Last Calls

photo/Chris Busby

Portland’s “other” gay bar

I’ve always known Blackstones as Portland’s other gay bar, the dark and mysterious one that seemed slightly suspicious. The fellows smoking outside looked intimidating. The recessed entrance they stood in seemed inviting only in the sense that it wanted to consume me.

I’ve worked at bars with similar reputations, and they’ve invariably been unfounded. Sometimes you’ve got to say fuck it and just check a place out. Now that I’ve been there, I can tell you there is no experience in southern Maine quite like taking in a drink at Blackstones.

Blackstones is located on a one-way street in the West End (6 Pine Street),  just outside Longfellow Square. It’s not easy to spot from either State or Congress, though it’s just steps from both of those busy byways.

Coming through the door you find yourself staring down the length of the bar. To your left, under an archway of thick timber cross beams, is the games room. Both that room and the barroom feel spacious for such a small establishment, thanks to the high, green, faux-antique ceilings. Sitting down at the dark wood bar, I appreciated the classic tavern architecture. Blackstones is gorgeously appointed, with heavy wood columns and an open canopy over the bartop. The trim on the walls draws out the character of the room and the bar-back area is lovely.

By my third visit I had firmly decided Blackstones has the best interior of any bar in Maine.

The games room has one of the better bar pool tables around, with two-level, bleacher-style seating along one wall. A pinball machine is tucked in another corner. There’s no jukebox. The music you’re likely to hear on the house system is poppy club remixes.

There are 17 choices of bottled beer here, with a full range of flavors, priced domestic ($2.75) and import ($3.75). The standard of Portland, PBR, sits next to the usual Bud products. Dos Equis, Blue Moon and Smithwicks provide variety. Drafts are similarly priced, and pitchers are an option. There are a handful of wines to choose from, all reasonable at $3.75 a glass, as well as champagne. Note: Bring cash. There’s an ATM, but it’s really a debit machine that charges a $3 fee.

There’s no menu at Blackstones and no cocktail list, either. That’s OK, because the first time I stopped in, the bartender offered to make me anything I wanted as long as it was a vodka mixed with soda or tonic. I’m pretty sure he was joking, but there I was, ordering a Stoli and soda, and what I received dropped my jaw.

It was happy hour, so I’d been told I could get a 10 ounce drink for $4.25 or a 16 ounce drink for $5.25. I opted for the tall and watched in awe as he packed a glass with ice and poured the deepest draw of vodka I’ve ever received before splashing a wee bit of soda on top.

It was ridiculous.

And it didn’t stop there. Over the course of five visits and nine cocktails, I’ve never gotten more ludicrous amounts of alcohol in a mixed drink. I began to wonder how the bar can break even, and momentarily suspected they were just trying to swoon a new customer. But no, everyone received the same pours. As two different bartenders told me, “We like to take care of our customers.”

Deep pours can seem like a thin criticism, but I couldn’t manage two drinks without a swimming feeling. Mixers are supposed to cut the taste of the alcohol, making for an enjoyable drink. These are little more than oversized shots on the rocks. This made me wary to try their more complicated cocktails, because nothing ruins a good drink faster than a heavy hand.

My next libation was a Rusty Nail, a simple mix that’s mainly scotch (in my case, Black Label Walker) with a measure of Drambuie. Because this was a mix of liquor and liqueur, it arrived deep but was quite satisfactory. I took a sip, pleased at the result, and for the second time within the hour the bartender at Blackstones surprised me. He slid up and asked if the mix was correct. Did anything need to be adjusted?

You can go a long time without a bartender asking you that simple question, and when they do it’s striking. I’ve often been asked if a drink is good, but an offer to have it adjusted? It seemed both an antiqued and entirely relevant question, and it quickly endeared the bartender to me.

It also made me more confident of their cocktails. The fellow sitting next to me was quick to push an Oprah, Blackstones’ version of a pomegranate martini. I ordered one and found that compared to my previous drinks, their martinis seemed to err on the small side. No matter, at less than $7, it’s still a good value. The drink wasn’t as overly sweet as the bartender suggested it would be, but there is a palpable sweetness that makes it quite enjoyable. It has a nice sour bite on the back end that balances the body and reminds you there’s a bit of vodka in there.

Since this is a male gay bar, the biggest factor determining whether a straight guy will like this place is not going to be the drinks — it’ll be how comfortable you are with the clientele. Empty, the bar has accents that indicate it’s a gay establishment, but not garishly so. The customers are another matter. They’re open about their sexuality and occasionally flirty. For the homophobic, this is your nightmare.

I enjoyed my visits to Blackstones, and given my apartment’s proximity I’ll stop back in again. My company at the bar was pleasant and engaging. The bartenders were prompt and attentive, even on busy nights. And though some customers may have ridden me (for lack of a better term) for being straight, it was all in good fun. I never felt unwelcome.

— Carl Currie