The final stop on a Portland dive bar crawl organized by local bar manager Johnny needs no introduction. Sangillo's has been under intense scrutiny and pressure over the past year as the owners fight to renew their liquor license following a shooting outside the entrance. The tavern is allowed to remain open while the lengthy appeals process proceeds.
The place is a local favorite and its legal troubles - which patrons consider blown out of proportion and likely designed to further gentrification of a neighborhood on the rise - have rallied the community around the tavern more than ever. Respected industry figures like Portland Hunt and Alpine Club bartender John Myers and Samuel's Bar and Grill owner Sam Minervino have penned passionate defenses of Sangillo's for Eater.
Mike, a local brewer, lit up when he found out where the crawl was ending. "I love that bar. That bar has so much soul. It shows what it is. It's a place that you can just come in and have fun. They take you as you are. There's no pretension, nothing. Come in and you have a good time."
Ben, a local server, reflected on the qualities of a good dive bar, stating, "Dive bars can't be built...they can only develop over time. Like the patina on these lights. It's incredible." How often does the word "patina" come up in conversation? It came up twice during the crawl to describe the proper feel of a dive.
The doorman at Sangillo's was eating microwaved Hot Pockets for dinner and didn't mind being interrupted, but not surprisingly he declined to comment on the record without his manager present. The bartender, Andrea Lee, clearly enjoyed chatting up customers, and had to struggle visibly before deciding she'd better not talk to the media anymore. She referenced a piece in the Portland Phoenix from April that brought additional scrutiny to the bar's racially-charged atmosphere. On the night of the dive bar crawl, though, there was more diversity present than in most Portland bars, and little tension.
Johnny spoke once again to the feeling of a well-worn dive bar: "It feels comfortable, whether it really is or not. It's like your couch: Whether it's beat up and stained or not, you still sit on it because it's yours. It might not be for everyone, but it's for you."
Cocktails don't come any more complex at Sangillo's than they do at Mathew's, so the group stuck once again to mixes involving Allen's Coffee Brandy, which customers and the bartender spilled across the counter top at various points in the evening. A house specialty of both Mathew's and Sangillo's is Jello shots, which were doled out from a metal pail at the latter.
One of the bar managers in the group revealed he and his business partners would often hold meetings at dives nowadays. "We can't go to a place like Nosh anymore because people know us there and we'll get interrupted. We come to dive bars to get work done."
The flip side of that coin, Johnny said, are the restaurant workers who want to sit quietly without being recognized or bothered, sipping a beer and a shot in anonymity after a long shift. He said he'd met most of the major restaurateurs from Middle Street at Sangillo's. The bartender hoped that these industry workers with clout would support them at their appeals hearing, which has been rescheduled to November 6 and 7. A Facebook post reiterates that: "Please call the bar at 207-8792810 and ask for Kathleen. Thank you my friends!!!"
"96 Tears" blared from the jukebox as the group dispersed. Patrons continued to filter in, as they would until last call, as they will until the building collapses or is deemed legally unfit. The dive bar, support system for the restaurant industry, needs that support returned.
18 Hampshire St, Portland, (207) 879-2810, Facebook. Open Monday - Saturday 8 a.m. - 1 a.m., Sunday 9 a.m. - 1 a.m.