Story by Adrienne So
Photograph by Erin Berzel
Describing one particular section of Portland, Oregon as “formerly industrial” can be misleading. Until recently, most of this riverside city comprised shipyards, warehouses, and one-story craftsman homes housing blue-collar workers. Division Street in southeast Portland was just another dour thoroughfare lined with storehouses and stockrooms—so uninspiring that in the 1950s, the city planned to bulldoze it and build a freeway right through it—that is, until a culinary renaissance turned it into a bustling urban center, complete with restaurants, boutiques, and sophisticated young urbanites.
Some Portlanders credit the opening of chef-restaurateur David Machado’s Lauro Kitchen on 33rd in 2003 as spurring Division’s turnaround. Others cite Andy Ricker’s celebrated Pok Pok, which opened in 2005, a mere block away. In any case, these and other local landmarks naturally needed bars so that you could drink and chat before, and after, your excellent meals. We’ve picked five of the best stretching along 20 blocks on Division Street—an easy distance to span if you travel, as all good Portlanders do, by foot or bike.
Coming across the river from downtown Portland, the first stop is BeerMongers on 12th Avenue. Opened by Sean Campbell and Craig Gulla in 2009, the combination bar and bottle shop is a veritable repository of hard-to-find beers—over 500 of them, at last count. Both the tap list and the latest additions to the shop are listed at the door. On one recent evening, discovering the last can of Maui Brewing Co.’s limited-edition, seasonal breadfruit-and-papaya-seed collaboration with Dogfish Head made this beer geek nearly tap-dance in the aisle.
Of course, drinking in a bottle shop has its disadvantages, as well. “It’s like drinking in a grocery store,” said one recent customer, sipping an aromatic table beer from Stillwater Artisanal Ales and basking in the glow of the fluorescent cooler lights. Limited, and oddly arranged, seating means that some customers are sweating while sitting next to a row of refrigerators, and others shiver in their parkas next to the open garage door. But if their goal was to be one of the best places to pick up something unusual to enjoy at home, BeerMongers has succeeded.
For the beer enthusiast determined to enjoy those exotic finds in public, with friends who may or may not steal sips of her chocolate pumpkin stout the minute her back is turned, the APEX bar is kitty-corner to BeerMongers. And much like BeerMongers, APEX is unashamedly no-frills. No leather banquettes or gold-rimmed glasses here—they don’t even have a full liquor license, so martini-loving friends might be a little bored. It’s cash only to sit at wooden tables on a concrete floor, and unlike nearly every other drinking establishment in Portland, they don’t serve any food. (Patrons are welcome to bring in a banh mi or burrito from any of the nearby restaurants.)
The only hint of luxury is in the widescreen television that displays the rotating list of kegs above the line of gleaming taps. The bar boasts a 50-tap list that can inspire immediate buyer’s remorse in anyone who is incapable of drinking more than a pint at a sitting. The minute you’ve ordered a pink peppercorn IPA or Belgian tripel, contemplating the other wonderful libations available can drive a beer lover crazy. If the crowd around the bar gets too thick, patrons can peruse APEX’s coolers at the back.
APEX’s capacious patio is one of its best features, for a city that spends most of the year inside. People-watching and sipping a kristallweizen at one of their tables is an ideal way to spend a long spring or summer afternoon. However, on one of Portland’s not-infrequent rainy days, a much cozier alternative is 12 blocks east of APEX at the legendary local dive bar, the Reel M Inn.
The Reel M Inn lures in youngsters in red beanies and long-time regulars alike, with a combination of kitschy, angler-themed décor, video poker, pool, and the omnipresent scent of fried chicken and “jojos,” or crispy potato wedges. Tender and juicy, a three-piece chicken basket is still one of the best bargains on a street increasingly lined with upscale venues.
Indeed, everything about the Reel M Inn resists encroaching gentrification, especially their beer. While they do have staples like Mirror Pond on tap, the real attraction is the cooler behind the bar stocked with tallboys of Olympia, Hamm’s, and Pabst. In another, lesser bar, a fridge of bargain beers would be a gimmick. But in the Reel M Inn, it’s all too easy to imagine popping off the top in a boat on the lake, as the video jukebox belts out Top 40 hits from the ’70s.
Of course, no street in Portland would be complete without a local brewery, and the Hedge House more than fits the bill. While beer isn’t brewed on the premises—that honor belongs to the bar’s parent, Lompoc Brewery, located farther north on Williams Avenue—the Hedge House retains the original Lompoc’s welcoming spirit, probably because the bar is actually located inside a 1912 craftsman home.
