We Bar-Crawled the Willamette River By Boat

A surprising number of Portland bars are accessible from docks along the shoreline.

It's fleet week, and all is gunboats. Behind us, a pack of what appear to be older veterans are out prowling the Willamette on a militarized raft with 50 mm cannons, while in front of us the Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser SS Bunker Hill is coming about to port, filling the entire horizon with warship. A fire boat is shooting colored water to greet the sailors standing at attention while they pass under the Steel Bridge.

Meanwhile, a boat of Clackamas County sheriff's deputies is politely but firmly asking us to open all our compartments. The mood is a little tense.

"We're an Arab, a black man and an Asian dude on a boat," says local Pabst rep Tony Singmeuangthong, dressed head to toe in Pabst gear and hauling a Pabst cooler full of Pabst. "We're probably what they're afraid of."

This fishing boat is named the River Pig, in honor of owner Ramzy Hattar's bar in the Pearl. Hattar, who is Jordanian by heritage, is on the boat with us. He's also brought along Lou McLemore, president of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge just off North Williams Avenue and father to two of Ducks football legends, a scruffy-bearded pilot named Dustin Kriebel, and three writers: two scruffy-bearded alt-weekly editors and the always overdressed Andi Prewitt in dangly earrings and heels.

The deputy takes a look in every compartment of the boat and asks to see all of our required safety equipment before agreeing to let us pass. Along with the other boats on the river, we're surrounded by sheriff's boats from far-flung counties and escorted through the security zone between the Morrison and Steel bridges. The laughter stays nervous until the River Pig is finally away from the, uh, river pigs.

But it's only a brief tension: We're on a bar crawl, after all, up and down the Willamette from Fred's Marina to Sellwood. A surprising number of Portland bars are accessible from docks along the shoreline, and with the aid of a sober boat pilot, we endeavored to visit all of them we could.

Tilt Burgers
7-minute walk from the Swan Island Boat Ramp. 3449 N Anchor St., Suite 200, 503-285-8458, tiltitup.com.

Swan Island is an industrial former airport and artificial peninsula, home to the nation's largest floating dry dock. There, a massive ship is being repaired, next to a gunboat teeming with visiting veterans and a party of broken-down hobo boats perma-parked at the shore. From the dock, it's a dull seven-minute walk past industrial warehousing to the original Tilt burger joint on Swan Island. It's less a bar than a diner-style lunch spot for UPS employees. Each burger is so massive as to be gluttonous. The beer taps are minimal, and three of us end up drinking Sunriver Hefeweizen. There is no PBR available at Tilt, much to the chagrin of Tony. There's a funny story about why, but when you're on an eight-hour bar crawl, some things have to remain off the record.

Portland Sports Bar and Grill
2-minute walk from Riverplace Marina. 1811 SW River Drive, 503-222-2027, portlandsportsbarandgrill.com.

At Riverplace, failure is everywhere. We dock next to the octagonal husk of the former Newport Bay seafood restaurant, heaving on the water next to a lone swivel office chair that's been abandoned on the dock.

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The former Lucier restaurant—briefly revived as Quartet—squats just ashore, a monument to singed-wing opulence. A former Full Sail satellite brewery and Beau Breedlove's French dance cafe are also nearby, and also closed. What survives in such a place? The decade-old Portland Sports Bar and Grill, whose black-painted walls are festooned in soccer and basketball jerseys. As we try to gather chairs to sit on the sunny patio, a surly man in a Bayern München jersey tells us, "I'm not gettin' any more tables out. It's gonna rain." The sky is still showing blue. For some people, it's always just about to rain. It remained nonetheless happy hour, with all "martinis" $4.50.

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A Manhattan is a martini, and so is a Tijuana speedball, although we opt for a round of margatinis, which are margaritas in a conical glass. (The server corrects our pronunciation—it's marg-a-tini, not marg-tini.) "Bayern fan?" we ask him before we left, pointing to his shirt. "Nope," he says, "I just like watching soccer."

