For years, Skyline Tavern lay moldering atop Cornell Mountain.
After almost 70 years under family ownership, the onetime speakeasy had fallen into a neglected afterlife as a cash-only, Rainier-can video poker bar. Though the property had been on the market for a long time, the old place was in too much disrepair to sell.
In 2014, the price dropped. The value was assessed on the price of the land—with the bar as a probable teardown, likely to become another McMansion.
But unlike so many old bars we've written about recently, that's not what happened. Instead, the revitalized Skyline Tavern is our 2016 Bar of the Year.
In some ways, not much has changed at the Skyline, which sits a 15-minute drive into the hills from downtown Portland. It's a ramshackle hilltop roadhouse filled with wood grain, old beer signs and a pool table. A cracked cow skull rests near a one-of-a-kind picture of Neil Young—an outtake from an old Rolling Stone shoot. The sign above the door, older than your mother, says "Saloon."
In other ways, this is a whole new place. The beers pouring out of the taps are the Commons Urban Farmhouse or Pfriem Strong Dark. You can pay with a credit card. And the crowd is a mix of the old blue-collar crew playing pool, hikers who walked up from the city on forest trails, and millionaires who live down the street playing horseshoes in the backyard pit.
"When you come in here," says bartender Mandy Becker (no relation to the owner), a photographer working here as a much-needed break from taking headshots of lawyers, "it's normally millionaire, millionaire, poor person, construction worker, millionaire, all of them just hanging out together."
Go out to the back patio on a weekend evening, and chances are the first thing you'll smell is burgers and dogs on the grill—cooked by people who brought their own burgers and dogs—a standing backyard cookout where everyone's always invited and the charcoal's always waiting for you.
You can't see another building for miles, and when you sit down amid the pine needles, it's on seats made of decades-old brick. Everything smells like trees and a little bit of smoke.
"Are we camping right now?" my companion asked on a recent sunny evening.
"We're still in Portland," I said.
Skyline Tavern is a forest vacation that's somehow also just another Tuesday happy hour, a summer-camp cabin within city limits. On weekend nights in the summer, the bar projects films on a screen, and bands like Lewi Longmire make the trek up the hill to sing songs about the Vanport flood.
But like a lot of impossible dreams, the new Skyline almost didn't happen at all.
New owner Scott Ray Becker was brought up Cornell Mountain by a family of Sherpas.
The family that lived next door to Becker had emigrated from Nepal and dreamed of serving their home country's food at Skyline Tavern. "He'd been trying to open a food cart for years," Becker says of his neighbor.
The family asked Becker for help buying the bar, and he put together an offer. To his surprise, it was accepted.
But before the deal could close, his neighbors backed out. "They went and saw their guide," Becker says. "He said it was bad for karma—they shouldn't own the tavern. And I thought, 'I can't run this thing.'"
Becker was no barman. He's a documentary filmmaker, an environmental activist, and a co-founder of the Orlo foundation that publishes local magazine Bear Deluxe.
But he didn't want to let the bar die. "I felt this compulsion not to let it get torn down," Becker says.
This was where he drank in the '70s, before he was legal age, says Becker. "We all knew that the Skyline wouldn't card," he says And before him, Becker's mother drank here—ducking out from classes at Miss Catlin's (now Catlin Gabel School). "Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon came here," he says. "Sam Elliott used to come around."
So he asked his friends for help. Margot Leonard, who worked for years at Grand Central Bakery, helped him with the food. John McBarron, who managed bars for 23 years, said he'd give Becker six months of his life to get Skyline Tavern going. They threw Olympia Provisions sausage and Grand Central panini on the menu, and installed a credit-card reader.
They also put in better beer—including frequent taps from Ecliptic and Double Mountain as a tribute to the years Becker spent in the late '80s working at BridgePort Brewing alongside brewers John Harris and Charlie Devereaux.
At first, Skyline Tavern did only $80 of business a day—and Becker quickly realized the bar needed to hang on to the shitty bottled beer and the video poker to keep the old crowd coming back. Plus, every time a musician played at 6 pm, the Skyline got noise complaints from wealthy neighbors, even though the nearest house was a half-mile away.
But once neighbors got word the bar had changed and they started slowly filtering in, the complaints petered out. Becker sent panini to neighbors as a goodwill gesture.
A year into the bar's tenure, McBarron is still there helping run the place, even though he said he'd be gone months before. And Becker has turned the adjoining house into his film studio, where he's making a documentary in response to the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon.
The tavern is putting together a sculpture garden in the multi-acre backyard, and there's a new art foundation next door, the Black Dog Collective, named after Becker's bout with depression and the black Lab that helped him through it.
And within the month, the Skyline will bring back another piece of history. Before he began restoring the bar, Becker had headed up the effort to save the old Gas and Coke Building that had stood off Highway 30, on the way up to the tavern. His grandfather had been president of the company.
After months of talks, Becker says he's being allowed to take one of the building's four clock towers and install it in front of the Skyline.
"We'll have a monument," he says. "The thing is 13 feet tall, 4,500 pounds, copper-clad. We've got 30 days to pick it up."