As I mentioned in my 2018 Annual Report, after pursuing this somewhat unusual hobby for a little over seven years, some might wonder which bars of various types or which breweries are my favorites. Conversely, which would I not recommend although there are not many in the latter category.
So over the next few months, while still doing blog posts about bars I visit in 2019, I will try to identify my favorites to this point by category i.e. dive bar, neighborhood establishment, sports bar, brew-pub, etc. – without paying undue attention to defining the criteria for the categories.
As one can see by the first logo pictured above, I was originally going to confine my journey to just Portland watering holes; however, given our robust retirement travel, it has expanded to cover bars in Europe, Alaska, Hawaii, a number of regions in the continental US and throughout Oregon from the High Desert to the wonderful and scenic Oregon coast.
I’ll divide each category into separate posts covering Portland establishments and those outside the Rose City. For each bar, I will provide a brief narrative on my rationale for it being on my “all-star” list.
I might add that one of the joys of this undertaking – especially on our trips, has been sharing the experience with my wife of 39 years.
Janet has transitioned from almost exclusively drinking wine, to enjoying IPAs – especially the hoppy ones. That said, she demurs when I suggest hitting a dive bar — there have been one or two exceptions when we have been traveling.
I welcome your comments and opinions. It should be also noted that I am not ranking these within the all-star categories, although I might feel inclined to indicate one that supersedes the others in each specific group. Most of the narrative about each bar was applicable when I reviewed them. Things may have changed since then, but hey – with 286 bars down and a lot more to go, I don’t have time to go back and update!
If you want to see the original post for the four I highlight below, you can click on the purple link in the name of the bar which precedes its story.
Cheers and Go Beavs!
Best Portland Area Dive Bars
The Ship Tavern – December 10, 2012
The Ship, located in nearby Multnomah Village, could make the all-star list just from its unique mural on the exterior front wall, but this bar is a “must visit” for those who appreciate the ambiance of a good dive.
One could assert that it gets some competition as an iconic watering hole from Renners’ Bar and Grill, another great dive just around the corner and reviewed by Thebeerchaser in August, 2017 – unfortunately, now closed because of a disastrous fire. However, even when both were operating The Ship clearly anchored the exceptional bars in the Village.
It’s aptly described by this Yelp reviewer who wrote: “The ship isn’t anything to write home to Mom about…..heck it probably isn’t even a place I would tell my Mom I went….but it knows what/who it is.” (Yelp 9/1/17)
The Ship has been in the same location since 1946 and this site of a former garage has big-time history and character. If you go on Thursday, your table will have free peanuts in the shell – the shells go on the floor when you are done.
There’s also a great juke box with the favorite plays when I visited in 2012 as follows:
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – “Get a Job”
Bad Company – “Bad Company”
The Raconteurs – “Steady as She Goes”
Waylon Jennings – “Good-Hearted Woman”
When you want to play a song in the juke, you tell the bartender who turns off the stereo. The old-time pinball machine is also great.
Da Bears, Da Cubs and Da Sox! – Now there are several bars in Portland which purport to be Chicago Bears’ bars – these include the Buffalo Gap and the Hob Nob Grill, but The Ship Tavern is very passionate about their favorite NFL Team. They also like the Cubbies and White Sox.
The Ship can be considered a Chicago hangout as evidenced by the fact that any time the Bears, Cubs or the Sox play, Pabst Old Style Beer – A Chicago favorite – is $1.50 per can and margaritas and Bloody Mary’s are $3.50.
Debbie, the friendly bartender, emphasized, “This doesn’t apply to Blackhawk games – we’re not big on hockey.”
Furthermore, every Sunday during football season they “offer meals that are themed after the opposing team.” The Sunday after my first visit, they played the Minnesota Vikings. The special was Tator-tot-Hotdish and Caesar salad for $5.50.
According to Wikipedia, “Hotdish is a variety of baked casserole that typically contains a starch, a meat or other protein, and a canned and/ or frozen vegetable mixed with canned soup. The dish is popular in Minnesota and North Dakota.”
Part of the lore was also supplied by former Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter, Jay Waldron. The bar was a hangout for the Portland Rugby Club (of which Waldron is a charter member) and they had their Book-and-Brew discussions at The Ship. (I didn’t ask what percentage was brew and the allocation of book, nor the nature of the literature purportedly dissected.)