Lompoc is a venerable institution. The Old Lompoc opened in 1996, and, after it closed, the New Old Lompoc, as it is currently known, opened in 2000 under the auspices of owners Jerry Fechter and the late godfather of the Portland craft brewing movement, Don Younger. To those who get tired of sampling the latest crazy concoction from the city’s ever-growing legion of imaginative brewers, a pint of New Old Lompoc’s Proletariat Red, served with a reuben, is an old familiar friend. Or maybe patrons just appreciate the comfortable patio, which, unlike APEX, welcomes credit cards, kids, and dogs.
If you’re still on your feet after a day of drinking down Division Street, the last stop should be Victory Bar. Don’t be fooled by its reputation. Though Victory Bar is known among Portlanders for being a wine bar, their draft list also changes frequently and seasonally as well. Perhaps the comfortable, intimate booths and candlelight provide too stark a contrast to the utilitarian approach normally taken by beer bars.
Additions to the draft list over the past few months have included proudly local selections like Gigantic Brewing The City Never Sleeps black saison and the Ciel de Gris from The Commons Brewery. And unlike other beer bars, the food at Victory generally matches the quality of the beer. It’s not unusual to see items like housemade sausage or salmon pâté to go with your doppelbock or saison. If you’ve lingered too long over your pint somewhere else, Victory’s late-night menu is justly renowned for the spaetzle, which can come topped with pork belly, mushrooms, or crispy shallots.
Although the Mount Hood Freeway never came to pass, southeast Division can still lay claim to a fair amount of traffic—though it’s mostly of the chic, well-fed variety on foot than the bumper-to-bumper kind found during rush hour on Interstate 84. This formerly disregarded neighborhood is now one of the best places in the city to enjoy a leisurely dinner and a unique, rare beer. Given the choice between a slightly quicker drive to Mount Hood or a one-of-a-kind delectable destination, we know which one we’d pick.
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Though it’s easy to fill up on beer, don’t miss out on the fantastic food selections on Division. The following are our favorites for pub-crawl fare. (Bonus: they all offer great drink selections as well.)
One of Portland’s most talked about restaurants since 2005, Pok Pok offers diners a unique Thai food experience that doesn’t include the requisite pad Thai and panang curry dishes. Instead, you’ll be eating northern Thai street food specialties like roasted game hen with lemongrass and their signature papaya salad.
A sophisticated neighborhood bar dedicated to casual-yet-delicious pub food, Sunshine Tavern offers salads, sandwiches, and pizzas—all cooked to perfection. Place your order for sausage gravy cheese fries and a monte cristo with a fried egg, and then grab your friend for a game of shuffleboard. Be sure to save room for dessert: Soft serve ice cream with Magic Shell pairs fantastically with a rich porter.
The brainchild of Stumptown Coffee Roasters founder Duane Sorenson, the Woodsman is the place to go if you’re looking for a wide selection of fresh seafood including Pacific coast oysters on the half shell, prawns, crab, and mussels. The rest of the menu is meat and veggie focused, all of which begs for a pint of beer from one of the best curated lists in Portland.
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As unlikely a possibility as it seems, there’s an off chance that you, the devoted beer geek, could find yourself on Division Street with people who just don’t like beer. Obviously, the first step is to have them sample your delicious beverages. But if that doesn’t change any minds, these places on Division Street offer tasty alternatives.
Whiskey Soda Lounge
Pok Pok’s sister cocktail lounge offers many of the same fantastic menu items in a comfortable space and for one-tenth the wait time. Beer drinkers can sip a slushy Singha to cut the spice of Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, while cocktail drinkers should order the Tamarind Whiskey Sour, which mixes Andy Ricker’s signature tamarind drinking vinegar, or som, with fresh lime juice, palm sugar, and bourbon on the rocks.
Bula Kava House
The Bula Kava House is a little piece of Kona, Hawaii, in rainy Portland, Oregon. If you’re intimidated by the idea of drinking straight kava—a mild, tingly Polynesian beverage made from the kava root, that has a mild sedative effect—cut it with the fresh, local juice of the day and enjoy it with the kalua pig pork shoulder and macaroni salad.
As clichéd as it may be, Bar Avignon’s ambiance can best be described as European—a comfortably upscale local’s joint, filled with older couples that walked around the corner for dinner and groups of friends meeting after work for a drink. If none of the bottles on their extensive wine list seem appealing, try the Chartreuse Swizzle with housemade falernum—a sweet, spicy syrup.