Weekend!Nightlife: On the Rocks
The year 2007 was a banner one for bar openings in Portland. But rather than do a recap of all the great new places that have opened, I decided, during the final days of the year, to go back to the beginning.
In the Lutz Tavern (4639 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., 503-774-0353), around 1990, I was served beer in public for the very first time.
Back then, Thursday night was the big night for college students, and when my friend and I walked in the door, the place was standing room only. Someone handed me a glass, and filled it from a pitcher of Blitz.
Someone else was passing around a hot pickle, which had been cut into bite-size pieces. Can a pickle really be so hot that one person can't eat the whole thing? I didn't believe it until I overconfidently tossed a slice into my mouth. It filled my head with stupefying vapors of horseradish.
The Lutz doesn't serve those pickles anymore, but people still ask about them, the current bartender says.
He claims that they had to stop because the horseradish flavoring was found to be carcinogenic. A huge jar of pickled eggs- white blobs floating in a sulfurous yellow preservative - takes the pickles' place.
The guy sitting to my right offers to buy me an egg. No thanks, I say.
Then he dares me to eat one. I accept. But the bartender refuses to serve me. 'No dares,' he says. 'I'm done dealing with egg throw-up.'
Eventually my new friend and I persuade him to give us two eggs. I can force down only a single corrosive bite, but my friend eats his and finishes off mine. He's new to the neighborhood, he tells me, and he decided to check out the bar on the recommendation of his father.
His dad and his uncle used to drink together at the Lutz. They'd stagger home, he says, and shoot their .22 rifles into phone books.
'Why did they shoot phone books?' I ask.
'So the bullets wouldn't go through the walls,' he explains - it being late at night, they had to confine their target practice to the indoors.
The Wild West saloon days are over, but for the most part the Lutz remains almost surreally unchanged - not just since my college days, but since well before I was born.
For Christmas, the room is hung with colorful metallic ornaments that spread out across the low ceiling like fireworks. Off-duty bartender Robin Clarke, who is to my left as I sit at the bar, says that some of the decorations are 50 years old.
One of the bar's owners, Brian Barisich, told her that as a small child he was frightened of the very same plastic Santa that now is hanging on the wall. (Founded by Bill and Eva Lutz in 1947, the tavern has been in the Barisich family since 1954.)
Clowns go, good drinks stay
Partway through college, my friends and I decided that the Lutz was too popular. We wanted to go somewhere less obvious, more obscure and free of hipsters.
That's when we discovered the Space Room (4800 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-235-8303).
Obviously, we only thought we were the first to discover it. The place has been around since 1959, and when we stepped in the door it was like going back in time.
It was dark and peaceful. A few old men sat at the bar. We had our pick of the deep, enveloping red booths, and we splurged on the bar's signature Bloody Marys, despite the steep price (I believe it was $3.50).
The Space Room has changed a bit since then. The Sputnik-era neon sign out front was destroyed by wind in 2004. A couple of decades of renewed popularity have worn the place down a bit, and a huge mural covers walls that used to be hung with paintings of sad clowns.
But the Bloody Marys have continued, still huge and still good. I go back one more time, just to be sure.
Still pouring after many years
For my 21st birthday, a friend took me to Huber's (411 S.W. Third Ave., 503-228-5686) on the back of her motorcycle, and we drank Spanish coffees.
I returned, a few nights ago. Huber's is not relatively unchanged - it's precisely, profoundly, eerily unchanged.
Spanish coffees still are the specialty of the house, poured from a height and set ablaze, a technique that was very much in vogue pre-Prohibition.
With its arches and pillars, its stained-glass ceiling and the cloistered booths in the back, Huber's is more like a church than any other bar in Portland. But it gets pretty bustling in here, especially during happy hour.
'Where do I know you from?' the woman sitting next to me asks the bartender. 'Where did you used to work?'
'I've been working here for 25 years,' he tells her. He looks about 30 years old, and I wonder if the air here has somehow kept him from aging.
Huber's bills itself as Portland's oldest restaurant. Its name dates to 1895, while the establishment has been at its present location since 1911.
My drinking career is just a flash in the pan to this bar's history.
I'm not sure how it happened that the bars of my formative years turned out to be such long-lived ones. But as the fact forces me to consider my own age, I'll take it as a good omen.