OConnors keeps chugging
- Paul Duchene
- Portland Tribune - Features
Despite the loss of its old digs and a men-only restriction, the bar remains a popular draw
O'Connor's lost its lease at 415 S.W. Washington St. in 1991, downtown Portland lost a bit of history. It had been the last all-male bar in the city, capitulating in 1972.
But O'Connor's didn't stay lost for long: It went from one historical site to another.
'Don said he never heard any man cuss in O'Connor's until they allowed women in,' Tim Collett says with a laugh. Collett is co-owner of the current O'Connor's Restaurant in downtown Multnomah Village, in a building that dates from 1902 and had been a bakery, a bar and a bank at different times.
Collett is recalling non-PC comments by Don Arel, father of his business partner, Steve. The elder Arel still keeps an eye on things and makes bank runs for the business, even though he's in his mid-80s. 'And he still complains about the cost of light bulbs and toilet paper,' Collett says.
But the continuity that keeps the elder Arel coming to O'Connor's contributes in a large measure to its success. Chances are, any evening you wander into the bar and adjoining restaurant you'll find locals deep in conversation with each other or veteran bartender Carl Smith.
'One of my pet interests is history,' Collett says. 'I love it when the locals come in, and I can sit down and talk. Old people are living history. They know everything about the community Ñ who did this, who drank that and what bullet went through where.'
The sixtysomething Smith came with the building Ñ he worked at Zoe's, which preceded O'Connor's on the site Ñ and can often be found behind the handsome bar, below the upside-down clock. 'He's a pro's pro,' Collett says.
O'Connor's has 15 full-time and 15 part-time employees; many are old-timers with up to 15 years' experience with the establishment.
'Steve and I have a wonderful relationship,' jokes Collett, explaining that Arel is in Mexico 'so he won't have to learn the new computer.
'Steve's the Robert Redford character Ñ the schmoozer. He's why our catering side does well. I like being back here doing the book work, coming up with food ideas.'
O'Connor's specializes in Southern and Tex-Mex dishes ranging from $7 to $14 and including Cajun oyster clubs, hush puppies, gumbos, shrimp creoles and enchiladas.
'We started in New Orleans,' says Collett, sporting a New Orleans Jazz T-shirt, 'and we're working our way along the Gulf Coast.'
Built at street level on Southwest Capitol Highway, O'Connor's boasts a deck two stories high in the rear, which was added when Collett and Arel remodeled in 1991. A ground-level patio has been added to the adjacent building to the east, which was purchased to handle dinners and concerts.
'We were going to knock a hole in the wall (to the current location), but we couldn't afford it because then we'd have to seismically upgrade everything,' Collett says.
Collett cooks at lunchtime Ñ 'dinner's a young man's game' Ñ and Arel often washes dishes beside him.
'That way we can see what works and what doesn't,' says Collett, who describes their management style as 'professionally relaxed.'
People wait as long as 45 minutes for deck seating in the summer, but Collett offers a solution. He sends them down to Annie Bloom's Books 'and they often come back with a book under one arm.'
Collett says as long as his partner's friends keep coming in, O'Connor's will stay busy.
'He must have gone to high school for 40 years,' he says of Arel. 'He knows everybody who graduated between 1942 and 1999.'