Bar of the Year 2013: Victory Bar

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[For our runners-up, click here and here.]

Rare that a name is as felicitous as Victory Bar's. Willamette Week's first-ever Bar of the Year isn't shiny or new or even particularly fashionable. It's just a goddamn winner.

The bar came into being six years ago, long before its surrounding Division Street 'hood evolved into a foodie-fueled disco fawned over by Instagram junkies and the doting New York Times. Heck, when owner Yoni Laos and then-partner Amalie Roberts (who now owns Kir) signed their first lease, Pok Pok was still a chicken-shack tent party.

Accordingly, the décor of the gently Orwellian-themed bar is like a Portland tippler's version of missing-link Lucy, a cheery Third Way between Dots' classic scattershot kitsch and the Woodsman Tavern's modern, rough-grained minimalism. Its large space is split between a dim, hardwood-heavy dining room and a bar section spotlit by the open kitchen's overhead stove lamp. The walls are studded with a menagerie of international beer coasters, which complement ironic propaganda paintings riffing on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four—some of which were made by the owner—and Fruit Stripe painted rifles.

Victory Bar has honed a certain genius for the fine middlebrow pleasures of good beer, well-made cocktails and a filling meal. But it came by these talents slowly and honestly, after a long evolution—a rarity in a city where a trip to a newly minted gastropub sometimes feels like a conversation with a brand marketer. 

"It's been a gradual progression, little by little," Laos says. "When we started, we only had two draft handles and five bottled beers." The bar originally served delicate small plates to go with wine, before becoming one of Portland's first to focus on Belgian imported beers. 

"At the time," Laos says, "I saw Belgian beers as something people weren't doing a lot, and also something I had a passion for. Now you've got Commons, Upright, Pfriem, Logsdon. It's cool that Northwest breweries aren't just making a lot of hoppy styles. Our breweries will rival any city's at this point."

These days, Victory Bar's fast-rotating 13-tap draft list is a mix of earthy Oregon wilds and Belgian rarities, novelty beef-heart stouts alongside pale ciders so yeasty they might as well be kombucha. The taps are complemented by a 50-deep list of bottles. 

Meanwhile, the sturdy house cocktails (all $7.75) are as approachable as a Wal-Mart greeter and as subtle as a Wal-Mart paycheck: The cleanly bitter-sour Corpse Reviver #4 might be tagged humbly on the menu as "something to do with gin and Fernet," but when the bartender got around to listing all the actual ingredients, she might as well have been addressing the entire United Nations assembly by first names. The food menu is Snuggie-level comfortable, from a meaty venison burger that's one of the best in the city to spaetzles that run the gamut from chorizo to mushroom. 

The bar's sterling hospitality inspires similar behavior in its patrons, who are less entitled professionals than they are professional bargoers weary of drunks. Something in the DNA of the place keeps conversations mostly at the tables where they begin. That doesn't mean there's no romance, however: I've witnessed longtime friends kissing outside the bar, their cheeks warm with bourbon.

Really, it's hard to know what makes a 6-year-old bar—or any bar, really—suddenly hit its elusive sweet spot, but it seems that Victory Bar has done so. Tap list and top shelf aside, the feeling of a bar has always stemmed from 95 percent magical thinking—a crapshoot mix of feng shui, hormones and swimmy nostalgia. But again and again this year, various people have told us the same thing: Victory Bar has always been a good-to-decent place, a bartender's bar the way that Don DeLillo is a writer's writer. But over the past year or so, it's as if it has been drawn more tightly into focus. It's become more convincingly itself.

On a recent visit, by the time we were halfway through Victory's $8 gooey happy-hour cheesy spaetzle and way further into a 9 percent ABV stout, it was all over for our sense of proportion about the place. We had already fallen in love with every single person in the bar, including ourselves. A friend about to move away to a dream job and a dream woman in Philadelphia started thinking he was making a terrible decision by leaving town.

"I know pubs," George Orwell wrote in his essay "The Moon Under Water," "where the beer is good but you can't get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour.” 

At Victory Bar, the layout doesn't encourage unruly crowds, the food is excellent, and if the beer's sour it's because it's Belgian. These days, nothing doesn't taste good there. The place feels less curated than aged into its natural character, classic as a '63 Aston Martin or a vintage Burberry suit. Imagine how complete the relaxation, when all fear of failure subsides. Imagine when everything's a comfort.


GO: Victory Bar, 3652 SE Division St., 236-8755, 5 pm-12:30 am Sunday-Thursday, 5 pm-1 am Thursday and Saturday, 5 pm-1:30 am Friday. $.

WWeek 2015

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