The Happiest Hours

Drinking at a Crossroads: Neighborhood Bar Tour 2005-2006

About this series: As you may have read recently, the city of Portland is at a “crossroads.” One path leads to a “yuppie playground,” where everyone lives in a condo and considers kayaking a fun leisure activity. Down the other lies the Socialist Revolution liberal newspaper editors secretly hope for. I mean dread. We dread that.

Anyway, in at least one respect, Portland is at an important intersection. City officials will soon consider zoning changes aimed at keeping bars out of residential areas. The direction the city takes from here will have a profound effect on our cultural and social lives for years to come.

Are neighborhood bars a scourge that must be stamped out before good citizens who drink in the privacy of their own homes see their property values slip from quintuple to merely quadruple what they originally paid? Or are local pubs the key links that keep our community together and make the six months of frigid dusk at this latitude tolerable?

The Bollard is launching a special investigative series called Drinking at a Crossroads: Neighborhood Bar Tour 2005-2006. Our staff will travel — on foot or by designated driver — to neighborhood bars throughout the area and conduct in-depth research to help us answer these important questions, or at least better understand whatever the hell the regulars at these places are mumbling to themselves all day. 


Inside The Icehouse Tavern. (photos/The Fuge)
Inside The Icehouse Tavern. (photos/The Fuge)

The Icehouse Tavern
231 York St., Portland

The Icehouse Tavern is a rowdy, but generally friendly, neighborhood bar in the West End of Portland. You may remember it as Popeye’s Icehouse. That’s what it was called before complaints from neighbors and a very public tussle with city officials nearly cost the bar its liquor license several years ago. 

It was wise to change the name. Popeye got in a lot of fights, so that was a bad association. Also, he didn’t live in an icehouse. That’s Superman. 

The Icehouse sits at the north end of the Casco Bay Bridge, and is easily identified by the airplane tail sticking out of its roof – a clear indication of the level of wit you’ll find on display inside. 

This isn’t a big bar, and the popular pool table takes up almost half the space. The walls are covered in beer mirrors and promotional posters, though there are a few treasures amid all the junk, like photos of Governor Baldacci and Senator Snowe chillin’ at Popeye’s with past owner Bernie Orne. 

They don’t come by much anymore. The Icehouse is not their scene. It’s not what you’d call a casual drinking establishment (bars that serve Allen’s Coffee Brandy seldom are). The regulars are either talking to themselves or yelling at each other. 

Actually, that is a lot like Congress. But at the Icehouse, they know how to have a good time. The regulars are singing and dancing, badly, to the jukebox; shooting pool, with surprising skill; and shouting, but in a spirit of aggressive jest. There’s a lot of laughter – usually at someone’s expense, but laughter all the same. There’s something to be said for that.

The Icehouse is also notable for an old board that runs the length of the bar. Drinkers of past decades have carved their nicknames into the heavily varnished wood and colored the letters in with pen. This is a piece of living Drinking History — like Sen. Edward Kennedy, who may or may not be “Donk.”

The Icehouse has a small kitchen. Signs inside advertise a fish sandwich and, of all things, butterfly shrimp. Also – perhaps for dessert — jello shots. I didn’t feel hungry while I was there, but neither did I thirst, thanks to cheap PBR cans and reasonably attentive bartenders. 

There’s another one of those rip-off TouchTunes digital jukeboxes at the Icehouse. It’s hard to resist these evil machines when the alternative is listening to some loudmouth drunk at the end of the bar. (I eventually broke down and fed it a couple bucks to hear some old AC/DC. If you have to hear a drunk guy hollerin’, shouldn’t it be Bon Scott?)

When the city crackdown on neighborhood bars begins in earnest, the Icehouse will be high on the target list, possibly at the very top. The neighborhood has changed around the bar over the years, and so has the zoning. The old tavern is now in a residential zone, where drinking establishments are not permitted unless “grandfathered” in. That means the bar can stay open as long as some grandpa in the neighborhood keeps shuffling in every day at noon for his glass of scotch. 

If grandpa gets caught peeing in the neighbor’s bushes again, it could be curtains for the Icehouse. Like any bar, it’s only as safe as its drunkest patron. Give the wrong guy a can of spinach, or a can of Red Bull with his vodka, and all hell can break loose. 

Personally, I hope the Icehouse survives. It can be obnoxious, but it’s a good-natured bar at heart that serves a dedicated clientele who’d otherwise be bothering people at Ruski’s. Soon after my associates and I walked in for our first research trip, a tipsy patron laid down the law. “Thissis a rowdy place,” he slurred, “so you guys hafta behave yerselfs.” We did.

See — the place polices itself.

— Chris Busby

[Note: The Icehouse Tavern closed during the summer of 2008.]

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