Whiskey, loud music and cheap food are the holy trinity of a perfect night. But in Portland lately, it seems the most likely place to encounter a true dive bar is in the obits section—or in corrugated sheds in sidewalk-free 'hoods dominated by speeding cars.
But there's still one street in town where the friendly, walkable dive bar reigns supreme—on North Lombard, cutting through North Portland's St. Johns and University Park neighborhoods, the dive bars have gone mostly untouched for decades. The only recent additions have been an IPA or two on draft, maybe a modern Wi-Fi-enabled jukebox, and always the latest in video lottery equipment. Other than that, these bars look mostly how they've always looked. If you're smart, you'll pay a visit before these places fall victim to the long arm of development: There's a New Seasons now on Lombard. The New World Order can't be far behind.
Mock Crest Tavern
3435 N Lombard St., 503-283-5014, mockcrest.com.
On a Friday night, equal parts neon light, groaning blues guitar, and the aroma of meat sizzling on a flat-top grill flood the street in front of the Mock Crest Tavern; no marketing firm could dream up a better advertisement. Whether killing a few whiskeys alone at the bar, or shooting the breeze on the back patio with your friends, it's hard to have a bad night at Mock Crest.
What to drink: The best bourbon you can afford, dressed with ice, water or Coke, or however you like it.
Who to drink it with: The old blues cats as they catch their breath between sets.
5903 N Lombard St., 503-283-4200.
Filled with dimly lit corners and hideaways, Sundown Pub is a cozy neighborhood joint that provides easy intimacy. With one of the better tap lists among this group, you can often find beers from Pfriem and Double Mountain. Stay away from the bar food, which leans heavily on the microwave and the George Foreman Grill. Instead order from the delicious Drunken Noodle next door (they allow you to eat in the bar).
What to drink: A few pints of something dark and bitter.
Who to drink it with: Someone you don't mind sinking into a deep, vinyl banquette with.
8635 N Lombard St., 503-286-3854.
Slim's is the oldest continually operating bar in St. Johns, and it has fully embraced the "attrition of time" aesthetic. But as grimy as it looks on the surface, it's actually a welcoming spot. The fully modern tap list rotates seasonally with beers from Ecliptic or Alameda alongside the ever-present Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA. Here, the local crust-punk band and Oregon Ducks football games are equal draws.
What to drink: A raspberry lambic, because they sell it and why not?
Who to drink it with: The Busch League Ultimate Frisbee team chatting noisily over beer and tater tots.
8728 N Lombard St., 503-286-2815.
In front is an old Formica-and-vinyl diner that closes early, but in back is a dark, dank little lounge with bronze-colored wallpaper that softly reflects the blinking lights of video poker machines. Sometimes there's live music that skews toward the esoteric and experimental, sometimes a cross-dressing DJ with a pencil skirt, dreads and a beard. If you're hungry, check out the burgers and fried chicken that are made from scratch in the diner's kitchen till closing time at 2:30 am.
What to drink: Hennessy, and lots of it, served in its own funny glass.
Who to drink it with: The ponytailed, antique-collecting bartender Charlie, the bedreaded DJ, and Terry, whose name you know because it's sewn onto the front of his jacket.
Blue Bird Tavern
8734 N Lombard St., 503-283-2737.
Blue Bird Tavern is noteworthy primarily for its prime outdoor real estate. It's one of the few bars in downtown St. Johns that permits drinking in the outdoor seating area, where you'll often find every table packed on summer nights, leaving one or two indifferent holdouts drinking and watching SportsCenter inside.
What to drink: Long Island iced tea (so you don't have to make as many trips back inside to order).
Who to drink it with: If you're outside, drink it with the house framer, his girlfriend, and their massive pit bull mutt. If you're inside, drink it with one of the regulars and listen to his drunken but amazingly cogent NHL draft analysis.
8800 N Lombard St., 503-286-4434.
Wishing Well is a seedy lounge in the back of an old Chinese restaurant on St. Johns' main drag, with rolled ceilings covered in red and gold stucco and a back wall of dusty fake rock. A vending machine offers candy and snacks randomly interspersed with packs of cigarettes, and there are only three beers on tap (Bud, Pabst and Widmer hef).
What to drink: Whatever everyone else is drinking; you might want to blend in if it's your first visit.
Who to drink it with: The bar-slappin', beer-chuggin' group of sailors on shore leave that hijacks the karaoke to Bon Jovi's greatest hits.
9520 N Lombard St., 503-286-1528.
Ranger Tavern cohabitates with famed chicken-and-waffle joint Dub's St. Johns at the far northwest end of town. The dark-wood ceilings are low, and there's a large sign near the door supporting the ILWU, the local longshoremen's union. In one of the few modern touches, you'll find the Wi-Fi-connected jukebox is as likely to play the Weeknd as it is Otis Redding, and both fit the atmosphere just fine.
What to drink: Budweiser in the bottle, which they keep on ice behind the bar, but remember to bring your own beer koozie.
Who to drink it with: Pull up a chair to a video lottery machine and someone will start a conversation with you.