It began humbly, and unexpectedly. I had read in a blog somewhere about a bar in Portland that has an amazing view of the entire city, cheaper than the well-known Portland City Grill, and a much “cheaper” experience, in every sense. This article said it was located in the Rose Quarter, on top of one of the clusters of mid-range hotels surrounding the convention center. It mentioned something along the lines of “where depressed business men go to meet mid-priced, aging call girls over a poorly-mixed gin and tonic”. Obviously, my interest was piqued. The article didn’t mention which hotel the bar was located, nor its name. That was all the information that was given. There was no mention of this bar anywhere on the internet or Yelp. Any time I would drive through the Rose Quarter, I would stare at every hotel there and wonder which one it could be. All the American favorites were planted there: Best Western, Red Lion, Ramada, Best Western Etc…It became a holy grail-like situation. It could be any one of these hotels. I began planning a day where I would go into each one, systematically until I found it. I began talking about it with others, obsessing over it. Where is this place?
One day, one of my co-workers picked up on me talking yet again about finding the fabled bar with my friend, Kyle. She said, “Oh, you mean ‘Windows’? The bar on top of The Red Lion?” We snapped our heads to look at her in disbelief. It was as if she told us she hung out with Bigfoot and drank mimosas with him on Sundays. She told us all about how years ago, some sleazy dude took her on a sleazy date there that couldn’t end soon enough. She described the place as trashy, depressing, and overall where hopes and dreams go to die. Kyle and I headed straight there with unmeasurable excitement our very next day off. I pictured peeling wallpaper, bedazzled pantsuits, comb-overs, and an overall sense of desperation and broken dreams.
We took and elevator up to the top. When the doors opened, it absolutely was NOT what we had been expecting. The interior was…kind of lovely. It was slightly retro, but still very nice. The bar was massive and spread out, seats scattered here and there for an intimate effect. There were glittering chandeliers, plush carpet, and a banquet table stretching across the far wall. The bar was long and wove around a long window showcasing a beautiful view of the city and a pretty respectable wine selection. The Bartenders were dressed in starched dress-shirts and bowties, and offered us excellent customer service.
Dumbfounded by the extreme contrast of the descriptions of this place and what we were seeing, I ordered a greyhound (the drink I had originally envisioned going best with call-girls and tears) and we headed to the patio.
The view was nothing short of breathtaking.
The patio offered a near-360 view of the center of Portland. We grabbed a table and enjoyed the sights. The sun began to dip, so we decided to stay a while.
As we enjoyed an amazing view of the sunset, we couldn’t help but discuss the obvious problem with our visit: Is this place really that trashy, but we don’t see it because we’re used to worse? I mean, I heard from two totally different people that this bar was a seedy, shit-hole. I come here, and I’m thinking its pretty classy and I could even maybe impress a date by bringing them here. Regardless of whether or not my perspective has been severely warped, we did feel an intense let-down in our adventure to Windows. We came to seek the trash, but left disappointed. True, my greyhound tasted a little off and Kyle found what he thinks was a piece of glass in his soda, but even still it was a overall decent experience compared to most places we’ve been. Thus borne the great adventure of searching out the worst, shittiest bars in Portland that we could find.
So what defines “worst”? This is totally subjective, of course. For me, to be considered one of the worst, the bar in question must meet the following criteria:
*Shitty-as in dirty. An absolute shit-hole. You can’t believe a legit liquor license is valid here. Should have a “mad-max” quality to it-as in ‘anything goes’.
*Bums often drink here. At any time, at least 50% of the clientele is clearly homeless. May or may not be wearing shoes/shirts.
*Dangerous. Women should never go here-not alone or without proper male escort. Must be prepared for an eminent fight. Never leave personal items unattended-be prepared to defend what’s yours.
*The experience of visiting this bar has forever changed you in some way. You will probably feel depressed immediately upon leaving. Nightmares are normal.
How did I discover where to find such places? Some, internet research. Others word of mouth. Some were just instinct. I kissed a lot of frogs, so to speak before I found my winners. I have rules when writing about these places, as well. I’m in no way trying to embarrass or put down any one or any establishment. My musings are all in good fun, and not meant to be taken seriously. That being said, some of the quality of the photos are questionable, as certain places you would never bring out an expensive digital camera and flash it around. As my journey continued, I also found in certain instances an Iphone is equally risky to bring out. As a result, the quality of the photos must be forgiven.
