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Huber's Spanish coffee keeps Rose City traditions well lit

Bread & Brew: For more than a century, stately restaurant endures


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Huber's signature drink is the Spanish coffee, lit and mixed tableside at Portland's oldest restaurant.Welcome to Portland! Here are some things you should know: It’s pronounced Will-AM-ette. Les Schwab fixes flat tires for free. And if you want a Spanish coffee, go to Huber’s.

I was taken to Huber’s to celebrate my 21st birthday, and while most of the bars that were around then are gone or radically altered, Huber’s is exactly the same.

But that’s nothing. My entire drinking career is a blip in the history of Huber’s, which has continued more or less the same since 1910, when Mr. Frank Huber installed his already well-established business in its current location. It was originally founded down the street in 1879, making it Portland’s oldest continuously operating bar.

The Spanish coffee is a relatively new development, dating merely to the 1970s. The simple showmanship of setting alcohol on fire is played up by seasoned bartenders, who flame and douse about 5,000 of these cocktails every month.

It’s a ritual, conducted in a room that looks like a chapel, with panels and pillars of old Philippine mahogany. The mirrors behind the bar are framed in gothic arches of dark wood. An elegant art nouveau skylight is made of stained glass, and high-backed booths look like church pews — and set the tone for a memorable scene in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film “My Own Private Idaho.”

The patron saint here is Jim Louie, whose portrait hangs high up on the wall, along with an American flag. Louie was hired by Frank Huber as a cook in 1891, and he died after work one day in 1946. His family gradually took over ownership of the business, which is run today by a grandniece and two grandnephews.

Turkey dinners

During the holiday season, the place is mobbed. There’s no music, just a cheerful roar, with an occasional off note. Despite more than a century of practice, Huber’s doesn’t seem quite able to manage its own popularity.

The suburbanites who stand waiting in the long carpeted hall are grumpy, and when I ate here a few nights ago, our dinner was served before our drinks. It was especially awkward considering the presentation involved: a waiter arrives with a tray full of ingredients and implements that he has to set down somewhere before launching into the choreography of the Spanish coffee. If you’ve been here more than two or three times, you kind of want to tell him, don’t worry about the flair, I just want my drink. But a nearby table of six really enjoyed it. Kids are fascinated by the show, and obviously, they can’t order their own.

Huber’s other, older claim to fame is turkey, which has been a specialty of the house since the Victorian era. These days, that means a traditional Thanksgiving dinner served all year. For $16.50, you get a very homemade looking pile of white and dark meat with sage dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and house made beer bread. It could be a lifesaver some wet, lonely, hung-over or homesick afternoon.

David H. Louie, one of the owners, guesses that 65 percent to 75 percent of diners order some kind of turkey — if not the full dinner, then a turkey sandwich, turkey pot pie, or a turkey Cobb salad. On Christmas and Thanksgiving, the restaurant does a booming business in complete dinners to go that will serve a whole family.

In the early days, a turkey sandwich came free when you ordered a drink. It was a common way to entice patrons to spend their lunch money on booze.

Back then the hidden location was more of advantage than it is today. A small sign marks the entrance, and the bar is buried in the very center of a large, historic office building. A respectable businessman could duck in, giving the impression that he was on his way to an important meeting, and wet his beak with no one the wiser. And being unobtrusive was ideal during Prohibition, when patrons could order “special tea” — Canadian bootleg served in teacups.

Times have changed, and in 1997 the restaurant expanded, adding a small dining room with street frontage. Most people prefer to sit in the bar, but the street-side real estate reassures passers-by that yes, Huber’s is still around.

And here’s something else you should know: be careful. Any true Portlander has at least one story about at least one crazy night that started out with Spanish coffees at Huber’s.

Huber’s Café, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 411 S.W. Third Ave., 503-228-5686, >www.hubers.com, entrées $10.50-$31.95

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