The overall character and décor make this bar the epitome of a good dive bar including the pictures and memorabilia – and the stories surrounding each one of them. In the words of one patron:
“The Ship is simply your quintessential dive bar……It’s an ultra local joint with good history…….that dark and dank local bar with a handful of guys in trucker hats and grey mustache’s…..”(Yelp 2/29/12)
Candace, the friendly bartender
The Ship Tavern 7827 SW 35th Ave. Portland (Multnomah Village)
Gil’s Speakeasy – May 9, 2017
When they named it a speakeasy, they weren’t kidding. There is no sign with the name and other than a few innocuous beer signs in the front windows, no indication that this is actually a bar.
It’s on the ground floor of a multi-story apartment building and based on the surrounding structures, you could walk right by it if you didn’t know it was there. Perhaps that’s why PDXbars.com described it as, “Small, hard to find bar, with a huge personality.”
A viewing slot like a traditional speakeasy
And this is okay with Brett Gilhuly, who bought and renamed the bar in 2004 – it’s been around since 1939. He stated in a media interview, “If you could find it, you were more than welcome. And if you couldn’t, – find something else.”
Brett also originated their advertising slogan, “The nicest assholes in town!.” Gil’s wife, Katie is the co-owner and bartender and a very nice person….The dingy, although spacious bar, is also distinguished by its collections of signs, old bottles, photos and memorabilia.
Katie and bartender, Judd – “the best bartender in town!”
It features one of the few full-length shuffleboard tables remaining in Portland bars and has a great juke-box with a slew of albums ranging from Otis Redding and Sam Cooke to Pearl Jam and Guns ‘N Roses.
Although possibly a little inconsistent with the preferences of the typical dive bar regular, they even have “Teenager in Love,” by Dion and the Belmonts – it hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.
Dion and the Belmonts!!
But the best feature is their daily food special – you’ll have to go to my original blog post to see all of them, but to give you an idea, on Monday – which is also Dirty Bingo Night, you can get three tacos for a buck and on Friday (when I ate there) – a Sloppy Joe with chips – also for $1.
The Friday special for $1
The large pool table with red felt is a nice touch and is in a comfortable adjacent room. They have a good tap list and beer is cheap.
Even the coin-operated breathalyzer is a nice feature and one which is not found often in Portland Bars.
Summed up in a dated, but still very accurate Yelp review on 4/17/14:
“In my top 5 dives in Portland. this place is great. drinks are reasonable, strong pours, and the food is great and affordable. check out their turkey dinner. delicious, home made, cant be missed. place is cozy.”
Gil’s Speakeasy 609 1/2 SE Taylor
Mock Crest Tavern – May 23, 2012
The Mock Crest is definitely a classic and borders on being a neighborhood establishment rather than classified as a dive; however, although it has some great features, it’s characterized by the wonderful environment of a dive bar. Perhaps, this Yelp comment summed it up best although the reviewer equivocates to some extent:
“Hmmmm…I cannot classity this as a Dive Bar. I’ve been to a generous handful in my day, and this is upscale divey, if not a classy dive bar. It is a gem.”
Yep. It’s a dive albeit a classy one…..
So what are some of the distinguishing factors of this historic establishment which has operated for about 70 years and was named after North Portland entrepreneur and philanthropist, John Mock.
North Portland icon
A pharmacy and butcher shop/meat market occupied the building before the bar. A picture of Mock hangs on the wall as you go out to the bar’s outside patio – not fancy, but a great place to contemplate the God’s gift of beer!
Mock Crest has eight rotating draft beers and about 21 bottled and cans. Happy Hour is twice each day – from 3 to 6 P.M.and 11 PM to close.
Good food can be an exception to the rule at dive bars, but the bar has a good menu (including fried pickles) and gets favorable comments about its food including breakfast.
When we were there six years ago, the menu stated, “Breakfast served – any time.” My colleague, Intellectual Property lawyer, John Mansfield, decided to be coy and stated, “Okay, I’ll take French Toast from the Renaissance Era.” I see that they now serve it only until noon on weekdays – probably so they never have to listen to that comment ever again…..
Mansfield – he’s welcome back provided someone else orders the food!
Live Music – Although the size of the bar is pretty limited, it is well known for its long history of good live music. Their website states:
“(We) play host to NoPo’s best live music every Thursday thru Saturday. From Rock ‘Roll and Country, to Jazz, Pop, Blues and R&B, you’ll enjoy local legends, touring artists, as well as up and coming stars. Best of all there never a cover charge – ever.”
The evening we were there we got to hear the Eagle Ridin’ Papas featuring legendary musician, Johnnie Ward, who was described as “a living study of Northwest Roots and Blues Movement with nearly 40 years of performance art to his credit.” You are close up to the musicians and they like to interact.
