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

Look-out for the Ranger Station

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There are a number of classic dive bars in Portland’s noted Barmuda Triangle in southeast Portland.  Thebeerchaser has enjoyed a number of these including the Bar of the Gods and Tanker Bar (see posts on 10/3/12 and 4/29/13).  It was therefore a nice surprise to discover a relatively new neighborhood bar at 42nd and SE Hawthorne.

P1040389The Ranger Station has only been around for a little over two years and its previous incarnations during the last ten years were also bars – Vertigo (closed in 2012) and then the Thorne Lounge.

Consultant, Dave Hicks

Consultant, Dave Hicks

My first of two visits to the Ranger Station was with San Franciscan, Dave Hicks.  “West Coast Dave” gets to Portland regularly on consulting trips and besides being my favorite Princeton graduate, is a Beerchaser regular, having visited the Double Barrel, Sloans’ Tavern and Crackerjacks among others on prior Beerchasing ventures.

The Ranger Station is a quaint a low-key bar, but has some limitations – the primary one being space. “There’s probably at least one snow-bound Alaskan ranger with a larger liquor cabinet than this pub..” (2015 Willamette Week Bar Guide)  It’s essentially a one-room rectangle with a small patio area adjoining and this may be one of the reasons that the duration of the prior two bars in this space is comparable to the half-life of a college education.

Small patio area

Small patio area

The room fills up quickly, especially since they have live entertainment most evenings and there are only a limited number of booths and tables.

The weeknight we were there, people were standing in rows between tables waiting for seats to open since the entry area is also pretty small.

Live entertainment in close proximity......

Live entertainment in close proximity……

Given acoustical and space limitations, it’s almost too small to have live music – the night we were there, a four- piece blue grass group played and in addition to not being overly talented, they eliminated the ability to have any ongoing conversation.

Dave Hicks savors his

Dave Hicks savors his “Half Bird”

That said, the food at the Ranger Station is a strength – particularly the elk burger ($12), which I devoured and the venison stew ($8) with meat purchased at Nicky USA Farms in Aurora and the Bucker’s Brussels ($7) – deep fried and slow seared with bacon, carmelized onion and a mustard vinaigrette sauce.

I chatted with Coltonan amiable part-time chef, and he expressed pride in the menu  and their skill with the grill.  Reviews of the food on social media are generally positive including this one from Dude on Yelp last November, which might be a tad over-stated:

“The food here is so good it makes me wanna climb the highest peak and punch the face of God.”  Perhaps this guy had too many Campfire Coffees (coffee with Makers Mark bourbon and cream and sugar)!

And the prices are pretty reasonable: for example you can get a happy-hour Ranger Burger for $6.50 or Tacos for $5 and try the chef’s choice of flavored pop-corn for only a buck.  Colton emphasized the reliance on local vendors such as Sheridan FruitGrand Central Bakery and Newman’s Fish Market.

TJ, the bartender, serving "Murph: - a Ranger Station regular

TJ, the bartender, serving “Murph: – a Ranger Station regular

Another limitation, however, appears to be lack of staffing especially given the bar’s popularity.  You order both your drinks and food at the bar and the night we were there the only individual taking orders and making drinks was quite harried and spent a lot of time in the kitchen which created a line waiting to order.

Servers bring the food, but the expectation appears to be that you bus your own dishes after your finish. “There is also a dish bin conveniently located for customers to bus their own tables and a tipping option – before the food is prepared.”  (Yelp 6/6/16)

Low-key decor

Low-key décor

The décor is cool and understated.  According to TJ, the bartender I talked to on my second visit and who has worked there since the opening, the owner did all the work on the knotty-pine bar and booths, himself.

There are items such as shovels, axes, lanterns, cross country skis, etc.  hanging on the wall to convey a forest-type environment.

