How Do You Make a Bar Fun? The Elvis Room Duo Tells All.

The barmen behind Portland's double-decker ode to the King know how to create a space that's always on your mind.

By Kelly Clarke January 30, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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History still runs through this space—the turret that crowns the upper bar is a replica of a spire that once graced the building’s façade.

Image: Michael Novak

"We constantly talk about the intricacies of fun. It sounds dumb, but we do,” says Marcus Archembault. “Fun is about comfort. Comfort has to do with details,” continues his biz partner, Warren Boothby, “and we have our hands on every part of our bars.”

They’re not kidding. Last summer the barmen turned the burnt shell of the 19th-century Osborn Hotel on SE Grand Avenue into Elvis Room, a lavish, double-decker ode to the high schmaltz and sleaze of the King, from gilded sconces to a peeing putto fountain. And it’s just one of six bars the duo either hand-built or rehabbed around town over the past decade, from Mad Men gem Gold Dust Meridian to shined-up dives like the Sandy Hut and the Alibi.

Their modus operandi? Obsessively thought-out interiors, vintage furnishings, and well-priced drinks, which add up to cozy watering holes that beg you to linger for just one more round. “We’re pack rats. We collect and use stuff others think is junk,” laughs Archembault. (The pair has a storage facility packed with bar stools and yards of tufted vinyl from defunct area bars and Elks lodges.) “This town has changed so much. We want to be part of keeping the old stuff around,” says Boothby. 

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The eye-catching stained glass above the lower bar is actually patterned Plexiglas the partners salvaged from the windows of the Sandy Hut during its 2015 rehab. And about that floor: “You know what everybody is scared of? Carpet,” Boothby says. “But it makes a place soft and comfortable. Old-school places have carpet.”

Image: Michael Novak

Bar Commandments

1. Use What You've Got

Elvis Room’s centerpiece is a grand, floating staircase that descends from a Gracelandesque lounge to a jungle pit that winks at the King’s pills-and-spangled-jumpsuit phase. The 2014 fire that ended the space’s run as the East End bar helped drive the from-scratch design. The duo had to wall off much of the existing basement space to meet updated fire codes, so they used the old stairway as the new spot’s focal point, planting the downstairs bar where the former kitchen once stood.

2. Create Nooks & Crannies

“All of our bars have places to hide, dark corners,” says Archembault. “It seems obvious, but you have to design and build those hidden spaces.” Each of Elvis’s faux nooks has its own concept, from a wood-framed “Confessional” to a snug booth below an old coal chute the pair turned into a grotto festooned with fake plants and a bubbling fountain. A coveted customer perch now hides in the once-awkward space underneath that huge staircase: a bricked-in garden crowned by a stone statue of a peeing boy.

3. Get Weird

Elvis Room was inspired by an underground rock-and-roll club Boothby frequented during his teens in Maine, with a “crappy bust of Elvis on the bar top” he remembers. “It had this funky, fun theme to it—weird stuff everywhere. The owner was not afraid to just go for it.” Easter eggs abound here. A mineral lamp flaunts a nude statuette; a “tabernacle” hides a scrap of carpet from Graceland. Lower bar patrons walk under a shelf cluttered with tiny German “weather houses.” You can barely see them—the duo admit they just “like that they’re there.” 

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