At least one reviewer (Yelp 10/7/16) objects to the space constraints although most patrons (including John and I) like this intimate set-up:
“Want to have a conversation with some friends? Forget it. Want to use the bathroom? Forget it, unless you don’t mind making direct eye contact with the lead singer while you squeeze through the drummer’s floor tom and the bass amp.” (I guess Johnnie Ward realized how old I was because he smiled and nodded empathetically when I made the trip…..)
Johnnie Ward – up close and personal..
Mock Crest describes itself with several nice slogans – all of which are apt:
Home of the North Portland Blues
Easy to Find – Hard to Leave
Where Friends Meet
And in far North Portland, it’s a bit out of the way, but well worth a visit – one of the classics to which I will look forward to returning. The character is best described by this one succinct review.
“Small, hard to find bar with a huge personality.”
Mock Crest Tavern 3435 N Lombard Street Portland
The Standard – June 26, 2018
While with the Mock Crest Tavern, one can make an argument that it is not a traditional dive bar, that is not the case with The Standard. The entrance, shown above, confirms before you enter, that you are arriving at a true dive – and this is affirmed when you see the interior.
You walk in through the covered patio, which is vaguely reminiscent of the days before Oregon’s smoke-free legislation passed in 2008 and the interior of every dive bar had a hazy, smoke filled environment, which would be hazardous for anyone without pristine lungs. (The second-hand smoke during the times I was there was pretty minimal, however.)
Individuals and groups sit at the picnic tables chatting, smoking and working on computers – often accompanied by their pets. And they drink cheap beer.
It’s a bar, which even with a great reputation, has been below the radar in an inconspicuous location on NE 22nd Avenue – just off Burnside. And some might assert that with the dark wooden fence with a dumpster in the middle, fronting the bar, it looks like a recycling center. Opened in 2007, it doesn’t have the long history of some other classic bars, but demands recognition.
It’s replete with old-style pinball machines and games, a pool table and even a photo-booth.
There’s also a curiously-short shuffleboard – with empty kegs underneath, old beers signs, tacky art, an idiosyncratic (or bizarre) cracked mirror – the full length of the bar – and well, a lot of stuff that just makes you feel welcome.
Another distinguishing characteristic is a noticeable affinity for Hamm’s Beer. It’s manifested by its Wednesday all-day $1 Hamm’s pints, numerous logos and a notable stuffed Hamm’s Bear over the bar wearing a Portland Trailblazer jersey. The Standard, like a lot of dives, is not the go-to place for quality pub food. Its line-up is confined to items such as chips and salsa, a few sandwiches (micro-waved), mini-corndogs and fried ravioli(?)
They also have a drink special each day which includes the aforementioned Hamm’s special on Wednesday.
I don’t know why I loved this watering hole so much. Was it the overall environment, the sense of community – reflected by such features as their Crappy Book Club – “Bring your crappy books and trade them for other crappy books,” the annual chili cooking contest, the Christmas decorations and showing of Santa Horror Movies?
Or was it just the people with whom I experienced the bar – a group of some of my favorites Beerchasing regulars.
But The Standard ranks as my favorite dive bar to this point in the seven and one-half years of this pursuit. Perhaps it’s best conveyed by former Willamette Week Project Editor, Matthew Korfhage.
In 2017, he garnered first place for his columns on food writing in the American Association of Alternative Newspapers. Matthew has reviewed establishments while living in St. Louis, Chicago, Munich and Bordeaux. He wrote the following in the annual Willamette Week Best Bars Guide.
2016 – “It’s the best little bar in Portland, and I won’t hear otherwise.”
2017: “The bar is cheap, no-nonsense fun in a way that takes all comers and yet is loving towards its long-time regulars. These days in Portland that makes The Standard not very standard at all. It makes it a GD treasure.”
So take in The Standard experience. And while they have some good craft beer on tap, in the interest of honoring the character of this establishment, belly up to the bar and ask bartender, Tyler, for a draft Hamm’s.
The Standard 14 NE 22nd Ave. Portland
Well that’s it folks and stay tuned in the coming weeks for a similar all-star list of dive bars outside of Portland. And remember when you are contemplating this topic, the wisdom of Seattle author, Mike Seeley in his book Seattle’s Best Dive Bars:
“But really, no collection of characteristics can be melded to truly define what makes a bar a dive…..The term ‘dive’ is bestowed with a spoonful of love….What they have in common aren’t so much attributes, but a state of mind — you just know one when you see one.” (Pages 9-10)