5-minute walk from the Dock south of the Hawthorne Bridge (see page 23). 1430 SE Water Ave., 503-238-6356, noranekoramen.com.

The general spirit of our tour was to stumble ashore and get a drink at the first bar we passed. But after the debacle at Portland's Sports Bar, the mood feels too fragile for beers at Cooper's, a bagel sandwich shop, and so we walk an extra block to Noraneko the "ramen shop/futuristic post-whatever diner" (their words). We're just a few minutes early for 4 pm happy hour, when the tiny gyoza are a reasonable $1.25 each and the highballs are $5. Alas, we arrive seven minutes early.

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Happy hour is a thing of precision at Noraneko, and not being quite tacky enough to ask everyone to wait before ordering (Matthew takes it upon himself to do this), we drop the $4 for bottled imports. For late-night ramen, Noraneko is great. At this hour, it doesn't feel any more like a pleasant pub than Cooper's. We'd skip this stop next time.

The Buffalo Gap
5-minute walk from Willamette Park. 6835 SW Macadam Ave., 503-244-7111, thebuffalogap.com.

In John's Landing, which is sort of an '80s office park gone viral, the Buffalo Gap is the one true neighborhood bar. The assemblage of rooms both cavernous and labyrinthine was founded more than 40 years ago by a native of Buffalo Gap, South Dakota. It is one of Portland's best-preserved bars—popular with weekender motorcyclists and onetime Trail Blazer Channing Frye—where each burger can be made with bison meat. To get there from the little docks at Willamette Park, on the west side of the river, we have to hop up a little path over the train tracks, past the Oregon Public Broadcasting offices and a few boat rental and repair shops. The beer selection is vintage craft—Widmer, BridgePort, Ninkasi—but we opt instead for a couple cheap pitchers of Coors Light. The server is less than pleased when we show him a photograph of alt-right activists flashing the Pepe the Frog "OK" sign on the Gap's patio after a June 4 rally. "Oh, Jesus," he says.

Riverside Corral
8-minute walk from Sellwood Riverfront Park. 545 SE Tacoma St., 503-232-6813, riversidecorral.com.

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Low-key strip clubs are an endangered species in this city. As we land the boat at the beaten-down dock along Sellwood's idyllic waterfront park, we share stories of the last days at the much-missed Magic Garden, which Tony pays tribute to with a pin on his denim jacket. But Sellwood is about a decade behind the trends of the city at large, and so Riverside Corral sits strong just up from the park, next to a used-boat dealership. Inside, it's decorated like a den in a '70s split-level. Four dancers take rotating sets on a Thursday, which is impressive by today's standards. One of the dancers is an Akron Zip like Martin, and so we chat about Darlington Nagbe, Jason Taylor and LeBron James.

Rusty Nail
5-minute walk from McCormick Pier (private). 600 NW Naito Parkway C, 503-295-3095.

It's technically a public place, and right off a busy road, but everyone who drinks at the Rusty Nail lives in the condos surrounding the Rusty Nail. "It's so weird that like seven people we've never seen before walked in," says the bartender, who also lives in the condos. "This is something we'll note in the bar log." Having made our way back through the security zone, and with on shipmate picked up at Riverside, we need a drink. Technically, this dock appears to be private and behind a locked gate. But since the condo owners have recently illegally locked the gate to a public sidewalk passing through their condoplex, we feel no compunction docking at their dock. We leave Ramzy behind to let us back in. After watching an Arab man stand alone on a dock for 15 minutes, only about 300 yards from a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the sheriff's deputies generously offer to let us back through the locking gate themselves. At the Rusty Nail, there are Jell-O shots, including a sugar-free variety, and cheese-heavy pizza. Everyone is friendly—like small-town folks happy to see fresh meat. "We used to do comedy open-mic nights on Fridays, and that brought in lots of new people, but the comedians didn't spend any money," says one of the regulars. "They'd just sit there drinking ice water, and the rest of us had to listen to them instead of being able to talk and hear each other."

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