Life of Riley Tavern – Visit this Bar in the Pearl

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Those of you who have lived as many decades as Thebeerchaser probably remember watching William Bendix, the loveable wing-riveter at a California aircraft assembly plant, who was the star of the television show, Life of Riley, which ran for five seasons in the late 1950’s.

William Bendix and his son "Junior"

William Bendix and his son “Junior”

Only a few of the group who had a great lunch at this Portland bar recently were even born at that time.  But the majority were tax lawyers from Schwabe Williamson &  Wyatt and probably didn’t watch TV when they were kids anyway.

They were drawing images of the IRS logo with crayons, which served them well as five of the six lawyers present that day, in addition to having their law degrees and passing the Oregon State Bar went on to get an LLM – essentially a masters degree in tax law.

While Thebeerchaser’s only other experience with a dive bar in the Pearl District was less than memorable (the Low Brow Lounge), Life of Riley Tavern (hereafter LoR) was a very good venue – not only for the lunch we enjoyed, but when I returned for a beer several afternoons later.  An apt description is this one from Yelp on 3/26/2015

The upstairs bar

The upstairs bar

Amazing bar, exemplary staff. I don’t usually find myself in The Pearl but I do make it down here at least once a week because of the great service, free billiards, shuffleboard, and darts in the basement nightly.

The upstairs is nice as well, but the basement feels more homey. Both the upstairs and downstairs have great TVs for sports viewing…..the music in the basement is top-notch…..Oh yeah, they’re happy hour is ridiculously awesome.”

Good lunch-time specials

Good lunch-time specials

So let’s start with the upstairs portion of the bar – one reviewer compared it to a ‘50’s diner, which is not too far off.  There’s only a small bar and some small, round bar tables with the rest of the seating as tables for the restaurant.   In fact, I didn’t even realize that they had a great bar space downstairs until I read some of the reviews after my first visit.

Scrumptious mac & cheese

Scrumptious mac & cheese

The food is a strength.   I had a scrumptious and plentiful serving of Cajun Mac & Cheese (which required a long workout after lunch out of guilt….) and the remainder of our party of eight all were very positive about their lunches ranging from the Riley Burger to the Pulled Pork Sandwich. 

Great sandwiches too

Great sandwiches too

As Megan, our friendly server explained, “You should try our barbecue – its’ awesome,” and the traeger, right outside of the bar is well employed.   She also was justifiably proud of the fresh sauces and dressings – their own recipes and made fresh each day.  The prices are typical of Portland and a bit lower than you would expect in the Pearl.

But it’s the lower level that really defines LoR.  Down the steps into an intriguing, dark basement space with just a few small windows – it reminded me of the fallout shelters the government promoted when I was a kid.  (They also told us with sincerity during drills that we should assume a position under our desks in order to avoid the impact of a nuclear warhead…..)

Get under your desk, cover your head and kiss your *#@ goodbye."

“Get under your desk, cover your head and kiss your *#@ goodbye.”

Down to the "Fallout Shelter" bar

Down to the “Fallout Shelter” bar

And I had a great conversation with Dave, the bartender, who has been there for ten years –  a former carpenter who  helped build the bar and with construction after the current owner purchased the building …….

Dave draws rave reviews from customers and he told me about the 22 beers on tap and let me sample a few – free, which was nice after our experience at Hair of the Dog Brewpub where you had to pay from $1.25 to $3.50 for a 2 ounce sample.

He stated that his clientele includes a bunch of regulars who work in the Pearl to neighbors who show up in hordes especially when there are Blazer or Timber games or when March Madness is running.   Dave also stated that one thing that distinguishes the bar is that all the games including pool, darts and a great shuffleboard game are free.    P1040158

Almost all of the comments about LoR on social media were positive although speaking of the Timbers, a rant is in order.  It demonstrates the reason why a number of Portlanders who think soccer is boring and should be confined to Europe, also get upset at the pretentiousness of some Timber fans.

Free shuffleboard

Free shuffleboard

While this comment goes back to August 2011, here’s the remarks by a guy who trashed what he admitted was a great bar simply because of one objection – and he signed the review “Anonymous.

“What a shame. Great beer, lovely TV projection screen, decent food but totally cynical staff with the ‘no sound during a Timbers game’ attitude. Come-on owners! This is Portland, Home of the Timbers.