Chapter One: The Yahmhill Pub
223 SW Yamhill
This bar is definitely one of those spots where your experience totally depends on what crowd happens to be there that day. The typical group is an equal mix of street-punx and homeless. The former are loud, stink, but gratefully keep to themselves. The latter, of course are that perpetual wild-card. You never know what you’ll get: the oddly-insightful mind blower or the ranting derelict. Because its located in the heart of downtown, right off the MAX line, its a constant “mix-bag” of crazy. Did I mention its cheap? Downtown Portland is like any bigish city-rich ass bars, shops, and restaurants peppered with that occasional homeless shelter and lil’ spot of ghetto. The Yamhill is that odd occurrence, in a ‘nicer’ area of downtown that caters to the ‘real’ folk. I should also mention that this is the bar that is nearest in proximity to the fancy mall I work in. This is how I know it well. We affectionally call it ‘The Yammie”. Its literally where people of all walks of life meet and greet. This may include the Occupy Portland set, homeless, street performers, and yes us fucked retail workers. Come 5pm we all gather, to have a cheap-ass drink and look at each other in a reality that closely resembles hell.
The entrance to The Yammie is located on what appears to be a dank alley, even though its right around the corner from an AT&T Wireless and across from a Chipotle . How it pulls off this illusion is a mystery onto itself. Upon entering, it is always packed with the afore mentioned crowd. Unfortunately, it does have an unpleasant smell. Something like public toilet meets a jail holding cell. Its not at all unusual for all the seats to be taken and you’ll have to stand awkwardly, shoulder-rubbing up against some colorful character or another. Every inch of the walls are covered in graffiti. Like, to the point of which you have never seen in an open and operating establishment. I almost think the bar is some sort of interactive art installment by some millionaire-genius.
While spending your time at the Yammie, pray to god you don’t have to go to the bathroom. There are two-one technically designated for women, the other unmarked and with no lock on the door.
I have been here many times, but only once after dark and alone. I sat at the bar, to be in eye-line of the bartender (a smart move in a dive bar alone). I sat with my purse on my lap, anxiously watching the door for my friends to arrive. The bartender was a bad-ass, as ALL the bartenders at the Yamhill are and need to be. He bounced anyone out that bothered me too much. He kept giving me a sympathetic look and asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to close out. If it weren’t for the amazing bartenders, I literally wouldn’t be able to come in here safely. Some of my favorite Yamhill memories include having to threaten a guy with no shoes and a beat-up dog for hitting on a friend WAY to aggressively, chatting with a Jimi Hendrix impersonator about home improvements, taking shots with a co-worker as the white-haired gentleman seated next to us rubbed his crotch and said ‘You know, the more I drink the more attractive you girls start to look’.
Come to the Yamhill Pub if you want to go to the safest of the worst bars in Portland. Do not come alone. Do not dress fancy. Do not get too drunk here, as someone sinister will take advantage of that. Come to read the walls and to most likely see a fight every 15-20 minutes. I’m hoping the bartenders here make good money, because they earn it.
*Update: I have recently met and discovered that the owner of this bar is actually from the Central Valley, California. I think it all makes sense now
Chapter Two: Six Point inn
6801 N Columbia Way
Choosing this bar as one of the worst is sort of controversial. Its not dirty at all, albeit a bit shoddy and run-down looking. The neighborhood is sketchy-one of the worst I’ve seen since I moved to Oregon. It sits on Fesseden, which is very similar to any street south of Belmont in my hometown of Fresno. The bar is dark from the outside, massive and has an overall ominous presence. There are apartments built above and around the entrance, which I am morbidly curious about.
I mentioned that me thinking this bar as one of the worst as being controversial. I think from a woman’s perspective, it was by far the most dangerous. I would never, EVER come here without a male that is no stranger to fighting. The crowd is straight-up criminal types. Guys sipping Bud Lights, eyeballing you from the corner with a look in their eyes that is no laughing matter. To imagine going here alone, then exiting into the dimly-lit parking lot sends a shiver up my spine. If I were a guy, I’m not sure if I would feel the same or get the same vibe.
