A tour of the best dive bars in Portland before they disappear
written by Beau Estes | photos by Emily Joan Greene
God help me, I love a good bar.
Coming of age in Northwest Portland in the early 2000s, almost all of my political disputes, romantic escapades and late-night shenanigans involved a stop at O’Brien’s, the Green Room or The Matador. If I felt like spreading my wings across the city a bit I’d make sure to have a whiskey and water at the old Virginia Cafe on Park Avenue, drink cheap beer and talk college hoops with Magar Magar at Slabtown or devote an entire day to my shuffleboard game at the Black Cat in Sellwood.
Now, they’re all gone.
Which is fine—it’s the nature of the business. But it sure would have been nice to have given them a proper send-off.
Having shared these sentiments with another longtime bar aficionado over a chicken-fried steak and corned beef hash brunch at Muu-Muu’s—highly underrated brunch spot, by the way—he pointed out the obvious. I should go on a weekend adventure to our favorite dive bars that are still around—before they disappear. “Just don’t mention how often we used to go to The Gypsy,” he said of the now-shuttered NW 21st Street bar. “Jesus God. That’s embarrassing.”
Portland Dive Bars: Friday
The first stop on the late winter weekend catch-em-while-you-can tour was the Pearl District’s Low Brow Lounge (motto: It’s not for everyone). Home to decent tots, a solid tap list and completely dismissive décor, the Low Brow was intended to serve as our first bar on the west side of the river before we hit a Dream Team lineup of Yurr’s, Joe’s Cellar and the Nob Hill Bar and Grill.
Then the whiskey with the beer backs began.
That’s the story and the beauty of the Low Brow. It’s a great place to catch up with old friends. Not too loud, comfortable small tables near the bar and a cave-like quality that completely shuts out the outside world. We made it to Yurr’s for a dark beer and some popcorn and allegedly had a cool-down drink at Joe’s Cellar, but I can’t confirm that.
Well-played, Low Brow, well-played.
Portland Dive Bars: Saturday
The Reel M Inn on SE Division needs no extra love from me, but it’s as fantastic as you’ve heard, especially if you go early in the day and beat the rush for the fryer. We started Saturday with a pre-game PBR and the best fried chicken and jojos north of Odell Lake. It’s worth noting that The Reel M Inn has a great beer list—Gigantic, Boneyard, Buoy and Fort George were all on tap—but when plotting an afternoon of day drinking, we deemed $2 PBRs the responsible choice.
Trying to hit up as many neighborhoods as possible, we reluctantly tore ourselves away from a conversation at the bar that may have included one of Tonya Harding’s youth-circuit figuring skating rivals. (Her claim seemed … intriguing.)
Next on our dive bar adventure list was the Twilight Room in North Portland—good pool hall and decent burgers for second lunch, but we sure felt old when the college kids came in. About a two-beer walk from the University of Portland, the “T-Room” feels a bit like an enlarged Max’s Tavern, the classic near-campus bar in Eugene. Think day drinkers and a blue-collar after-work crowd mixed with waves of good-natured folks born during the Clinton administration.
Of course, our finger-licking-good chicken and horrific pool games were just warm-up acts for the most anticipated stop on the this-may-end-in divorce tour—karaoke at The Alibi.
Known for its vast array of liquid lunches, The Alibi has spiffed up a bit in recent years, but not too much—it still proudly offers an array of drink “bowls.” Visualize mini-versions of the jungle juice you brewed in your rathole college apartment bathtub, but actually tasty. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t like sharing a drink called The Glory Bowl?
Shockingly, one Glory Bowl and several Big Bad Voodoo Daddy songs into our stay at The Alibi, our energy levels began to fade. To be perfectly honest—and this might sound sacreligious—we were kind of dive bar-ed out.
The solution? A classic drink at a classic bar.
Not sure what this does for my hole-in-the-wall bar cred, but the perfect end to my Portland dive bar adventure was an outstanding old fashioned at the Driftwood Room in the Hotel deLuxe.
Stuffed from lunches one and two, hoarse from karaoke and tipsy from the adventure, I ended my Portland dive bar adventure silly happy at the kidney-shaped bar. The bartenders were great—they gave us tips for Dive Bar Tour 2.0 and a fun, anecdote-filled history of the hotel—the drinks were exceptional and the dark, cozy atmosphere oozed Sinatra cool.
The weekend, spent in the company of my fellow Old German-loving brethren, was a roaring success.