The first thing you'd notice at Hanigan's Tavern was the smell.
It was a pungent mix of stale cigarette smoke and cleaning products masking bodily fluids—a stench anyone who's spent an afternoon drinking alone in any other musty old dive could easily recognize as the smell of painful, protracted defeat.
That's not a knock, really. The enduring charm of the Vern, as it was commonly known due to its faulty red neon "TAVERN" sign, was that it weathered multiple waves of change with one foot planted firmly in the grave. It's teetered on the precipice of extinction for decades, yet when rumors of its impending demise circulated last year, longtime regulars pre-emptively mourned another casualty of the city's endless war between condos and character.
All was considered lost. But then, Warren Boothby and Marcus Archambeault swooped in. The duo behind the Elvis Room and Double Barrel have amassed a small empire of nouveau dives by applying haute-scumbag chic to fresh new spaces. But the rebooted Vern—now its official name—bears closest resemblance to their rehab of the Sandy Hut in 2015.
Once again, they've scrubbed the carpet, opened some windows and doubled down on the wood-paneled rumpus room vibe. The backroom received the biggest makeover, via circular red velvet booths, a fake indoor fire pit lifted from the departed Overlook, and a trio of pinball machines beneath the "STEAKS" sign from Boothby and Archambeault's own much-mourned Club 21. The front room now features low-lit chandeliers, plush Naugahyde and fake greenery above the backlit liquor shelves.
Behind the bar, it's business as usual. Tallboys of PBR and Tecate are $3, while craftier brews are $6. The food menu features Boothby and Archambeault's customary spread of fried snacks served with salty dipping sauces, including honey-coated sweet potato jojos and creme fraiche ($7) and a plate of "golden nuggets," which meld cheese curds and chicken into singular deep-fried, bite-sized chunks ($8). It's nothing special as far as bar food goes, but the smell of fries and 8-ounce rib-eyes is preferable to the odor of bleach and urine.
Most of the upgrades to the Vern are inarguably positive. But the net effect raises questions as to how much longer Boothby and Archambeault's clout as dive-bar whisperers will last. Sooner or later, their penchant for papering over failing shitholes with wood paneling, oil paintings of topless ladies and kitschy Schlitz signs will turn from ingenuity to homogeneity. You can almost hear the blowhards now, grousing about how they've turned every bar in Portland into "McMenamins for hipsters."
But whenever that day comes, the Vern will be a fine place to bitch about it.
DRINK: The Vern, 2622 SE Belmont St., 503-233-7851. Noon-2:30 am daily.