The interior is well-lit, large, pleasant smelling. None of the things the other bars I’ve visited usually are. The bathrooms show the most wear-peeling wallpaper and wooden paneling, but overall clean. The bartenders are the no-nonsence types.
The first time I came, there was a birthday party going on. It was crowded…no one bothered us. We noticed a young prostitute in sweat-pants rubbing up on a man in his 70’s, so drunk he was nodding off. The girl was clearly on drugs…I’m sure her pimp was the insane looking fellow sitting alone in the corner. It scared me to make eye-contact with him.
Being in this bar is uncomfortable and ill-advised. Its not fun, funny, ironic, or affectionately “divey”. I have yet to stay here longer than 15 minutes. No one speaks to you here, because they don’t want you here. You are merely “tolerated”, if you’re lucky. This is kind of unfortunate because it is one of the nearest bars to my house AND they serve Nuvo, which I absolutely love and can’t find anywhere else in Oregon. Come here if you are curious as to what its like to sit in a county jail holding cell awaiting sentencing.
Chapter Three: The 715 Inn
715 NE Broadway
Its honestly a mystery to me how this bar can be such a dangerous shit-hole. Its located right on a major street and right on the I-5 onramp, not your usual formula for one of these places. What initially caught my eye was the awesomely terrible, 80’s era sign that you usually only see nowadays adorning thrifty nail salon walls. I’ve also been noticing a pattern that most bars with the word ‘Inn’ in it are rarely, if never affiliated with an actual hotel and almost always absolutely terrible.
As you enter, the swinging bar door claps shut-a noise loud enough to alert every person in the bar that you have arrived. There is nowhere to hide. They really don’t take too kindly to them ‘Portland’ types. This is totally the perfect bar to take that douchebag friend of yours that thinks he’s really ‘down’ and likes to hang out at ‘rad dives’ where the people are ‘real’. This place will more-than-likely wipe that smug smile off from under his ironic mustache and make him pee his short-shorts.
It was pretty clear that everyone in this bar was here for some sort of business transaction or another. there was a hooker named “honey” that sat on her usual barstool and waited for her Johns as her pimp in a tracksuit played pool and looked on. There were various quick drug deals that became more and more obvious as this little microcosm began to accept our presence.
The Bartender that served us the first night was tough. There was no doubt in my mind that she couldn’t handle any kind of situation that may arise in that establishment single-handedly. She had such an Echo-Parque, East LA look to her, I actually asked her if she was from California too as she checked my ID. She wasn’t, but had ‘homies’ in Fresno. I’ll drink to that. She was absolutely no-nonsense and ran a tight ship. I suppose you’d have to be.
I started to realize I was going to have to go to the bathroom. I began to look for it. The bartender pointed to a shadowy corner. I began to walk towards what could only be described as a wooden podium with tons of wires jutting out and down to the floor in crazy angles. As I drew nearer, I could only guess that it must have been a soundboard, and once upon a time this place had live bands play. As I rounded the podium, there was a hobo crouched down behind it rummaging in a trash bag. He said “hi”. I could see that he was pawing through a bag of old halloween decorations, pulling out cardboard pumpkins and streamers that suited his fancy. He told me to use the bathroom on the left. I didn’t ask questions.
This is definitely one of the places I remember trying to finish my drink as soon as humanly possible. No one bothered us, but it wasn’t altogether cozy and welcoming to sit there. I can’t even put my finger on what the general vibe or what the usual customer of the 715 is. All I can say is try not to get stabbed while you’re here.
