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Bar of the Week: The Matador

Weekend!Nightlife: This bullfighter never bows out of the ring
by: DENISE FARWELL, Ben Rodriguez makes a drink at the Matador, which narrowly escaped major overhauls and buyers until two employees “saved” it.

Casey Maxwell is lining up bottles of cheap vodka on a shelf. Rebecca Moon Wolfe is organizing the till for the evening shift change. It's part of the routine of setting up the bar for another Saturday night, as they've both been doing here, at the Matador, for years.

It feels slightly different, though, now that the two longtime employees have taken over the lease on West Burnside Street's most magnificent dive. After closing for a mere four days for renovations (the bar hadn't closed for a single day in the six previous years) the Matador reopened Nov. 17.

And things went on pretty much as they always have, with a few minor changes.

Die-hards perhaps will complain that the place just isn't the same now that every single toilet and urinal, in both bathrooms, is functional. They may see it as a bad sign that the number of taps pouring microbrews (five) is now higher than the number of taps pouring Pabst Blue Ribbon (four). But any real threat to the Matador's gritty, red-hued appeal comes from outside.

There's a brand-spanking-new Starbucks right across the street, and a huge condo project down the way. The Matador's regulars are mostly renters from nearby cheap apartments, and those probably won't be around forever. 'The neighborhood's totally changing,' Maxwell says.

Three times over the past year, serious bids on the bar fell through, from investors who most likely would have gutted the place and changed it into something different - 'which is what, if we were smart, we would have done, too,' Maxwell jokes.

After the third sale fell through at the last minute this fall, frustrated former owner Angelo Puccinelli struck a deal with his employees.

'It was so seesaw for the past year,' Wolfe says. 'Now the bar is saved.' Also saved are the jobs of Matador employees, and the safe haven of loyal regulars, some of whom come in every day.

There's a cushy new bench by the front door, and a new DJ booth toward the back. A row of old planters now holds actual plants, and ornamental wagon wheels salvaged from the basement create dividers between some of the tables.

And a new set of small lights shows the bar's unique artwork to good advantage. Maxwell says, 'Everybody was like, man, where did you get all those matador paintings? And I'm like, well, they've been hanging here for the last 30 years.'

- Anne Marie DiStefano

1967 W. Burnside St., 503-222-5822, noon to 2 a.m. daily