Lodged between the perennially skeezy Southeast Powell Boulevard and the Lake Oswego-meets-Northwest 23rd annoyance that is Sellwood is the lovely Brooklyn neighborhood. An eclectic mix of families, methamphetamine addicts, retired boxers turned mob enforcers and various band-having Portland punk rock types, the neighborhood is a sort of bizarre cultural nexus. Only in a place like this could O’Brien’s Bear Paw, the greatest bar in Portland, exist and thrive.
Now, as a city that loves its libations, Portland has a large number of fine bars, but none that can compete with the Bear Paw. What does this hole-in-the-wall pub have on the trendy downtown nightspots and up-and-coming Northeast establishments, you ask? While it’s not that hip of a place, you may come to find that you don’t miss all the scenesters and fashionistas progressing into drunken obnoxiousness. You might have to talk to some drunken elderly gentlemen while you wait to order a beer, but that kind of thing adds spice and variety to any evening out.
The place is rarely crowded enough to make seating a challenge, and you have a fine choice between tables, the bar or counters to suit your preference. Physically, the building is kind of small, but even on a Saturday night there’s enough room for everyone. Entertainment is provided courtesy of a pair of pool tables, dartboards, copious video poker machines and a jukebox. The darts stand out as a highlight; you can find yourself playing three or so 35-round games without even noticing. A lot of the songs on the jukebox are grimace inducing, but it’s hard to escape that kind of thing. You can expect a lot of classic rock to be playing.
The cornerstone of any bar is its alcohol, and the Bear Paw does not fail to deliver in this department. While the selection of alcohols cannot compete with larger and better-stocked establishments, the well drinks are strong and the prices very modest. A hearty pint of Pabst will set you back only $1.75, a pitcher $5, and a well drink only $3. In my book, that’s a fucking good deal. The pints and pitchers aren’t skimpy either; they overflow with golden brew and often spill a little, explaining the dark-colored, elementary school-style carpet.
You can get drunk at Bear Paw for $15 to $20, which is nice when you want more than two drinks for that price. The cheapness of the booze is enough on its own to draw me in, but where the Paw truly shines is its food. Far from being the greasy, sickening fare or un-filling hummus plates found in most bars, the food served here is top-notch restaurant quality and goes down easy.
For less than seven dollars, you can get the Bear Paw burger, boasting bacon, egg, cheese, vegetables and a humungous patty served up with a basket of thick-cut steak fries. The amount of ingredients is so great that you are actually forced to smash the burger down with your hands before you can even barely squeeze it in your mouth, aided by its copious greasiness. It’s easily the best burger I have ever had. It even beats out the burgers at Dots, which are nothing to scoff at, and has miles on those from My Father’s Place.
Other burgers are also available for the less adventurous, such as an excellent standard cheeseburger, and you can also get fish and chips, chicken and a small assortment of appetizers. The hot wings, instead of being measly frozen deals, are large and saturated with sauce. The sauce is spicy enough that you actually have to use the provided ranch to avoid serious mouth discomfort.
In short, everything at Bear Paw is fucking delicious. The staff is pretty friendly too, although you shouldn’t expect things to happen too quickly. The Paw is a laidback place, and when you pass through the heavy wood door you can’t help but feel laid-back as well. It’s not the best place to meet new folks or hook up, due to its small size and super-low hipster quotient, but you couldn’t ask for a better place to kill time with your friends after work or unwind after band practice.
If you’re sick of the usual bar scene around town, the Bear Paw is a great alternative. It’s easy on the wallet, generous on the stomach and a nice escape from the trendies that infest a lot of bars around town. The Paw’s not trying to prove anything, because it doesn’t have to. It’s just a nice, normal, neighborhood-y place to get a beer.