White Owl Social Club

A Southeast dive bar cleans up its act and polishes the menu.

By John Chandler February 1, 2013 Published in the February 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Kale slaw and Buffalo Burger

Image: John Chandler

When scouting out a new bar I try to remain aloof. Keep my cards close to the vest. Stay as cool as the other side of the pillow. Insert your own cliche here. But it was difficult to bottle up my enthusiasm during my initial visits to the White Owl Social Club. It's just not all that often that a new establishment gets so many things right the first time out of the box. The beer and wine menu reads, "Quality, cheap, or both," and that sentiment fits this place like a studded glove.   

The White Owl Social Club (1305 SE 8th Ave) is the latest incarnation of an old Southeast neighborhood joint that was formerly known as the White Horse, Acme, and most recently as gutter-rock dive Plan B. Beards, tattoos, and hair dye are the uniform requirements, and Dead Moon, Black Sabbath, and the Melvins still blare over the house stereo—but thankfully conversation is actually possible thanks to a thoughtful arrangement of the speakers. "Yeah, I hate going to a bar and not being able to hear the people I'm sitting with," says White Owl operations manager Bob Peyton. Since this is one of my pet peeves as well, we exchange a vigorous high five.

The Rum Club Mai Tai

Image: John Chandler

Owned by the same management team as Sizzle Pie, the White Owl has gotten a thoroughly modern industrial makeover; a leather-black paint job, plenty of cozy booths, low-lantern lighting, and an imaginative option-laden menu, while retaining its essential street cred. Local spirits are abundant, including New Deal Vodka, Burnside Bourbon, Aviation Gin, Eastside Distilling's Silver Rum, and House Spirits Coffee Liqueur, all of which turn up in a variety of potent combinations, such as the "secret" mai tai ($9) recipe obtained from their buds over at Rum Club. 

The food is parsed from the American bar cuisine playbook, and the sandwiches are referred to as being either "two hand" or "one hand" (sliders). Unlike most fare that's designed primarily to soak up hooch, the White Owl menu takes pride in accommodating patrons with food allergies or who just want to nosh on something with actual nutritional value. And despite the presence of "good for you" items like kale slaw ($3.50 for a side, $6 for a plate) and a seasonal grain salad with quinoa ($3.50–8) the goal here seems to be hearty and rib-sticking comfort food.

Fried Moonbrine Pickle Chips

Image: John Chandler

The Buffalo Chili ($3–6), covered with cheddar or smoked gouda, is a notch below fiery, but should satisfy your body's need for a spicy spoonful during cold weather. The Blackstrap BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich ($9, but only $5 during Happy Hour) is smoky and satisfying with a sneaky bite of vinegar. Even the distinctly hippie-fied kale slaw, that comes covered in diced beets, gets a vibrant charge from the creamy miso dressing. And I devoured a whole plate of Fried Moonbrine pickle chips ($6), while my friends looked on in horror. Your loss, guys. 

Peyton indicates that they still have live shows, including an upcoming garage rock festival called Garbage Fest, as well as DJ nights. Most of the booths and partitions can be folded up and stored, giving dancers and divers plenty of elbow room. It's this sort of practical ingenuity throughout that makes the White Owl a keeper in my book. 

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