Sangillo's Tavern, the iconic Portland dive bar on the outskirts of the Old Port founded by an Italian immigrant over 60 years ago, is in danger of being shut down. The Portland Police have recommended to the City Council that the bar's liquor license not be renewed because of an excessive number of calls there. The matter goes before the City Council Monday at 7 p.m. Yes, St. Patrick's Day. Yes, the discussion will be spirited.
Veteran Portland bartender John Myers, now of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, wrote a letter for Eater on why Sangillo's is "a great neighborhood saloon" that should be saved. Here are his words:
Let's go back in time for a minute. It's maybe 1994 and I've got my first bartending job in a little joint in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood. Toledo Lounge. I believe it's still there. The first year we were open, some local chatter-sheet named us one of the best dive bars in the city. HA! We hadn't even been open a year. It was a hair salon or something before the sisters that owned it quit their political gigs and started the place.
Dive bar, right.
Sure, maybe we didn't mop the floor all that well and the old tin filling station signs gave off a certain gritty blue collar vibe, but a dive bar? A good dive bar exudes timelessness, has a bit of gravitas, a little gravel in its throat when it speaks. A good dive bar isn't born, it's made.
But the drinks were sturdy, honest and cheap. The burgers and shakes too.
And the neighborhood welcomed us. At the time, the Adams Morgan neighborhood was neither on the come nor in full flower, she was somewhere in between. Panhandlers and homeless parking jockeys still worked the sidewalks and shootings still happened down the street at the hip-hop club and the watering holes were mostly bars rather than lounges or restaurants and it was a great place for the young up-and-comers to blow off a little steam after their crappy Hill jobs ended on Friday.
The big hulking brownstones one street over were filling up fast with members of the lower castes of the chattering class. And they came to the bar. Danny Wattenberg (he broke the Troopergate story) would argue into the night with the late Christopher Hitchens back when he was a Leftie installed at The Nation. Andrew Sullivan, beardless and before the New Republic ruckuckus would hang his tab between paychecks. And dear Tim Russert, every other Sunday or so, would try to talk football while I peppered him for political dirt as we conspired to hide his rapid consumption of Rolling Rock from his wife. And in between it was a constant parade of cooks, tourists, construction workers, bikers, retired wrestlers (Hillbilly Jim signed the shirt I was wearing), lost souls, drug dealers, gypsies, C-List celebrities (remember Kato Kaelin?) ... you name it.
Dive bar? GREAT bar!
Marc Carnegie was another scrivener that used to hang out at the old Toledo Lounge in those days and in April of '95 he wrote a piece for The American Spectator about his other favorite haunt, The Childe Harold. He showed me a draft of it one afternoon and the line that sticks in my head sounds something like this: You never know who you'll run into there. Could be a PLO operative, Noble laureate or a bass player or a bit player in Iran Contra. Or all at once.
The line got cut, in favor of this:
"But what really makes the Childe is the clientele. Such a dazling selection from the dramatis personae in our little human comedy is not readily found. ... Thick-necked frat boys and stumblebum lushes are the only people unwelcome here."
Those kinds of places, with that kind of vibe, I fear, are not long for this world. Sangillo's is one of them, though.
A great neighborhood saloon like Sangillo's reminds me of a geologist plunging his tap into the earth and pulling up a striated sample of rocks and dirt and compacted debris. He can read history in a 2-foot plug of dirt. I've watched the neighborhood change over the decade or so I've been in Portland just by watching the people change in that bar. There are still the chronically down-and-out who seek solace in that darkness but hardly any of the stone-cold-crazy folks that I used to see. Occasionally you'd catch a small group of intrepid 20-somethings grabbing a quick one on their way from the Old Port to their homes on the hill. They have given way to the young upstart culinarians washing away their last shift at Eventide, Hugo's, East Ender and Duckfat. You still find off-duty medical professionals, tradesmen, artists and the like. Also added to the mix are recent immigrants living on the other side of the Cathedral. And all this mixing up happens as it should--convivially, even joyously.
Because it's a bar, a come-as-you-are bar. It's not a gay bar, a hipster bar, a biker bar, a cocktail bar, or a gastro-pub. It's not a fern bar, restaurant bar or a generic sterile hotel bar. It's a bar bar. If you hear someone say "I wanna open a bar," the next thing you're bound to hear is "What kind of bar?" Ugh.
But, as the good book says, sometimes shit happens. And on January 28th shit happened. Somebody shot somebody else and now everyone's hands are tied, except, we presume, the guy who did the shooting.
The Portland P.D. is playing its role--what else can they do but recommend the license not be renewed?
And the Council will play it's role--decide, on the merits, whether or not the license is to be renewed.
And we'll do our bit--whispering about a Conspiracy of Gentrifiers, or going down the rabbit-hole of race and cognac.
I just fear the loss of another Great bar.
· All Coverage of Sangillo's Tavern [~EMAINE~]
[Photo: Tom Minervino]