Johnny, a local bar manager, gathered a posse of industry professionals for a three-part crawl of classic dive bars in Portland. The first stop was Geno's Rock Club, established in 1983 in the Old Port and relocated to its current home in the Arts District some years ago.
In Johnny's mind, dive bars like Geno's and Sangillo's (stop three of the night) are hubs where cooks, kitchen workers, and all the other service industry people (from bars and restaurants that "tend to show up on Eater more often") go after work. "Dive bars support the rest of the industry," he explained.
Because this is Cocktail Week, the conversation and consumption revolved around hard liquor and mixed drinks. At Geno's, bartender Kaitlyn Tierney Duggan shook up an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan, both of which were pronounced quite tasty (and were large enough to spill over into second glasses, like adult milkshakes). According to Johnny, "Most dive bars actually make a good drink because they get so many waiters and bartenders in."
Around 8:00 p.m. on a Wednesday the bar was slow enough that Kaitlyn was able to answer some questions for Eater, including her take on the essence of a dive bar. Following that conversation, Emily, another bar manager and restaurant partner in town who was part of the roving band of revelers, discussed the same existential question with Johnny. Read on for the edited interview and more grainy camera-phone pictures, which Johnny felt would best fit the dive bar aesthetic.
Do you enjoy it here?
Kaitlyn: I do. I've been here three years. I was a Geno's regular before I started working here. I used to tend bar at El Rayo, so I had the traditional bartender weekend of Monday and Tuesday. This was my stop. Generally a detail across the street and then in here for last call, which tends to be what a lot of the servers this end of town do.
That's what Johnny was saying.
Kaitlyn: Yeah, a lot of people get out of work, especially if they're at a restaurant with a dining room, they get out maybe 10, 11, midnight. There's only so many places you can go between work and your apartment with only an hour until last call.
Johnny: It definitely gets wild in here right before last call.
Kaitlyn: It literally is the witching hour here. Between 11:30 and 12:30 is when you see what kind of night we're going to have. Usually by 12:30, even on a Monday or Tuesday, we tend to be pretty mobbed in here.
We're talking cocktails. Do you make a lot of cocktails here?
Kaitlyn: I make a good bit of whiskey cocktails. I have a lot of Old Fashioneds for regulars, the occasional Manhattan. The cherry juice, the Grenadine is not tough enough for a lot of our drinkers (laughs). A lot of our guys are beer-and-a-shot guys, though. Our unofficial industry special is High Life and Evan Williams for six bucks. Beer and a shot, beer and a shot, you go three rounds of that then go home and pass out.
That's a version of a cocktail, right?
Kaitlyn: There's two ingredients going on, technically!
Favorite part of the job?
Kaitlyn: Oh, this part right here, easily. I like to keep up on what's going on with everybody. So many of my customers are regulars. Even if I only see them once a week, I'm always going to see someone for his beer on Wednesday, I'm always going to see Johnny for Granddad. I get to park in here, and then for three, four days out of the week I get to feel out what's going on in the rest of town. You get to see everybody you want to see without necessarily having to bash your head against the wall like everyone else is doing partying until 2 in the morning.
Kaitlyn: Working on Congress Street comes with its fair share of angry, housing-free people that tend to walk up and down. Most of the people that live on Congress Street, or spend a lot of time walking up and down it...
Johnny: Or live on Congress Street, literally...
Kaitlyn: ...are pretty reasonable. They know the rules: They come in, they can use the restroom, there's a water fountain in the lobby. But there's definitely the lady who's been on her oxycodone for three days and is gonna come in and shout, you know. There's a little bit of that. During the week I'm here by myself so it's half-bartender, half-bouncer, which is not fun. Bouncing is always high stress, never enjoyable.
It's a tough tight-rope to walk in here, because we do have a lot of musicians and industry people who are a little rougher, especially going back 20 years when the bar was in the Old Port. There's people that are still connected to people that do come in here. That woman [a few minutes ago], she wanted to leave a note for a guy who's in a band, that she used to date probably 30 years ago, but now she's visibly homeless, so...
Johnny: And then she sang NWA.
Kaitlyn: Yeah, so with something like that, you hope, if she wants to write the note, she can write the note, she wants a glass of water, fine, and then hopefully that's as stressful as it's gonna be. Which, for the most part, it is.
What separates a bar from a dive bar? Do you even consider yourselves a dive bar?
Kaitlyn: I consider us like a dive-y rock bar, but I use "dive bar" as a shorthand for an ethos, maybe, a mentality. We pour strong, we stay open for an actual last call. You can be a little bit louder and a little bit rowdier in here than you can in, say, Congress Bar and Grill. We don't serve food so we're not really interested in burgers and fries and chips and stuff. That is all very dive bar. We're a neighborhood bar which tends to be synonymous with dive bar. A lot of people would argue that because we're a venue, we're a venue first and that precludes us from being a dive bar, but rock clubs, punk clubs, they're types of dives.
Emily, what separates a bar from a dive for you?
Emily: Comfort levels. I feel more comfortable at a dive bar most of the time. Less pretension. I usually drink whiskey at dive bars and beer everywhere else. It doesn't have to do with selection. You can go to dives with a great draft list. Strong drinks. I never drink booze but when I'm at dive bars I drink booze.
Johnny: That's what Kaitlyn said, too: Heavy pours.
Emily: I don't feel bad getting drunk at dive bars. I feel bad getting really drunk at like Hunt and Alpine and stumbling off my chair.
Johnny: I crush Old Granddad every time I come in here. What are you crushing now?
Emily: Jameson. Jameson and Corona, Erika's choice (laughs).
Johnny: Ooh, multicultural.
625 Congress St, Portland, (207) 221-2382, Facebook. Open daily 5 p.m. - 1 a.m.