This past New Year’s, I hope many of you resolved to get out more, meet new people and try new things. In Portland, it’s easy to keep that kind of resolution. Just make your way down to one of our many neighborhood bars and pubs.
Investing time in a local pub can lead to new friends and good conversations. And most importantly this time of year, you’ll have a place to go in the cold and quiet winter months for a drink of solidarity.
Let’s start out at Mama’s Crowbar (189 Congress St.), a little hole in the wall about a block above Washington Ave. It’s a mother-and-daughter-run joint that specializes in American craft beers. Common tap selections include stouts and ales from the likes of Allagash, Dogfish Head, and Oxbow, the brewery in Newcastle established last year. You won’t find liquor at Mama’s, but you will find nearly three dozen bottled and canned beer options priced between $3 and $7. PBR is not among them, because Mama doesn’t approve of their high fructose corn syrup.
This is an intimate place, with a nook full of board games and a dart board by the door. Their jukebox is a mid-90s time capsule, but at least it’s not TouchTunes. A couple old barrels are available to keep your drink in reach should you wander from the bar.
Down the hill a block is The Snug (223 Congress St.). It’s a bit larger than Mama’s, but often gets packed. The bar is beautifully appointed, with the taps right out front where you can see them. Abita and Longtrail IPA are the top draws. They also have a dozen or so bottles and a couple wines, but the blue-collar stuff is most popular. If a bottle is on the bar, chances are it says Miller on the label. Behind the bar is a full range of liquors, but don’t expect to see a cocktail list. This is also a dog-friendly bar; don’t be surprised if you have to step over one here and there.
Getting closer to the Old Port, we find the legendary Sangillo’s (18 Hampshire St.). It’s a tight space with only 24 seats, including the 10 that belly up to the bar. They’re cash-only, but you get a big drink for a low price. The selection of liquor is broad (60 bottles across). Crystal Head Vodka ($15.50/shot) is their most eccentric offering. Sangillo’s has over 20 bottles of beer priced under $4. It’s the frugal and friendly choice east of Franklin Arterial.
Venturing down toward Deering Oaks brings us to another Portland institution, Rockin’ Rickey’s Tavern (94 Portland St.). Rickey’s is the bar of a past generation, made mysterious and intimidating by its veteran cast of customers. Drinks are served in disposable plastic cups. The pine-board walls are adorned with Bud Light mirrors and neon. There’s a pinball machine cowering in the corner. Everything feels a bit left over from the ’80s, but then again, so are the prices. A Busch draft? $1.25. A heavy shot of Jim Beam: $3.25. Pitchers of Bud start at a scant $3.75. That’s less than a bottle at some bars in Portland.
Rickey’s has only two taps and a dozen bottled beers. Their booze is limited to about 30 bottles, so I suggest you ask for the type of booze you want, rather than the brand, to avoid disappointment. There’s a grill out back if you want a burger or hot dog. Either is available for under $3.
Rickey’s is an absolute ball. If you haven’t been in before, I urge you to give it a try.
Further on down the avenue is Forest Gardens (371 Forest Ave.). You may as well consider this another beer-only bar, though they do keep a couple wines around. Forest Gardens is narrow, with a half dozen tables and a booth at the end. They have a TouchTunes jukebox, darts and pinball in the back. They also have a small lunch/dinner menu offering burgers, hot dogs and the kinds of sandwiches you expect to find in a place like this. Most of the food costs under $5 (you can splurge and order a steak sandwich or pizza for $7). Putting a bottle of domestic beer next to your lunch will set you back only $2.75, while imports (“Heineken and all that shit,” to quote the bartender) go for $3.75.
Back up in the Old Port, it’s time to hit Rosie’s (330 Fore St.). Rosie’s has the most traditional pub atmosphere on the peninsula. It’s divided into two rooms, with a tile-topped bar stretching the length of the first section. In the back you’ll find a darts stall and plenty of tables for dining. The food is definitely a draw here. Rosie’s has always been creative with its pub fare, but these days they’re taking their menu to new heights. Make sure you check out the daily specials on the board.
There are 14 options on tap. Guinness, PBR, Woodchuck Cider, and Rosie’s’ own Hooker Pale and Hooker Dark beers seem to be the most popular pours. All are reasonably priced, topping out at $4 for a 20 oz. draft. They have another dozen or so bottled beers and the liquor selection is decent, too (well over 60 bottles). There are also a handful of red and white wine options. Try their cupcake wine.
On the West End, let’s hit Ruski’s (212 Danforth St.). [Full disclosure: I work here. Hi, what can I get ya?] Like Rosie’s (which was also founded by the late, great Steve Harris), Ruski’s has a big menu. It’s a lot of food for a place that only seats 30.
There are 10 draft beers and 20 bottle options at Ruski’s. You’ll find PBR on tap, as well as less common imports like Weihenstephan and Hoegaarden. Two taps are always in rotation, so there’s always something new to try. Prices range from $2.25 to $4 for a 16 oz. glass. The bottled selection of imports and domestics mostly sticks to the standards, but there are gems like Lowenbrau and Schlitz pounders tucked in the cooler. There’s a good selection of liquors, especially among the vodkas (handy for Bloody Marys) and whiskeys.
Breakfast is served all day, but if it’s a weekend and you want to eat in the a.m., try to arrive early so you won’t have to wait in line.
Last on the list, way out west by St. John Street, we come to Pizza Villa (940 Congress St.). Pizza Villa is the most balanced of all the pubs in town. It offers a concise menu (pizza, sandwiches and salads, with homemade soups and a few apps) and has family-friendly seating separated from the bar. There are seven beers on tap (PBR, Geary’s HSA, a couple Shipyards and some Bud products), over 20 bottles and nearly 70 liquors in stock. The variety is welcome, not overwhelming. Any liquor you know by name is probably close at hand. Beer prices are generally $2.75 for domestics and $3.75 for imports, but there are exceptions, so pay attention.
The kitchen is open from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Patrons over 21 can eat in the bar, which comfortably seats about 50 people, including eight stools. There’s pinball and video golf in the corner, unique and interesting décor, and a cab stand right outside the door when last call finally arrives.
— Carl Currie