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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Reeling in One of Portland's Finest Dive Bars

The great bulk of contemporary craft beer consumers are too young to have any inkling of what Portland's beer world looked like before the late 1980s. There were taverns and bars, but nothing like the beer bars and brewpubs we have today.

Things gradually began to change after passage of the Brewpub Bill (SB-813) in June 1985. That moment presaged what was arguably the greatest victory of the craft era: the notion that beer needn't be sequestered in dark, grimy establishments.

The brewpub and beer bar scene we have today owes its existence to the Brewpub Bill. These places are often, though not always, welcoming to adults and minors. They are well-lit and typically (though not always) less grubby than the dive bars and taverns of yesteryear.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe we lost something in the bargain. I can well recall going to grubby bars and taverns when I was younger. Strictly for fun. There was no rush to sample or discuss the latest new beers. In fact, there were no such offerings. These were bar excursions.

My favorite grimy bar as a young drinker was The Cellar in Lewiston, Idaho. It was a dark, dingy dump in a downtown basement. They served pitchers of swill and patrons lapped it up graciously. There was foosball, pinball and other gaming. A simple experience with rugged charm.

Of course, even with the advent of fancy beer bars and brewpubs, grubby dive bars never went away. There are plenty of them, even in beer-wonky Portland. It's just that beer snobs (like me and most of my friends) tend to steer toward fancy, beer-centric bars and pubs. No offense to the dives. We chase nerdy beer.

Several weeks ago, I asked a friend in the know where to find the best deep fried chicken and jojos in Portland. He advised me to visit the Reel M Inn Tavern on Southeast Division. A quick trip verified the accuracy of the chicken and jojo advice. But there was more.

This is your quintessential dive bar. According to legend (and the internet), a great dive bar has certain characteristics. Firstly, and maybe most importantly, it has to walk a fine line between being a standing health code violation and the place you want to be on any given night. Check.

The Reel M Inn is dimly lit, dingy and filled with apparent regulars. It has free pool and other gaming, plus a spunky bartender who chats it up with customers she mostly knows by first name. Reel M Inn gets bonus points for the marked up ceiling beams, mounted deer racks, multiple neon signs and related grubby charm. Even the out of order men's toilet was a nice touch.

One way the Reel M Inn doesn't fit the dive bar shoe is food. An authentic dive bar ought to have crappy frozen pizza or some sort of stale packaged snack that patrons order only when drunk out of their gourds and desperate. Not the Reel M Inn, whose terrific chicken and jojos make it a destination for a lot of people...my wife, for example.

Since that initial visit, we've been back a couple of times. Those trips have been for the chicken and jojos, but I've come to appreciate the place for what it is. On the most recent trip, my wife wanted to play pool. The gents manning the table graciously invited her to play. There's a casual friendliness here that you don't find in most snobby beer bars.

Part of what's different is socioeconomic, I think. This isn't the same crowd you find at your typical pub or beer bar. A lot of these patrons are looking for drink deals, which come in the form of can prices and shot specials. There's a decent, if compressed, draft list. But Rainier and PBR pounders look to be the fastest movers. Along with low tier liquor. Big surprise.

The Reel M Inn lives down the street from where Division turns into an upscale arcade. The chatty bartender told me they get a fair number of tourists, folks who are evidently headed to the fancy digs a few blocks away and stumble in. Some of them must be shocked when they see this joint. If that keeps them from moving here, mission accomplished.

The thing is, this is what bars have always been about. We've lost sight of that a bit in our craft beer obsession. There's a warm camaraderie that isn't remotely concerned with beer at the Reel M Inn. It's based on conversation and community. Regulars migrate here daily, yet welcome visitors. You can be a pint drinking champion or a pool shark here. Or you can melt into the woodwork.

No way will the Reel M Inn become my Cheers bar. I'm fine where I am. But I'm glad I found it and I look forward to occasional visits. Because it reminds me of what's great about neighborhood dive bars and taverns.

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