Chapter four: The New Portland Rose
8728 N Lombard St.
The discovery of this bar has a backstory. I live in The St. Johns area, and have explored many of the dicey-looking bars around me, just for fun. There’s always been one bar, however that I had yet to explore. You can’t see inside the windows, and there are always a handful of scary-homeless types flanking the doorway smoking and eyeballing the neighborhood. Its sign says ‘The Bluebird Tavern’. I tried googling it-no Yelp review. Not even a phone number. It became an enigma. I finally talked Ross into going in there with me one sunday night. We pushed open the doors and were shocked-it was clean, cozy, and they had carpet. A handful of people were sitting at the bar watching ‘The Walking dead’ on a flatscreen. They had oysters on the menu. THIS certainly was not what I was expecting. We sat and watched the show with everyone, and it really was very fun and inviting. When it was over and I was closing out my tab, I mentioned to the bartender that the bar wasn’t what I was expecting. He smiled and said it was common. I asked him what, in his opinion was the worst bar in this area. He said ‘The Portland Rose’. Other people at the bar joined in the conversation. They told me I did NOT want to go there. With more probing they told me it was actually next door, but you needed to exit through the back alley- there was no front entrance. No Fucking front entrance? Are you kidding? A nice guy with long hair at the bar again reiterated that I really didn’t want to go there. I Thanked everyone and headed out and around the back to try to get in.
The alley was dark, with just one incandescent lightbulb hanging over the unmarked door. A pair of homeless gentlemen rode up on bikes as I was walking up, chattering excitedly about a frozen tv dinner they had just stolen from the Safeway up the street. They went in with their prize, I followed. It was packed- 40% were clearly homeless, 3 people there were clearly not, and the rest fell into a grey area. Two of the non-homeless were just a pair of late twenties-early thirty somethings that were either there out of irony or lived around the corner and are too lazy to walk a few steps farther to any other, better bar. The latter is kind of hard to believe since there’s literally 7 others on that block and besides, they weren’t smiling or laughing at all. Not sure what their story was. The other person that clearly wasn’t homeless was god-damned mystery. She was young, maybe 23? Clean and nicely dressed in conservative clothing. She was hanging out with all the different groups of the homeless-going from one group to the next. Laughing talking, socializing…I couldn’t figure it out.
I ordered a drink from the bartender. She was an unexpected character. Long blonde ponytail, tight red turtleneck dress, long curly fake nails, late-60’s. There was something very odd about her shape…Do you remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoons? You know, the ones where where one character would stand on another character’s back and they would wear a long trench coat, thus posing as a tall adult? That was exactly how she looked. That’s honestly the only way I could describe it. I ordered a greyhound, my go-to drink that paris well with broken dreams. She seemed to approve of my drink choice. She then went over to assist the homeless man with the tv dinner.
I then went to observing and drinking my drink. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, except for the 23 year old mystery girl who began to become distressed, as she asked group after group of men for a cigarette. Each one after the next brushed her away like an annoying fly. I got one of Ross’ and offered it to her. She began to cry, took it, and said whole-heartedly that “no one ever gives her anything”. My curiosity about her ran deeper, but I didn’t pursue it…I had to be up in the morning.
At some point, I had to go to the bathroom. This really is where you separate the ironic dive from the real-deal.
I went into he bathroom, obviously expecting the worst. It was normal…by shit-hole standards. Questionably clean, bright, with a locking door. There was a 20-something year old girl standing by the sinks when I walked in. She looked me right in the eye, but continued on with her cell phone conversation. She was discussing meeting up with her pimp, so he could get his cut.
As I was peeing, she hung up the phone and said “I’ve never seen you here before.”
I knew what a statement like that meant. I told her I lived in the neighborhood, but work a lot and don’t get out too much. She complimented my shoes. She asked me where I worked, and I told her. She then said “If I had a job like that, it would change my whole life”. Knowing that she was probably absolutely right, I came out and shook her hand. She was pretty, although street-worn. I gave her my name, and told her to come in and fill out an application. She never did.
I reclaimed my seat, focusing on finishing my drink. The girl from the bathroom came out, with her newly- arrived pimp. He drug her through the bar by the elbow, she looked at me out of the corner of her eye as she left. It was at this moment I realized why this was definitely one of Portland’s worst bars. A true “worst” bar needs to wipe you of all hope and happiness while you’re there.
