10808 NW St. Helens Road, 503-240-8827, lighthousepdx.com.
When Alex Bond bought the 67-year-old Lighthouse Restaurant and Bar two summers ago, he knew the bar was in rough shape—and that's exactly how the regulars, him included, liked it.
He didn't know just how rough, though, until he got a look at the corners he never saw as a patron.
"The state of disrepair was like nothing I'd ever seen," he says. "When I'd come here to check on it, while we were negotiating, I'd drink bottled beer only—I would not drink draft beer here. I would only eat tater tots because they went from the freezer to the fryer."
It wasn't simple wear and tear, or the scuff marks of a proud dive. After nearly seven decades serving as the social nexus of Linnton—a community most Portlanders regard as a strip of road on the way out to Sauvie Island, but whose history stretches back to the late 1800s, when it was a small town resistant to being annexed by the growing city to the south—the Lighthouse had fallen on hard times. Cancer claimed its previous owner at a young age, leaving the bar to his father, who didn't have the heart, or money, to keep up with repairs.
And so, Bond, an investment banker turned restaurateur, offered to take it off his hands. He'd been visiting regularly for a decade, making a tradition of stopping in on his way back home to Northwest Portland after taking his motorcycle for a ride along Germantown Road. But the level of neglect he found, particularly when he entered the process of buying the building, took him by surprise.
Windows were cracked. The oven didn't work. There was open plumbing in the restroom—the remnants of a toilet that had been removed and repurposed into the barroom ashtray, without anyone bothering to patch the hole where it once stood. In the basement, Bond found so much trash, it took six trips with a 40-yard dumpster to dispose of it all.
Still, the place had "good bones," he says. And even in its damaged state, the bar's value to the neighborhood never depreciated. When it opened in 1950, the Lighthouse lived up to its name, acting as a beacon for the area's loggers, longshoremen and other blue-collar laborers, and going there now, those days don't seem terribly far gone. Huddled off Northwest St. Helens Road, in view of the St. Johns Bridge, the bar, like the former city of Linnton itself, feels fully isolated from cultural upheaval happening just a few miles down the road. It doesn't belong to Old Portland or New Portland—in truth, it's the closest thing to a rural Oregon bar that's still within city limits, where everything, from the nautical theme to the stiff cocktails, is delivered without irony or artifice, and everyone is treated like a regular.
"You go in there on a Friday night, it has a small-town feel," Bond says. "People know each other, they know the bartenders, and everyone is super-friendly."
Even so, a former investment banker with California roots buying a historic pub would normally cause locals to angle for their pitchforks. But Bond and his wife, Julie, came in with a history of doing right by timeworn establishments in need of a fresh start. A few years after entering the restaurant business with Nob Hill Italian spot Serratto, the couple revived the Saint Cupcake bakery franchise, expanding to four locations. In 2015, Bond bought Clyde's Prime Rib, the Sandy Boulevard blues lounge that's become a sanctuary for the old guard of Portland jazz and R&B musicians, upgrading the menu while keeping the soul of the place fully intact.
As with his other ventures, Bond had no intention of gussying up the Lighthouse with a garish Bar Rescue-style makeover—instead, it was a rehab by way of dozens of tiny improvements. He cleaned the restrooms and fixed the broken windows. He brought in a dehydrator and a smoker and a fruit press for the cocktails. He built a shelf to display the liquor selection, and went out and spent "more money than people should" on an audio system. About the biggest thing he did was build out the side patio, but his decision to change where the kegs are stored and reposition the taps is just as noteworthy.
"It's not sexy," he says. "No one's really going to even notice. But it makes a big difference. Because now the beer is cold, and it's convenient to restock."
Other than removing an antique oil pump mounted obtrusively on the bar, Bond didn't change a scrap of the décor, from the lacquered tables and maritime bric-a-brac to the signs directing "Gulls" and "Bouys" to the restrooms—he didn't even correct the misspelling on the latter.
What he did overhaul was the food. But even then, Bond kept things simple. He brought in Will Boothe, a sous chef at Woodsman Tavern, who set about crafting a menu of "quality American food," including a killer fried chicken sandwich, a satisfying burger and fresh-baked nachos. Some items were the product of resourceful ingenuity: Since the oven was broken when they first moved in, Boothe was forced to make the cheese for the nachos on the stove top, creating "a glorified version of what you might pump out at 7-Eleven." Bond means that as a compliment—in his estimation, a successful gastropub has "something for James Beard and something for Joe Blow." You might come in expecting the latter. It's the former that'll catch you off guard.
"The aesthetics of the exterior conspire with a lifetime of history to set your expectations a little low," Bond says. "That benefits us."
But Bond doesn't want to be seen as some kind of savior. It took a village—several of those small upgrades, such as the idea to install electrical outlets at each barstool, were suggestions that came from across the bartop. And the village continues to make improvements. The other day, without being asked or informing the staff, a customer took home two broken stools, fixed them, then brought them back, good as new.
"That's what happens when you go to Linnton versus, say, Portland," Bond says. "We're in the town of Linnton, and that's town of Linnton shit right there."