Drinking Locally

Stumble Zone Northwest

Strolling on the avenue

By John Chandler February 5, 2010


It was shortly before Christmas, and the drinking buddies and I decided our spirits needed fortifying with the impending arrival of those annual holiday horrors too gruesome to consider. There was an insistent drizzle tapping the windows at Basta’s Trattoria, but the elements didn’t faze our festivities one whit. Our first stop found us snug as a troupe of ticks on a hound dog’s backside, surrounded by Pizza Bianca (capers, pecorino cheese, anchovies, and red onions—$5. Modestly priced, my favorite kind!) antipasti, and French fries, not to mention a tippy table full of choice cocktails.

In fact, I recommend that you run and don’t walk to Basta’s for a Blood and Sand, “a classic cocktail originating in the 1930s based on the tryst of unlikely companions. Laphroig rinse, house-made cherry brandy, Antica, scotch and orange.” Yes, it’s one of those spots where the spiffy menu appears to have been hatched by a slumming English Lit major. And the happy hour deals that fly out of the kitchen (all night long!) are worth the trouble it takes to dig up a parking space.

Best of all, we were under the care of Shelby the waitress, whose conduct and demeanor can only be described in the most rhapsodic terms. A remarkable combination of goofy charm and machine-like efficiency, Shelby was punctuality itself with drinks, a suggestion, or a high-wattage smile. Since we had other stops to make we invited her to join us. Alas, she had a shift to finish, so we bid adieu to our super server and continued our survey of watering holes on NW 21st Ave. In a town characterized by lackadaisical musicians and surly slam poets posing as waitstaff, Shelby is a gold doubloon among a pile of bent pennies.

It was our third Stumble Zone outing, and we were rambling through a part of town heavy with bars catering to cooped-up apartment dwellers with a bit of income jangling in their jeans. Here the emphasis is on comfort and calories rather than innovation, which goes a long way toward explaining why the McMenamins Blue Moon Bar & Grill is always hopping.

However, if a thirsty citizen is dead-set on something more intriguing than good ol’ Hammerhead, North 45 is a crucial port of call. Known for its righteous roster of mussels and frites, North 45 is also a convivial and cozy gastro-pub with oodles of international flair; Somerset Maugham would love it there. And the Belgian beer menu is more than bountiful—it’s divine. Virtually all of the beer originates from the blessed toil of Trappist monks doing God’s work. Each offering is served in its own distinctive glassware, specially designed to inflame the senses and maximize the Belgian’s bold and buttery characteristics. A single glass of Delerium Tremens blonde or Duchess de Bourgogne red ale is worth the bank loan necessary to procure it, and you must savor every luxurious sip like it was being rationed with an eyedropper.

Up till this point our excursion had been smooth sailing, but that was about to change with our next destination. We were now headed for perilous waters. For such a blah, nondescript locale, the 21st Ave Bar & Grill is nonetheless legendary—it’s possibly the worst-reviewed joint in town. So I had to get a glimpse of this hellhole for myself.

The comments section of barflymag.com is loaded with hearsay accounts of beer garnished with grasshoppers, nonexistent customer service, and an owner who allegedly screams at his clientele for a variety of minor infractions.

So after a few robust Belgian beers, drinking buddy Garrett and I were itching for an excuse to clean house. Heck, we knew how to make a scene if some imperious tap jockey was going to give us attitude about pushing tables together. But as is so often the case, the bar with the most fearsome reputation inspires little more than boredom and idle speculation about how the hell it remains open. The supposed ogre owner was nowhere to be found and the place was deader than vaudeville. We ordered a round of drinks and quickly abandoned them. Whoever was tasked with preparing our cocktails couldn’t mix a metaphor. Only those of us drinking tap beer managed to drain the glass. I can’t honestly call 21st Avenue Bar & Grill awful, but from the garish paint job to the toxic martinis, it’s clear that the people who work there are completely indifferent as to whether or not their customers enjoy themselves. The lack of warm bodies was no longer a mystery. Feel free to direct hate mail my way.

It was up to our last stop, the Voicebox Karaoke Lounge, to wash the bad taste out of our collective mouth—which it did with flying colors. Our party included a few karaoke virgins, and Voicebox is a good option for the mike shy. You get a room ($7 per person per hour), are quickly shown how to operate the machine, and then you serenade the hell out of each other. So relax, you’re among friends and your questionable chops will not be trashed by a passel of sour strangers.

Our own nervous newbies were soon miraculously transformed into roaring tigers with oodles of stage presence—if not actual talent. Duos, trios, and other ensembles quickly formed, and everything from Annie Lennox to Zeppelin was trotted out and performed with gusto. We figured we’d paid our dues over the curdled martinis at the 21st Avenue Bar & Grill and we were entitled to sing the blues. Besides, we were pretty drunk.

It promised to be a swell Christmas.

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