I went to close my tab. Another homeless guy hefted a camera bag onto the bar. He asked if anyone knew anything about Nikon film cameras. No one said a word. I told him I did, as I do. He brought me the bag. Inside was a gorgeous 70’s era nikon, fully working. I told him that it was operational, and the lens was worth more than its body. He at first told me it wasn’t his, then later stated he had stolen it. I got a bad vibe, like violence had taken place to acquire it. I didn’t want to touch the camera anymore. The desperate look in the guys eyes said it all. The bartender handed me my bar receipt, whispered “you don’t want anything to do with that there” and squeezed my hand. I paid my tab and left. This was an instance where I can say that I will never go to this bar again. It was the first, and the last time. Abandon Ye all hope who enter here.
As I left the building and crossed the street, the nice long-haired gent form the Bluebird shouted “So? How was it”? I laughed a dry, stiffled chuckle and said “Pretty fucking terrible.”
He tipped his cowboy hat to me, cigarette slowly pulsing red in the rain. “Have a good night.”
Chapter Five-The coup de grace: Roosters
605 N Columbia Blvd
There once in a great while comes along a place that words just simply cannot describe. A place that literally changes who you are as a person. This is no over-blown, dramatic statement. Sometimes just entering an environment and experiencing it can, in fact alter your perspective and overall conscience. Roosters is such a place. Near my house, I’ve driven past in many-a-time and wondered what lay within its red roadhouse walls. I had made a mental note to check it out some time but it was shoved to the back burner of priorities. That was until I began this quest for Portland’s worst bars. A friend of mine, who works for Barfly put Roosters at the top of his list when asked for recommends. I felt as if it were a sign, like it was meant to be-considering I drove past it so regularly and it was right in my neighborhood. I planned a night, gathered my group of researches and off we went.
On the drive there, we decided to do a little internet research to see what others thought of the place. We read a few-all vague and mixed. I learned it was a strip club, which is very prevalent in Portland. I really couldn’t find much else. That’s when I came across a review on the Barfly website:
“Toothless and ruthless outpost in NoPo’s industrial wasteland, populated by a sent-from-Central Casting band of post-apocalyptic miscreants. Sad, dark stage trolled by palpably down on their luck ‘dancers.’ Almost entirely covered in spent peanut shells, including the girls. To paraphrase Patton Oswalt, this is “where hope goes to get raped.”‘
I read this and other descriptive reviews aloud on the ride over. The words “hopeless” and “David Lynch” were getting thrown around a lot. Although I was skeptical and had been let down so many times before, I must admit reading these reviews were getting me excited. We were all silent as we pulled up to the roadhouse, as it indeed can only be described. Painted bright red, with a poor facsimile of Woody the Woodpecker smoking a cigar on the highway side of the building. We hunted for parking, and found their lot promisingly full. We parked and walked toward the back-alley entrance. We passed by a fully-restored, 57 Chevy truck and clearly observed a woman performing oral sex on a man. She was wearing a costume of some sort and we all reasonably assumed it was a dancer earning her “real” cash. I think its safe to say we all put our “oh shit” faces at that moment.
The back exterior
We entered. To the left, a large table to sit around with a hole in the middle, not big enough to accommodate an additional pole therefore serving no clear purpose. Beyond this massive table, a stage. The darkest stage I’ve ever seen in a strip club. Later I will discover that this is very much on purpose. To the right there lies piles of trash and trash cans lining the entire wall, including shelves with cans and other debris. In front of this there is a pool table. The bar is shaped in an Awkward “L” and is a beer and wine only establishment. On one end of the bar sits a fat, spotted dog upon one of those shaggy rugs that skirt a toilet. The rest of the space is occupied by strangely positioned folding tables, lotto machines, ATMs, and 80’s era office chairs. As you walk the premises, peanut shells and what I’m convinced is trash rolls up onto the tops of your shoes with every step. Its a cash-only establishment, and you will surly trip over the exposed pipes and electrical wires heaped in front of the ATM to pull out a $20. A large, German Shepherd bolts out from behind the bar and runs the perimeter of the space on occasion. This dog would bark every time someone came in or out of the front door. He would also howl on occasion to the music. This is a dark bar-very dark. I shudder to think what the floors and the dark corners would reveal if fluorescent lighting were suddenly flicked on, or what would scatter.
