On a recent listserve exchange with Oregon Brew Crew members, someone asked our various respondents which bar might be a favorite. Not wishing to nail myself into a given space, and also not wishing to “endorse” any of the establishments in which I hang out, I answered carefully, in my usual fashion.
“My favorite pub is always the one I’m drinking in, and my second favorite is the one I’m heading for next. In general I like well-lit, grungy places with good beer on tap, and food you wouldn’t bring home to your mother, although you might take a doggie bag of it for your father–or the family pooch.”
However, I went ahead and named one such establishment in Portland. This set in motion a short discussion and submissions by others of their choice of grungy Portland pubs, beginning with a note from an immigrant friend, to whom the word was a new one: “Let me ask you what the shade of the meaning or nuance or the real meaning of ‘grungy places,’” he wanted to know.
Grungy Is Beautiful
In my view, grungy should have a lived-in character about it. Grungy is defined, in the dictionary, as “shabby or dirty in character or condition.” The word has even been applied to a certain type of music; but when we use it in regards to pubs or taverns, it does not mean “dirty” as in unclean.
Of course, it may be seedy, or even be a bit messy; but a good grungy pub is neither sleazy nor greasy-spoon-with-beer. Homer Simpson would love a grungy bar. There might be peanut shells or sawdust on the floor, and it certainly won’t be the neatest place in town. Finally, if there is music, there’s not much of it, although a honky-tonk piano would be an asset if it weren’t played all the time. A small library of newspapers and magazines would be helpful as well.
I have since had time to consider my life-long love of such establishments.
In Portland, the grungy bar scene has always been great. The first of the new wave, circa 1972, “J. L.” Maxner’s old Wurst House, was the beginning of Portland’s multiple-tap establishments. Beer selections were slim, but in those days, Rainier Ale was my beer of choice.
These were only precursors of things to come.
Some Choice Establishments
In 1974, Don Younger’s Horse Brass was to inaugurate an era of gentlemanly elegance in the British workman’s mode. This pub is the epitome of grungy as I see it; well lit and crowded, and a menu that your mother might put up with, but which your father would love (fish and chips, or a ploughman’s platter), and your dog, too, if they could have let him in. The beer selection has always been upscale, however. In fact, it is still almost too good to be true.
Goose Hollow Inn, the home of some really fine Reuben sandwiches, was established by Bud Clark in that same era. He endeared himself to many of us by his stand in kicking the other “Bud” (Budweiser) out of his bar. This happened when California voters defeated Proposition 11 (1982), which called for California to adopt a bottle deposit similar to Oregon’s.
We Oregonians are very proud of our pioneering law in this field, but one TV commercial, aired in California during that campaign, depicted disgruntled Oregonians talking about how bad the bottle law was for Oregon. When it came out that these “disgruntled Oregonians” were employees of the local Budweiser distributor, Clark kicked that beer out of his place. His tavern had been one of the state’s largest Bud outlets, with sales of 30,000 kegs over the previous 21 years. It was a grand moment that endeared Clark, the beer curmudgeon, to all Portlanders and played a large part in getting him elected mayor in 1984.
There are many other grungy bars in Portland, but the BridgePort fits (best pizza in town), as does the Lucky Labrador (with an out-of-tune piano, the best BLT sandwich in Portland, and you can bring your dog). The McMenamin’s operate an entire nest of beautifully grungy bars. About two-thirds of their establishments fit that definition. If you, gentle reader, enjoy grungy, Portland is the place for you.
Other than Portland
Across the country, I’ve been to a number of fine grungy establishments. I like Old Chicago in Boulder, CO; Falling Rock in Denver; Gingerman in Houston; Goose Island Wrigley’s in Chicago; Chumleys in New York; Bert Grant’s Brew Pub in Yakima, WA (the first in the United States to offer cask conditioned beer); and McGuire’s in Pensacola, to name just a few.
But if you want true treasures, go to Chodeau (MT) Steak House in August for the Testicle Festival; or to a place called Frankie & Johnny’s, a you-can’t-get-there-from-anywhere kind of place, somewhere in New Orleans at a carefully guarded secret location. The decor is Old Prohibition Speakeasy: smoke-stained, wood-paneled walls and old wood floors. They only need sawdust on the floor to take you back to the 1920s. Although the beer selection was minimal, Dixie Blackened Voodoo proved just right.
The food was classic grungy. I liked their muffelatta sandwich, quite delicious, and indigenous to that area. The muffelatta has a special thick olive salad spread, prosciutto ham, provolone cheese, and God only knows what all else.
Did I forget Tommy’s Joint in San Francisco or Gasthaus Zur Krone in Milwaukee? I hope not. And I would be truly remiss were I not to mention the Brickskeller in our nation’s capital, with a beer list of 500 or so!
The champion of grungy bars is not in Portland, I would argue, although many would disagree; nor is it any of the above exotic establishments. It is in Frankenmuth, MI, a small town with a population of fewer than 5,000. Everybody is bilingual German-English. This is Keith Boesnecker’s Main Street Tavern & Pizza. He and it are “old” Frankenmuth.
The beer these days is Leinenkugal Red. Which is OK, but not of the character that the old Frankenmuth Brewery’s beers had before that brewery was destroyed in the 1996 tornado. The Main Street Tavern is an old (1938) neighborhood tavern. It has all the advantages of that genre. It reeks with local identity (real local, not the ersatz professional German-American local) of old Frankenmuth.
There are many signs and photos, a bottle collection, and a pewter mug club. There are dart boards and old breweriana filling all of the walls. There’s a lovely old worn honky-tonk piano, badly in need of tuning, that Keith (who must weigh over 300 pounds) plays on some nights.
Keith is a great character, but he’s owned the tavern only since 1988. He started out as a baker, but even now his bread, especially the Bier Brot, is of world-class dimensions.
When I complained about no peanut shells on the floor, he said that was Tuesday and Thursday nights. I had thought I was joking. The sandwich menu is good, however, and there are some “dinner” (mostly fried) items and good soup, too. Even so, the best thing on the menu is the fine pizza (best in Frankenmuth). Main Street also has a breakfast menu that includes quite decent omelets. This is definitely a funky neighborhood tavern for locals, not tourists.
Well, not unless you are into championship grungy.
Fred Eckhardt lives and writes about beer and sake in Portland, OR. He hasn't visited the Main Street Tavern for almost four years but is fairly regular in most of Portland's many grungy bars, and some upscale ones, too.