“If you somehow woke up inside the Ranger Station, it would be easy to believe you were actually inside a ranger station. The tiny and rustic Hawthorne District bar looks very much like a Roosevelt-era public works cabin, from the picnic-table-style wooden benches to slatted lawn chairs.

Framed topographic maps and acoustic guitars hang from the walls, and a malfunctioning stove hood provides a cool draft from the kitchen. It’s a decidedly simple place.”  (2015 Willamette Week Bar Guide)

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The Hug Point

Hicks raved over the Hug Point (Hornitos tequila, grapefruit and cranberry) one of five cocktails they serve, and on my first visit, I downed a strong Czech Pilsner from Bouy Beer Company in Astoria  (6.2 ABV – 35 IBU), one of the seven draft beers and one cider available.  My next visit, I attacked a good Hood River beer – a Double Mountain Kolisch (5.2 ABV – 40 IBU)

And perhaps I digress, but as long as the subject is ranger stations and a forest-type environment, it provides an opportunity to praise an absolutely marvelous book by New York Times columnist and author, Timothy Egan –  The Big Burn – which weaves a fascinating narrative on two topics:

  • Teddy Roosevelt’s and Gifford Pinchot’s efforts to fight the robber barons of the timber and mining companies and the railroads to preserve the public lands as a national treasure for every citizen.
  • The fire which started in August 20, 1910 that moved through the parched forests of Oregon, Idaho and Montana in a raging inferno, killing many and devouring towns:

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“Forest rangers had assembled nearly 10,000 men – college boys, day-workers, immigrants from the mining camps – to fight the fire.  But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers or anyone else knew how to subdue them……

….The Big Burn saved the forests even as it destroyed them: the heroism shown by the rangers turned public opinion permanently in their favor and became the creation myth that droved the Forest Service….”

And since I opened the door with a small side trip about Tim Egan’s book, to give you another sample of his colorful writing, check out his New York Times opinion piece on 6/9/16 entitled, “Lord of Lies.”  While Thebeerchaser does not usually venture into the political realm, this one is too relevant and noteworthy to ignore:

I no more expect CNN to set Wolf Blitzer’s beard on fire than to instantly call out the Mount Everest of liars. Trump lies about big things (there is no drought in California) and small things (his hair spray could not affect the ozone layer because it’s sealed within Trump Tower). He lies about himself, and the fake self he invented to talk about himself. He’s been shown to lie more than 70 times in a single event.

Professional truth-seekers have never seen anything like Trump, surely the most compulsive liar to seek high office. To date, the nonpartisan PolitiFact has rated 76 percent of his statements lies — 57 percent false or mostly false, and another 19 percent ‘Pants on Fire’ fabrications. Only 2 percent — 2 percent! — of his assertions were rated true, and another 6 percent mostly true. Hillary Clinton, who is not exactly known for fealty to the facts, had a 28 percent total lie score including a mere 1 percent Pants on Fire.

But back to the Ranger Station bar……..

A small but diverse group of micro-brews on tap

A small but diverse group of micro-brews on tap

There are a slew of good bars in the Barmuda Triangle – sometimes known as the Stumble Zone in southeast Portland.

While the Ranger Station space has limitations which may ultimately have led to the demise of its forerunners, it still has a good vibe and some loyal regulars who enjoy the music and the opportunity to have a drink and some good food close to home.

Before the crowds arrive

Before the crowds arrive

 

But you may want to get there early, so you can then move on to some other watering holes that are more expansive in both their space and their vision.

Of course, if the owners have a strong perspective and want to promote their venture, they would be smart to negotiate with the owner of the adjacent space which is even connected to the Ranger Station by a hallway – they also use common restrooms.

P1030925While some of the neighbors in the area might not want to lose the Fat Straw, (coffee, bubble tea and sandwiches), it could provide the room for the Ranger Station to adequately fit the bands, bar regulars and even some mountain men from the forest that might amble in searching for a good mug!

The Ranger Station  4260 SE Hawthorne