When Michael Banash and Rob Hemmerling dismantled Caswell's towering bookshelves and erected Slow Bar a little over a month ago, the longtime barkeeps wanted to create a club for their own kind: bartenders.
But what they got was a bizarre Southeast Grand Avenue homage to "seedy bliss" where business suits, Burnside skate punks and Milwaukie suburbanites all collide. In Portland, where every club boasts its own culture and devotees, Slow Bar is a prime candidate for the swing voters of the nightlife world.
Hemmerling had run Milwaukie standby Vic's Tavern for the past decade, while Banash worked at strip emporium Exotica, Voodoo Lounge and Vic's. When they opened Slow Bar, their barflies buzzed in after them. The club's highbrow affections come courtesy of ex-Higgins and Tabla cook Amy Jermain, whose ambitious Slow menu includes ceviche and stinky cheese. Add to that the fact that the crimson-lit space is named after Slow Club, the infamous boîte in David Lynch's Blue Velvet--and Slow Bar starts to make a bit more sense.
It's clever, really. Steeping your digs in Lynchian lore gives a new business still searching for its personality some immediate character--and free license on furnishings. The elk antlers that hang above the mirrored bar? A direct reference to the decor inside the Velvet crew's infamous haunt. Why no macrobrews on tap, except for PBR? Probably because Dennis Hopper's character Frank Booth says, "Heineken? Fuck that shit. Pabst Blue Ribbon!" The awful, chintzy, 1980s-style vases packed with curly willow and dried flowers? You got us there.
Slow Bar's five booths are their own movie-worthy characters: nearly 5 feet tall, padded and stained as red as blood, they're the kind of cushy, shadowy caves built for feeling up strangers and snorting illegal substances. God and the devil themselves could be bargaining over your soul in the very next booth--you'd never know.
Most every night, the bar is packed with one or two factions of its fan base, from graying, lecherous men in Hawaiian print shirts to blunt-banged hipster girls. The owners plan to expand Slow Bar in the next six months, adding pool tables and pinball machines, but Banash says their goal of making the kind of bar that they wanted to hang out at has already been met.
"One night around 12:30 am, when everybody was tipsy, somebody played a Journey song on the jukebox," Banash says. "There were 50 people here. They were all singing it out loud together with their beers in the air. It was like a scene out of a movie."
Yeah, a cinematic moment that's a hell of a lot easier to understand than anything in Blue Velvet.
533 SE Grand Ave., 230-7767