There’s a threat of foulness in the sky over Portland. Not merely rain, but a cold, dank drizzle. The kind that seems to soak you and sting your skin, even though it’s by no means a “heavy” rain. Pushing my way out the door of the cafe, I can already feel that I’m not up for going home right now. Not if it means walking in this, and I really don’t want to buy a bus pass just yet.
What I need is a beer- a beer, and a familiar space somewhere where I can just LISTEN to the rain, and be alone with my thoughts in the company of others.
Two blocks down, I lean through the door of Beulahland and sigh. The jukebox is going, there’s a soccer game on the TVs, but nothing loud enough that people need to shout at each other. Unlike other bars, the smell rolling out of the small kitchen isn’t dirty frying oil. It’s smoky, with a bit of open flame and charring vegetables.
Dean behind the bar waves me in. “Heya, Matt- been wondering when we’d see you again.”
“Hey hey. Yeah, well- you know. Between the work and the writing, I’ve been kinda tied up.” I slip my hat off to eye the beer list. “How’s that Porter?”
Dean’s already tipping me out a little sample. “It’s pretty good- folks seem to like it fine, but I’m all about that cream ale.”
The shot glass of porter IS good, but he’s got a point. Not the finest I ever had, and the cream ale is tempting.
“Yeah, alright- let’s do the cream ale and a hot dog.”
As I open up a tab, the back door to the patio clicks open. A middle-aged, bedraggled man in a hooded jacket pushes it open with his back as he’s holding two glasses. Slipping up next to me, he sets the glasses down on the polished sloped wood of the bar.
“Hey Dean, same again?… Oh, hey Matt! Long time no see!”
Dean’s just brought my beer. “Heya Patrick. Yeah, well- you know.”
Welcome to Beulahland.
The dive bar.
Unassuming, unpretentious, a-regular-is-as-good-as-family-if-you-aren’t-then-shut-up-and-drink dive bars.
They are everywhere, and they are magical, and they probably would not like to hear you say that.
Dive bars have a simple role to play: exist, provide good alcohol and edible food for cheap, and have no expectations of their clientele other than that they pay their tabs and don’t make too much trouble. Customers, similarly, have few expectations of their favorite watering holes- have alcohol, have room to sit, and maybe remember their faces.
Go to a dive bar often enough, and you’ll find a regular cast of characters. The bar is where they go to relax. It’s where they ALWAYS go to relax, and see the same people they always do, drink the same things they always drink, and it doesn’t need to change.
Beulahland is currently my favorite dive bar in Portland. I don’t forsee that changing anytime soon.
The best way to describe the bar itself is “eclectic.” Art from friends and patrons hang on the walls, alongside band posters, chalkboards listing upcoming soccer game times, and various odds and ends of the bar’s weird past in a weird city.
Looking past Patrick for a moment, the vintage pinball machines in the back glow lecherously in the dim light. There’s a large photo booth I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually use, and a vending machine.
The vending machine is a trip in itself. It doesn’t have snacks or sodas in it, but rather a mass of odds and ends: pulp novels, condoms, a pregnancy test, individual tarot cards, addressed blank postcards to the White House, and so on. I’ve never seen anyone use that machine either, but one really doesn’t go to Beulahland to peoplewatch. You go to be alone with a crowd.
Patrick and I head out to the small back patio. It’s crisp and cold, but a plastic corrugated roof keeps out the rain- the sound is soothing as we slide into two of the metal chairs. In Portland, “back patio” is a sort of shorthand for “smoking section,” given the city’s strict laws regarding it. Patrick resumes rolling his own with a huge carton of tubes and a gallon-bag of his favorite tobacco, and I just contentedly sip my beer as we compare our work weeks.
Rain drums on the patio roof, and soon we’re not alone. Beulahland is a popular post-shift bar for a lot of folks like Patrick and I. We’re soon joined by Rick, Mike, and Valerie- all employees of City Star, the cafe next door. Mike was in the dish pit, while Rick and Valerie are servers. Every one of them collapses into a metal chair, sips a drink, and lights up.
That’s one thing I love about what I do for a living- the community that you join continues after hours, and we can all relate to the various ways we take the rough edges off our day. A quiet recognition of kinship in this crazy thing we do.
Ashley’s just come on duty- a younger waitress with curly dark hair and cateye glasses, permanently in a knit beanie and cardigan. She’s the one who brings out my hot dog, grabs glasses, and asks who she can bum a smoke from on her break. Everyone with a pack volunteers- they’ve all been there.
The hot dog is REALLY damn good. Steamed to snap, and dressed up with aioli, roasted red pepper ketchup, pickled mustard seeds and onions. Recently, the Beulahland menu has been renovated. You used to get things like veggie wraps, burgers, and greasy chicken wings there- but since a new cook has come in, the menu now features street tacos and sliders, made with meat they smoke themselves outside. It’s all still simple comfort food, but with gourmet twists as foodieness worms its way into every neighborhood. Walking the line between gourmet and dive bar comfort food is difficult, but Beulahlands staff has it right.
The beer goes down, and the sound of the rain is starting to do its work. The edginess of the day is gone, and now just weariness is setting in. I say my goodbyes to Patrick and the rest, and pay off my tab with Dean. If I can keep it together, I might be able to walk home- but a bus stop isn’t far away.
Jeez, I needed that.
HOW: Swing by, or check their website: beulahlandpdx.com
WHEN: Mon-Wed: 9:00*AM-12:00 AM, Thurs-Sun: 9:00*AM-2:00 AM
WHY: You just need a place to take the edges off the day. A good beer, no muss no fuss, no pretension.