The patrons were all men, mostly there alone. Shadowy, down on their luck types. The danger factor is really kicked up a notch when you can’t really make out anyone’s faces. The first time I went, there were some gentlemen in the corner that were clearly white-supremacists. That definitely made me nervous. This is the kind of place you not only come with another person, you should probably come in a group. Safety in numbers.
Its at this moment the first dancer took the stage. It became clear that the women who work here are, in various forms, doing what they must to survive. I immediately pulled out an additional $20 and had the bartender cash it out in ones. While I was there I wanted to make sure that these women got paid. Ross took one look at the stage and I saw the look on his face. I realized he was going to need a serious distraction to get through our visit here. I bought him a stack of scratchers to keep him busy and so that he never had to lift his head up while we were there. The first night we went, there were only two girls working. They were polar-opposites. One was thin, small, missing her front teeth due to drugs and had a persistent cough. She danced to 70’s rock and was clearly miserable. I asked her if I could buy her a drink, she smiled and said she’d like a Four-Loko-watermelon. Roosters serves bottled Four-Lokos, I didn’t even know they made such a thing. The other dancer was a young, curvy black girl in an obvious wig. She told us she was very stoned, and sort of danced in her own world, eyes closed while singing to her music. She threw a towel down onto the little ledge where you set your drinks. I think its at this moment I should mention that here in Oregon, strippers can go completely nude-no bottoms. Having a bare stripper’s crotch an inch from your face can be a very intense experience. In a place like this, I can only describe it as horrific. If there’s anyone out there who can look right at a Rooster’s stripper’s bare crotch and not look away, I will buy them a beer. On our drink ledge she performed a special, intimate “dance” for us she referred to as the “clittie-slap”.
On other occasions to Roosters, I have met a few other dancers. One who could pick a dollar up with her vagina, one who unfortunately had toilet paper in her butt-crack that would illuminate in the blacklight, and one who figured out we’d tip her no matter what so she would just sit on the stage and chat with us. Thank-God for the latter, her set is the easiest to get through. All of these girls definitely looked absolutely straight out of county jail or worse. During their dances, the dog’s barks and howls created an all-too-perfect soundtrack. Even though we always tip and keep to ourselves, the bartenders there still don’t seem to really like our presence. They give us dirty looks, eyeball us, over-charge us. This is why visits here are usually kept short. That, and the depression and loss of hope usually starts to set in after about a half-hour.
I have seen a lot of sad, depraved shit in my time. Roosters is an experience all-unto itself. It sits on the very fringe of society, toes the line of what’s decent and good about humanity. A place where you question your very moral fiber as to why you are sitting there and participating in this slice of human horror. Honestly, if a 10-year old came out next to dance with a syringe hanging out of her arm you may not be surprised. A place where all the Purell in the world couldn’t scrub clean the filth left on your soul. After the first visit, my friend Kyle looked at me and let me let me know he didn’t want to play this game any more. I agreed. As I left a deep depression fell over me, that lasted through to the next day. Through twists of fate, I have actually gone back. I’ve been a total of 6 times now. The very last time, the bartender asked me if I was going to audition. It was that very moment where I knew I can never go back there. I tipped extra-well that night and pet the wild dogs extra-hard. Good-bye Roosters, I’ll see you in hell.
There were a lot of bars I went to in research for this article and there were many that could have made the list. I chose these based on what I happened to see on the night(s) I was there. I could include a list of “honorable mentions” but it really doesn’t matter. A place that scared me shitless could be another person’s cozy neighborhood bar. I will mention that in all rights, The Crackerbox Tavern” should be on this list. Just the other day, a person got stabbed to death there for winning a jackpot on a lotto machine. The only reason it isn’t is I’ve already written about it and I have a friend who works there, so it seems less sinister. I will say that after this little journey my friend Kyle and I are going to tour some fancy places, to wash the filth out. I suppose I owe him, considering he’s had numerous drug addict’s snatches waved an inch from his face AND payed for it. I think I can say that the lesson I can take away form this experience is to have a goal in life: No matter WHAT life throws at you and no matter how difficult your obstacles may become in your journey of life, NEVER make a choice that lands you dancing on the stage at Roosters. If you can avoid that path, you’ve done okay.