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

Mad Sons (Pub) with Happy Daughters…

A resurrected venue in Southeast Portland

A resurrected venue in Southeast Portland

You won’t find Madison’s Bar and Grill in any of the past Willamette Week Bar Guides even though it operated from 1997 until February 2014.  The Bar Guide is the weekly paper’s annual review of about 100 favorite Portland bars and one of the ongoing resources for this blog.

WW described the predecessor, Madison’s B & G, in their review of its resurrection, of sorts, Mad Sons Pub, in its 8/26/14 review of the remade bar: “(Madison’s Bar and Grill was) a bar that looked like a Denny’s in West Virginia and attracted the same clientele.”

The sign with a minor change

The sign with a minor change

The most noticeable change is on the bland exterior of the bar  – the large neon sign near the entrance now has the “I” taped over, purportedly so it would not shine at night although some say that it just burned out and the name change then saved the owners money on signage. The real story is below.

2016-08-15-17-02-34I definitely liked the décor of the remade bar on our recent Beerchasing trip to its location at 1109 SE Madison. The large lot with free parking in an area where vehicle resting spots are at a premium was another plus.

WW speaks favorably of the new bar including the capital invested by the new owners:

2016-09-06-15-55-44“The new Revolutionary War-themed bar is a beautiful hardwood affair complete with 13-star flags, a hearth, a giant blue-felt billiards table and a picture of the signing of the Declaration of Independence burned into the wood of the bar’s service gate.” 2016-08-15-17-05-31

And like some of the other “treasures” – bars or pubs I have discovered in the five-year Beerchaser Tour of Bars, Taverns and Pubs, I would not have had the pleasure of raising a mug – this time with great companions – if I had not initiated this idiosyncratic but interesting retirement hobby.

Jack Faust contemplates the beer menu

Jack Faust contemplates the beer menu

Joining me was one of the most frequent Beerchaser “regulars,” Portland appellate lawyer and former moderator of the award-winning public affairs program, Town Hall.

Jack Faust has joined me at visits to The Buffalo Gap, Bailey’s Tap House, the Rookery, Kelly’s Olympian, the Marathon Taverna and the lackluster Yard House. (use Thebeerchaser search function above to read reviews of these bars).  He was also one of the more colorful Beerchaser-of-the-Quarters , which highlighted his notable legal (mostly at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt) , broadcasting and civic career (see post on 9/2/14)

Jack Faust

Jack Faust

Speaking of the Schwabe firm, where I spent twenty-five years of my legal management career, Faust, a Portland native, joins two other former Schwabe partners as three of the Jefferson High School’s “Outstanding 100” – their most distinguished alums named at the school’s Centennial in 2009.

Retired US District Court Judge and decorated Viet Nam Veteran, Ancer Haggerty, and the late Congressman, Wendell Wyatt were also honored.ancer

 

The late Congressman, Wendell Wyatt

The late Congressman, Wendell Wyatt

Faust maintains he garnered the honor based on his accomplishments playing quarterback on the Democrat’s six-man football team, but I countered that it was the notoriety achieved by his home-brewed “Raspberry Red Ale” which contributed to Portland’s designation as a SuperFund site by the EPA.

As has been the case on several previous bar visits, members of the Faust clan – in this case son, Charlie, and daughter, Amy, were Beerchasing with us in addition to Charlie’s wife, Kristen, a first-time Beerchaser.

2016-08-15-17-59-11The final two companions that afternoon were the youngest – my daughter, Laura and her fiancé, Ryan Keene, slated for September 17th nuptials at Vista Hills Vineyard and Winery west of Dundee – the home of one of my favorite dive bars – Lumpy’s Landing.

While we did not spend too much time trying to mentor and advise the young bride and groom to-be, they couldn’t go wrong listening to some words of wisdom, given that the cumulative total years of marriage for their elders was an astounding 139 years as follows:

An amazing couple

An amazing couple

Jack and Alice Faust                         60 years

Don and Janet Williams                     36 years

Amy Faust and husband, Kevin        24 years

Charlie Faust and wife, Kristen         19  years

Charlie Faust, being a numbers guy, pointed out to Ryan and Laura that since the average time of marriage for those above has been 34.8 years while the median is still an impressive 30 years, they would do well to invite members of this group out for beers in the future to seek advice on marital bliss…..

Thebeerchaser with his daughter and soon to be son-in-law

Thebeerchaser with his daughter and soon to be son-in-law

Although Charlie and his dad have a great relationship, they agreed to pose while I took the picture below in an effort to get the pub’s owners to adopt it as a logo for their new moniker. In fact, in a moment of sentimentality, Charlie gushed:

“You know, I owe a lot to my parents – especially my Mom and Dad.”

It should also be noted that both my daughter, Laura, and Jack’s daughter, Amy, seemed to be pretty happy with their dads that afternoon and not just because we paid for the beers (I think….)

A new logo for Mad Sons??

A new logo for Mad Sons??

