Restaurant Closure

Last Call

After nearly 100 years downtown, dive bar Virginia Café gets 86ed.

By Jonathan Fine May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Misha Ashton

BUD CLARK planned his long-shot 1984 mayoral campaign over beers in booth 12. Mercedes Deiz, who became Oregon’s first female African-American judge in 1969, sometimes ducked in for lunch. Gus van Sant occasionally drops by, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain stops in whenever he visits Portland. Once a bustling lunch joint, now a divey watering hole, the “V.C.,” on downtown’s SW Park Avenue, is the Cheers of Stumptown—where everybody may know your name, but no one gives a rip if you’re famous.

“It’s a real hodgepodge of people,” says Beryl Parker, who managed the Virginia Café in the ’70s, when prostitutes loitered outside the front door and greeted her early in the morning. Today, class lines still dissolve in the smoky haze that hangs over the dark wooden booths, while off-duty baristas chum it up with doctors, designers and the downwardly mobile beneath the amber glow of vintage chandeliers.

For nearly a century, this gritty melting pot has endured as an upscale downtown has grown up around it, but the bar’s lasting spirit will come crashing to an end—literally—when the entire block is razed this year to make way for a 33-story tower of retail, office and residential space, the latest development from Tom Moyer, who also gave us the Fox Tower. The rubble will bury a mountain of history.

The first Virginia Café opened at SW 10th and Stark in 1914, serving coffee and chow in a rowdy tenderloin district. A second Virginia Café opened at SW Park Avenue near Morrison Street in 1922 and managed to stay afloat through hard times when many other cafés—including the original V.C.—closed. In 1979 Peter Goforth and Bob Rice bought the failing café, replaced the lunch counter with a fully stocked bar and made strong well-drinks the V.C.’s special of the day. Every day.

But save your epitaphs. Goforth and Rice have remodeled a space just around the corner, using much of the old bar’s décor—including the original booths and light fixtures, as well as the old photos that graced the walls. And on some night in late February, when the mood feels right, the bartender will yell, “Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em,” and the V.C. family—staff and patrons alike—will march, barstools in hand, to their new home, where they’ll chase the lumps in their throats with a few pulls of house whiskey.