My friends and I were amongst the 15 people watching the game vs the 4 that were at the bar with no interest and the staff insisted that there was not enough people in the joint to put the sound of the game on. I am very disappointed with the patriotism of Life of Riley. You disappoint your patrons and you disappoint Portland. Shame on you!”

Dave, the friendly downstairs bartender.

Dave, the friendly downstairs bartender and a guy with good judgment!

No, you misfit!  Shame on you for not having the guts to even identify yourself and for your myopic perspective.

A little due diligence revealed that the Timbers played 34 games in 2011 in which they scored a total of 42 goals.  Games are 90-minutes and assuming no overtime matches (which may not be totally factual, but this is a bar blog….) that means one goal scored by the Timbers every 72.86 minutes.

This begs the question, “What would the narration have added in a game that probably ended either in a scoreless tie or one with fewer than two goals scored?” (That’s a rhetorical question….)  I think this rant is justified especially in light of one other comment on Yelp“……… music in the basement is top-notch and suited for whatever crowd may be in at the time.”

Cheers to the 2009 Oregon Legislature.

Cheers to the 2009 Oregon Legislature.

One other very dated and interesting complaint from Portland Barfly dating clear back to 2008, again demonstrates the wisdom in the Oregon Legislature’s 2009 expansion of the Oregon “Smoke-free Workplace” Law which provided that bars and taverns could no longer permit smoking on or within ten feet of the premises.

“I visited Life of Riley for the first time this friday night, my friend and I hung out downstairs because I love smoky dens. It was a pretty cool place – the servers were quick and friendly and stayed on top of things even though it was packed. The drinks were good and strong. We managed to meet some cool people……

Now I hate it when people bitch about how smoky bars are and… I am a smoker and I love smoky dives, but holy shit!! This was by far the smokiest space I have ever been! Our eyes were burning! And this feeling lingered the next day. My advice to the owner: crack a few windows when it gets that busy….. You gotta have a little more circulation in there.”

Thebeerchaser appreciates this law because having reviewed about 175 bars since late 2011 – many of which I visited multiple times, my health and possibly my lifespan would have been adversely impacted by the second-hand smoke, especially given my preoccupation with dive bars.  The tobacco lobby at the time, taking lessons from the NRA in opposing reasonable legislation, maintained:

“Cigarettes don’t kill people.  It’s the tars, and toxins in the smoke.”  

Upstairs bar area

Upstairs bar area

Look back at the comments from a prior post in this blog (check the link below) to see what the pre-2009 bar environment was like:

The Horse Brass Pub: “We worried that (the new law) would spell the end of …(the) venerable Brit Pub…Not because the 33-year old bar…wouldn’t retain its loyal patrons, but because we assumed its billowing, milkshake-thick clouds of cigarette smoke were load bearing structural elements of the building without which the sprawling pub would collapse.”  (“2009 Willamette Week Drink Guide”)

And finally, a couple of comments about my companions at LoR. Now one might think that tax lawyers, especially those who have over-achieved and gotten their LMM, might be boring company,  but they are a great and interesting group.

Interesting companions...

Interesting companions…Woodhouse, Reuter, Van Zanten and Eller

Roy Lambert, now retired, is an active masters competitive swimmer with some regional records.  In retirement, he audits courses in medieval and Renaissance history at Portland State.

Marc Sellers, besides majoring in chemistry as an undergrad, he was the first attorney in the U.S. to obtain an award of attorney fees against the Internal Revenue Service under the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. 

This courtroom mentality may have been derived from his dedication to martial arts for many years where he competed at regional and national championship levels.  He was also an accomplished mountaineer and volunteer in mountain rescueand for years was a member of Mt. Hood Mountain Rescue.

Sellers - skilled litigator with a dry sense of humor

Sellers – skilled litigator with a dry sense of humor

Besides that, Marc has a remarkable sense of humor which he regularly demonstrates on firm e-mails such as the following:

“This week’s Tax Department Employee of the Week is Peter Osborne. Peter was recently recognized by Firm Management as the ‘Lawyer Most Likely to Get the Correct Answer’ with respect to issues arising under Internal Revenue Code Sections starting with the number three.”

Haystack Rock by Pete Osborne.

Haystack Rock by Pete Osborne.