Not only does Mad Sons have some interesting décor including multiple US Presidential portraits but the spacious game-room upstairs includes a billiard table racked for free pool, some nice booths to relax and some additional historical memorabilia.

I had a nice conversation by telephone with General Manager, Lavender Davis, who is one of five partners in Mad Sons.  The remodeling took six months and was done by craftsman with the historic items throughout the bar coming from a variety of sources including estate sales.   Some of the drapes are from her living room…..

She stated that the reason for the name change and blacking out the “I” in the Madison’s on the sign, was because of restrictions imposed by Portland’s Sign Ordinance (Perhaps a skilled lawyer could have overcome that challenge but the name change is a good thing.)

2016-09-06-15-56-45

Blue felt and free

The upstairs has a long shelves filled with impressive volumes ranging from philosophical classics such as Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Milton’s Paradise Lost  and perhaps appropriately, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King  to novels by Nobel Prize winners such as Steinbeck and Hemingway.  Don’t plan to use the space as a reading room while you’re enjoying a mug, however.

2016-09-06-15-56-56

The expansive volumes on the shelves are all firmly glued together. This is too bad because there was some fine literature on these shelves.

An impressive faux library...

An impressive faux library…

Realizing these books were glued together and untouched, along with the thought of beer readily available, also brought back some unpleasant and possibly repressed memories from my freshman year at Oregon State.

The freedom to have an under-aged brewski at Price’s Tavern with the bros in Corvallis was like a Siren call while my freshman physics and calculus texts sat essentially glued together.   Although they might have indicated an impressive academic regimen, at least part of the quarter, they mostly gathered dust.

Fortunately, my Navy ROTC advisor informed me in a direct manner that if I did not start putting some wear on the pages, I would not only lose my scholarship, but the Navy’s travel agent would be happy to book a free flight on one of its planes headed for the other side of the International Dateline.  The motivational speech worked.

Limited but adequate patio

Limited but adequate patio

Mad Sons is a spacious, interesting and warm space to gather with friends on a fall or winter day – you might also want to take advantage of the limited but adequate patio during the spring and summer months.

The afternoon we were there, the bar was not hopping with patrons and WW alluded to the same situation in their multiple visits. And that’s too bad because Mad Sons also has a good selection of beers and a robust and very reasonably priced food menu described by the Oregonian  shortly after it opened in 2014:

“A little New England, a little Old England with sandwiches, stews and other hearty plates of varying quality.”  Oregonian 10/31/14

A nice selection of beers

A nice selection of beers

There are eleven beers on tap, a rotating seasonal and nitro and a local craft draft root beer. (Our party had Priem IPA, Double Mountain IRA and Upright Pilsner.)

Kristin had a Grapefruit Shandy, which Thebeerchaser had never been exposed to previously.  I learned that a Shandy is a combination of beer and either a soft drink or juice in approximately a 50/50 mix.  Kristin approved of the Mad Son’s version.

Recent Yelp reviews looked very positive including these two:

“Clean with great vibes and plenty of space! Awesome selection of booze with excellent service at Mad Sons Pub. Free pool, pinball, games and a huge outdoor patio – (Thebeerchaser does not agree with this description) for summer! Definitely check this place out! No kids and parking for all. Love it!!!”  7/2/2016

2016-08-15-18-13-46

and

“This place is quality.  Super chill, nice staff, good food and drink, their brisket is awesome.  I really appreciate the ambiance here, they’re always playing good music, it’s nice and dark with the look of an old style pub, but a more modern vibe.” 7/23/2016

Also good comments on their Saturday and Sunday brunch (from 11 AM to 3 PM), which according to Lavender is “very popular” and one where those who prefer not to have children affecting the ambiance, can gather.  The Chicken and Waffles looked promising as did the Beef Brisket Hash as well as the “You Build It” combinations.

2016-08-15-17-00-25This sign describes Mad Son’s pretty well.  They have a DJ every Friday night and a nice Pandora selection otherwise.

As a departing note, Laura and Ryan’s wedding at Vista Hills near Dundee was a wonderful event, notwithstanding this particular Saturday being the only day with precipitation in the ten-day period preceding it. And was it rainy – which can be problematic in an outdoor venue.  Fortunately, we had tents and a crowd with a great NW attitude.

Now while my wife may not think that it is appropriate to post some of the first photos of their wedding in a blog about bars and beer, I think after 36 years, she will probably let the proud Father-of-the-Bride go with this indulgence, given how much I love this young couple and want to show them off.

Rainy but a wonderful occasion

Rainy but a wonderful occasion

2016-09-20-13-37-452016-09-17-15-57-24

 

 

 

 

 

 

The old marrieds there that day talked to Laura and Ryan about the importance of good communication and listening, which opened the door to some of Thebeerchaser’s favorite quotes on that general topic:

“Don’t speak, unless you can improve the silence.”

“Light travels faster than sound.  This is why some people appear bright until they open their mouths.”

“A single fact can spoil a good argument.”

vista-hills

The beautiful Vista Hills setting

Mad Sons Pub              1109 SE Madison