Let's get the griping out of the way first: The Sunshine Tavern is not a tavern. It is many delightful things: a beautiful room, a mini-arcade, a chic new restaurant whose slender menu lacks nothing. But it is not a tavern, not in atmosphere and not in priorities.
(Also, on none of my visits to the Sunshine Tavern was any sunshine evident, but it seems unfair to blame the owners for that.)
Names set certain expectations. And if you're a pedantic little jerk like me, this sort of thing can ruin a night out. (I never quite surrendered my grudge against the late Taqueria Nueve: not a taqueria.) I realize this is absurd and self-defeating, which is why I'm glad my principles so often crumple in the face of a really yummy dinner. As it turns out, Sunshine Tavern could wear a pretty hat and call itself the Queen of France and I'd forgive it, on account of the chicken alone.
Sunshine's menu offers just three entrees, plus a handful of inventive pizzas, sandwiches, salads and burgers. Order anything you want as long as it's the fried chicken dinner ($14). You'll be rewarded with perfect, juicy, boneless hunks of bird on fat semolina waffles drizzled with honey. It is heaven. The same chicken is equally good on a spicy sandwich ($11), accompanied by a tawny pile of awesome fries. The chopped salad with french fries in it ($8) gets a lot of attention, but a more pedestrian-sounding iceberg wedge with buttermilk blue cheese dressing ($8) is even better. The baked-egg appetizer ($9), lauded in The Wall Street Journal, is worth trying for novelty, but it's less exciting than a platter of gravy cheese fries ($9). Even the humble burger ($10, more for extras like cheese, eggs or pork belly) holds its own.
None of this is a huge surprise, considering the Sunshine Tavern is owned and run by Jenn Louis and David Welch, the folks behind Lincoln. The drink list is as well edited as the food menu; it includes a handful of specialty cocktails ($7-$8) and eight unusual beers on tap ($5 pints), plus lots of interesting things in bottles.
But if Sunshine is not a tavern, what is it? It's an elegant room, with huge windows, tall tables and rough dark wood smoothed into hard-angled shapes. The bar is made of an old bowling lane, and over it hangs a long, metal, Jenga-style light fixture that will blow your mind. The shuffleboard table at center stage has a lean grace not generally associated with the sport.
Meanwhile, kids are running wild all over the place. Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man bleep their familiar bleeps from the corner. A bartender refers to a window-side six-top as the "party table." The crowd is adult-looking, but they're sipping margaritas dispensed from a slushy machine behind the bar. The star dish—that so-sweet chicken and waffles—is practically dessert. And afterward, you can have a bowl of ice cream ($5) with housemade "Magic Shell" chocolate sauce. Remember Magic Shell? It's still fun!
In short, Sunshine Tavern is a place where you can be a parent and a child at once. In that sense, it might be the quintessential Portland restaurant. It's not a tavern. You wouldn't nestle in with a pint and a paperback. But it's a nice place to try some sophisticated comfort food and briefly abandon your hang-ups.
- Order this: The iceberg wedge, then the chicken and waffles.
- Best deal: Fried-chicken sandwich with fries, topped with slaw.
- Iâll pass: Slushy margarita ($7)âfun idea, but not really worth it.
EAT: Sunshine Tavern, 3111 SE Division St., 688-1750, sunshinepdx.com. Dinner 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.