Pete Osborne, who was accompanied by his spouse,Terri, is described by his colleagues as one of the smartest, if not the smartest, tax lawyer in Portland.  On occasion, he has been known to return to Portland with both a big smile and winnings from the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas – Senior Division….   He’s also a talented artist.  (See another of his works in the post about Brannons’ in Beaverton.)

Osbornes etching of the Three Sisters

Osborne’s etching of the Three Sisters

Jennifer Woodhouse, besides being fluent in Spanish, is a mentor at Lewis & Clark Law School where she graduated cum laude and leads Schwabe’s Women in Business group

Dan Eller received the prestigious Joyce Ann Harpole Scholarship and other law school honors at Lewis and Clark.  He is an skilled outdoorsman and cyclist and frequently cycles around the base of Mt. Bachelor – active in numerous civic boards and a scout leader for his kids.

Even the Tax Group endorses Thebeerchaser logo

Even the Tax Group endorses Thebeerchaser logo

Katherine Van Zanten is an avid skier and a girl scout leader for her kids.  Also active in the Oregon State Bar Tax Section.

And don’t forget one of Portland’s best legal secretaries, Gretchen Reuter, who has the technical expertise, interpersonal skills and patience to manage the workload of several of these people concurrently.

Having lunch with the Tax Group was enjoyable.  And Life of Riley is a really good bar with good food, a friendly and knowledgeable staff (with enough common sense to mute the sound during a sporting event to play great music) and an awesome cellar that you won’t find too many places in Portland.

Life of Riley Tavern 300 NW 10th Ave

The Horse Brass Pub – Pinnacle of Perfection

The Horse Brass Pub - One of America's 100 Best Beer Bars

Thebeerchaser at The Horse Brass Pub – One of America’s 100 Best Beer Bars

Although the power and prestige of England have diminished since the days of Admiral Nelson’s exploits for the Royal Navy in the 18th century and Winston Churchill’s fiery oratory during World War II, one is reminded of the superiority of the Brits when it comes to pubs.

It is doubtful that English poet, John Milton, was referencing drinking establishments when he stated in 1643, “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live”.  The Horse Brass Pub in Portland, however, does a wonderful job emulating the classic English public house and is worth a visit by every Portlander. “Arguably, holding the title of Portland’s best bar since in opened in 1976…It’s a tribute to all thing English.” (Willamette Week’s 2012 “Our 105 Favorite Bars, Pubs and Clubs.”)

Sign at the Entrance to the Horse Brass Pub

Sign at the Entrance to the Horse Brass Pub

Along with five other Portland bars, the Horse Brass Pub (HPB) made the honor roll of the 2012 Draft Magazine’s “One Hundred Best Beer Bars in the USA”:

“….Founder, Don Younger…claimed, ‘If it were any more authentic, you’d need a passport,’ he wasn’t kidding….Bric-a-brac adorns the nicotine-stained walls (from the old smoking days) of this dimly-lit, wood-paneled pub, perfectly recreating the neighborhood haunts of England….

HBP has championed the craft beer movement since 1976, and with its legacy still intact as perhaps the best bar in the nation, it isn’t just a destination in Portland, but a bucket-list item for any beer lover.”

Horsebrass

English Horsebrass Featuring Gloucester Cathedral

My San Francisco friend and consultant, Dave Hicks, and I hit the HBP for dinner and then traveled a short distance to another one of Draft Magazine’s 100 Best – Belmont Station (See Beerchaser Review posted on 4/17/13)

Princeton graduate, accomplished singer and beer drinker, Dave Hicks

Princeton graduate, accomplished singer and beer drinker, Dave Hicks

Hicks has traveled all over the world and commented on the authenticity of the pub except for one missing element — pervasive smoke which permeates the Anglican pub environment — or at least used to before the House of Commons passed a smoking ban in 2007.

Based on the 2009 expansion of the Oregon “Smoke-free Workplace Law bars and taverns could no longer permit smoking on or within ten feet of the premises.  We are confident that the cigarette lobby at the time, taking lessons from the NRA in opposing reasonable legislation, maintained, “Cigarettes don’t kill people.  It’s the tars, and toxins in the smoke.”  

