Weekend Nightlife: On the Rocks

Coyote Ugly knockoff needs more practice and polish
by: Christopher Onstott, American Cowgirls bartender Terri Leeseberg shows off her flair behind the bar.

'Can you make something special for my friend?' I ask the bartender.

'Sure, what's the occasion?' he asks.

'It's the one-year anniversary of my divorce,' says my friend.

This is a lie. Or rather, I should say, a back story I concocted for the purposes of this particular undercover mission.

Without further ado, the bartender grabs a pint glass, a shaker and a bottle of Malibu rum. He does a bit of juggling. He tosses ice into the glass. He does a bit more juggling with another bottle of rum and a wedge of lime. He drops the shaker on the floor, but fortunately, at this point in the proceedings, it's empty. He juggles some more, pausing briefly to wipe a few beads of sweat from his brow. At last, he balances the pint glass on the back of his elbow, pours a stream of booze into it, and with visible concentration bumps the glass into the air, catches it in his hand, and hands it to the easily consoled divorcé.

This is one of the performances we've come here, to a new bar called American Cowgirls, to see. The other follows immediately. Before I have time to pay for the drink, we're shooed away from the bartop by the feet of the dancing girls. These are the namesake cowgirls, dressed in jeans and black T-shirts, five in all, who scamper up onto the room's two bars for a choreographed number. Like the bartender, they could use a bit more rehearsing.

An MC roams the floor, speaking into a cordless mike, rustling up applause for the bartenders, the cowgirls and himself. He also vaults up onto the bar to perform a little karaoke. He's no crooning cowboy - the song he belts out is the ubiquitous Bob Seger hit 'Old Time Rock and Roll.'

Colored lights flash and spin across the floor. A fog machine hisses overhead, filling the room with a mist that smells faintly of vanilla. Cocktail servers circulate, each equipped with a collection of test-tubes containing colored liquids in flavors like apple and watermelon. We try an apple. It doesn't taste like apple, and more grievously, it doesn't taste like alcohol, either.

Is this Portland?

American Cowgirls feels like it dropped out of the sky, Wizard of Oz style, and just happened to land here, on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, across from the Convention Center, no less. I hate to think that some visitors will see no more of our city than the Holiday Inn and this totally unrepresentative saloon.

To understand what this place is doing here, you need to know a little bar industry history. Places like American Cowgirls, Seattle's Cowgirls Inc., and a host of other rock-meets-country, boots-meet-bartop establishments are modeled after a New York bar called Coyote Ugly. You've probably heard of Coyote Ugly, either because of the movie of the same name, which came out in 2000, or because it is now a chain, with locations in 14 cities including Las Vegas, New Orleans and Denver.

The original bar banks on sassy, sexy, fire-breathing female bartenders - a sort of in-your-face, Daisy Duke feminism - along with the blatant encouragement of heavy drinking. That, however, is not what's happening here. For one thing, these kids aren't ready to play with fire - head down to Huber's and order a Spanish coffee if you want to see that. For another, the crowd just isn't going wild.

When we arrive, around 11 p.m., the place is pretty full. There's a bachelorette party, a couple of guys in cowboy hats, groups of young men and women sitting around on the Holstein cowhide-patterned seats. Somehow, though, the party never really gets going. Groups start leaving. By a little after midnight, the place is looking kind of empty. A familiar Toby Keith song echoes out over the speakers: 'I love this bar/ It's my kind of place/ Just walking through the front door/ Puts a big smile on my face.' The MC is mouthing the words, but he's the only one.

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