (“$6.25 Ginger Whiskey Sour”) and ridiculous (“$9 CBD Margarita”).  While most regulars enjoy the well-curated array of mostly local brews, make sure to plunk down $1.50 for a pudding shot—an addictive dollop of soft-serve indulgence that’s become Mad Hanna’s signature libation. As an ideal blend of the playful and potent, the 80 proof is in the pudding.”  Willamette Week June 9, 2018

Now you won’t find an expansive menu here, but they do have some munchies from nachos to hummus and the grilled-cheese sandwich options gets good comments.  And my friend, Jim, paused in our conversation while chowing down on his $4.50 (Happy Hour) peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

This post is already too long, but there’s still a bit more to the story.  One factor that can add to or detract from a bar is the “juke box.”  MH’s garners great reviews not only for the music, but the bar’s approach is consistent with the tone set forth above:

 ……a special note – check out the jukebox here – it has such a great mix, everything from punk to classic country to ROBYN! don’t be afraid to throw in a few quarters and dance, also don’t be shocked if strangers join in too! its a real friendly place 🙂Yelp 7/8/14  (For those out of the cultural mainstream, ROBYN is a Swedish singer and songwriter…..)

Fantastic juke box, but who the heck is ROBYN??

Regardless of whether one considers Mad Hanna a dive or a neighborhood bar, it warrants a visit.

You will see evidence of the comfortable vibe mentioned in this post whether it is seeing a poster about a benefit to help an ailing bartender or resident of the neighborhood,  having a chat with one of the amiable bartenders or even hitting the bathroom – it also has character!

Further evidence of “community”

You should take the advice of this 6/9/18 Yelp reviewer who stated:

“Probably the coolest place I’ve been to in a long time. I will be going back to this place whenever I’m in town!”  6/9/18

And if you run out of conversation topics, you might want to revisit the interpretation of the Reed Ethics Code.  Alternatively, you could discuss the recent article, “What is a Reedie Anyway?”

Mad Hanna  6129 NE Fremont