Wikiemedia Commons Adverse_effects_of_tobacco_smoking_svg

Graphic of a typical bar worker’s internal organs prior to the 2009 Oregon Smoking Law

Nevertheless, this law had a dramatic impact on the environment within such establishments as the Horse Brass Pub as can be evidenced by these excerpts from my favorite annual Willamette Week resource on bars:

“Surgeon General’s Warning:  Smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema and shriveled testes.  (The new law) also leads to outdoor drinking, rain or shine, which can lead to frostbit, melanoma and accidental arousal from rubbing against another addict while taking refuge under a tiny awning….”  (“2009 Drink Guide”)                 

     Wikimedia Commons

“There used to be two types of customers here (HBP): smokers and chain smokers.  The 2009 smoking ban devastated regulars. (They all died said a bartender).  (“2011 Drink”)                 

“We worried that (the new law) would spell the end of …(the) venerable Brit Pub…Not because the 33-year old bar…wouldn’t retain its loyal patrons, but because we assumed its billowing, milkshake-thick clouds of cigarette smoke were load bearing structural elements of the building without which the sprawling pub would collapse.”  (“2009 Drink Guide”)

 

Coffin nail or structural element?
Coffin nail or structural element?

“What will become of Don Younger’s sprawling pub in 2009?  After the encyclopedic beer list and heart-stopping English breakfasts, this slice of Britain on Belmont is best known for air so thick with smoke, you could bottle it.”  (“2007 Drinkers’ Bible”)

Another often-cited difference in beer served in the US and the typical English tavern is the temperature of the beer.  For example, Hicks and I had wonderful chilled mugs of Portland Brewing’s Rose Hip Gold and Caldera Brewing’s Dry Hop Orange, which if served 4,928 miles to the east, would not be quite as frosty.  (Although it is a misconception that British beer is served warm, beer in the UK is usually served at cellar temperature – 50 to 57 °F. – Wikipedia).

This is not to suggest that English beer is bad as exemplified by this commentary from Voltaire on both British citizens and their beer:, “They (the British) are like their own beer; froth on top, dregs at bottom, the middle excellent.”

Rose Hip Gold --- Even Better on Tap

Rose Hip Gold — Even Better on Tap

The 50+ different beers on tap at HPB, including 28 rotating or guest taps, create dissonance for an indecisive drinker.  They reflect what was purportedly Don Younger’s motto, “It’s not about the beer.  It’s about the beer.”

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A Comment on the 2013 Willamette Week Bar Guide (Horse Brass review continued below)

A Valuable Resource for Thebeerchaser Tour
A Valuable Resource for Thebeerchaser Tour

As evidenced above, an important resource for this blog is the Annual Willamette Week Drinkers’ Bible or Bar Guide.  Indeed, Thebeerchaser’s printed copies for the last five years of this annual list of favorite Portland bars is a valuable resource.

The enormity of the challenge of a comprehensive tour of Portland bars, pubs and taverns hit home when I read the 2013 publication.  WW listed 121 favorite bars visited in the last year.  This compares with 41 establishments since Thebeerchaser blog commenced in August 2011.

Of WW’s favorites, Thebeerchaser has only frequented nine to this point as shown below:

Brooklyn Park Pub     Coalition Brewery     Beer     Prost     Laurel Thirst     Lutz Tavern

Goose Hollow Inn     Sasquatch Brewery *     Horse Brass Pub

* Visited, but not yet reviewed and posted on Thebeerchaser blog.

To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, “So much to do, so little done, such things to be.”

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Horse Brass InteriorThe rich history of the Horse Brass Pub, established in 1976, can be found on its outstanding website and gives a more thorough chronology than can Thebeerchaser, but the decades of founder, Don Younger’s impact, are evident throughout.  His dedication to the fledgling craft beer industry in Oregon is his legacy.

Memorabilia enhances the Ambiance

Memorabilia enhances the Ambiance

It would be a stretch to label the food as “outstanding”; however, the menu is extensive and offers numerous English-type options.  My bangers and mash were good and ample and Dave Hicks had a similar reaction to his steak and shepherd’s pie.

And oh yes, before ending the review of the Horse Brass Pub, a recurring theme on this blog bears iteration.  Just as with the Ship Tavern and Jakes, the HBP was purportedly the scene of a simultaneous gathering of approximately twenty Portland police cars one summer night in the ’80’s.

Members of the Portland Rugby Club and the team from New Zealand they had defeated in their match that day, capped off the day with food, drink and “revelry” — Film at 11:00 ….!

The Horse Brass Pub                    4534 S.E. Belmont