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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

BridgePort's Renovated Digs

1313 NW
Monday-Thursday: 7 am - midnight
Friday-Saturday: 7 am -1 am
Sunday: 7 am -10 pm

Beers: IPA, ESB, Porter, Blackstrap Stout, Ropewalk Amber, Blue Heron (session), seasonals.

In 1984, Dick Ponzi decided being a pioneer in the wine industry wasn't enough, and so he founded BridgePort, Oregon's first craft brewery.* He dug around until he found a place in gritty Northwest Portland near to the railroad tracks and freeway--much as Fred Bowman and Kurt and Rob Widmer did a year later when they founded Portland and Widmer nearby. The BridgePort building was a brick warehouse, and it was apparently as gritty as its neighborhood when Karl Ockert first brewed BridgePort Ale (which became the name of the brewery, at the time called Columbia River Brewing). Ah, but what bones: thick beams of native fir supported nicely rounded, 100-year-old brick. It became, along with the Lucky Lab, the quintessential Oregon brewery.

But then came the Pearl and wealth and young urban professionals, and apparently, a need for a new aesthetic. Thus a million-dollar remodel.** Gone are the homey nooks, the dart board, the pizzas, the beer towels, the loading dock languor. In it's place? Well, here's how the brewery describes it:
Whether you drop in for a meal with friends at our east side BridgePort Ale House, or stop by for an espresso at the new bridgeport brewpub + bakery in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District, you are sure to have a great experience. Our brewpub and bakery has just reopened after a major renovation. While so much has changed in the century-old building, you’ll find a comfortable and familiar atmosphere awaits with rustic brick, aged timber, and classic iron.
I alert you to this language so that you'll see where I'm headed in this (now overlong) review. The new place is engineered to appeal to those who love sterile steel, vast expanses in which to be seen, and an unchallenging nouveau industrial (nouvel industriel?) chic style. In short, none of the people who used to go there.

It is a radical change. The entire floorplan has changed and all the old Portland pub quality is absolutely scrubbed from the place. Even the food menu accentuates wine--for the beer list, you have to go to the drinks menu. Pearlies want shiraz with their crispy artichoke risotto cakes (okay, maybe pinot gris), so the brewery makes it easy for them. (Though the truth is, as I looked around the place, I saw that most patrons had pints of cloudy IPA in front of them.)

All brewpubs don't have to have the same halibut fish and chips to please me. Pub fare is often starchy and fatty and just so-so on the tongue. A change-up is welcome. BridgePort features pretty standard Northwest cuisine (which was formerly known as California cuisine, until Greg Higgins appropriated and tweaked it, adding local vegetables and meats). I had the pork tenderloin with cannelini beans and rapini, and Sally had a special halibut dish with assorted tubers. Both were excellent, and both went fairly well with the classic British ales BridgePort serves (I had porter with the pork, and the halibut went well with ESB). Even more surprising, the entrees were fairly reasonable, ranging from $11-18.

BridgePort long ago standardized its beer menu. In addition to beers available in bottle--IPA, Blue Heron, Ropewalk, Old Knucklehead, and Supris--they serve old standbyes Porter, ESB, and Blackstrap Stout. I suggest trying the porter and ESB as your food selection dictates. The porter is thick, creamy, and intense--black sunshine for rainy nights. The ESB is in the British style, with an accent on malt. This makes it far more suitable for most entrees than the IPA, which may tend to overwhelm. Blackstrap is aptly named; if you like molasses, you'll like the stout. I don't.

Final Judgment
, which owns BridgePort, has made what is probably a shrewd short- and middle-term decision. When we were there on a Thursday night, it was packed with people, all of them paying more per person than the old pub ever got. It has a contemporary style that serves the neighborhood that (unexpectedly) grew up around it.

But it is not a classic, nor does it reflect anything intrinsic about the brewery or Portland. Styles will change and so, presumably, will the brewery. In ten or fifteen years, as aesthetics have changed, it will have the dog-earred, slightly embarrassing aspect trendy restaurants inevitably acquire. And then Gambrinus can update it. I hope, for the sake of the brewery and the city, that the company recognizes the beauty and history resident in the massive beams that still span the old warehouse and restore some of the old Portland funkiness.

That may seem a long wait, but hey--I recall the brewery of 1991, and it doesn't seem that long ago. The beams will still be there.
*Okay, second, but the Cartwright Brewery, founded a few years earlier, died after a short life of making (reportedly) bad beer. BridgePort is now the oldest Oregon brewery. Deep history here.
**I surmise/recall. A Google search fails to locate the actual cost.

Updated 6/26/06


  1. Wow, amazing description. I appreciate the dicotomy of the old building, the traditonal meat and potatos beer and dart board that have given way to this new decadence. It's hard to say that BridgePort made a poor choice, from a busines perspective, but what they've become is different than what many of us might have imagined. I have to wonder if they've created something genuine and worthwhile or if they've made the NW brewpub into into a cliche that will be tired and in need of another renovation in a few years. Where's the heart?

  2. bridgeport's loss is Lucky Lab's gain. Their new pub on NW Quimby isn't quite the same, but it's in the friendly "get a beer and sit on the picnic tables" vibe. And apparently they are seeing a lot of the old Bridgeport customers who are bummed out by the changeover.

    Nice review!

  3. I hate to see this "sterile" change, and I was disappointed that the brewpub area was in the midst of remodel when I visited Portland last. But hey, you're right...eventually it will have to change (again).
    Nothing is sure in life except change.

  4. I poked my head in one Saturday at midday just after the BridgePort reopened. I'd never visited the old one—having moved to Portland just after it closed—but had looked forward to the reopening because of the pub/brewery's reputation.

    I was met at the door by some species of greeter and was told there was no bar service. That made it clear that it wouldn't work for the group meetings I was scouting the place out for. And that it wouldn't work for me personally. I don't need a guide to show me to my place at a pub, or a set of rules to rather rigidly shape my experience while there.

    A subsequent experience at the BridgePort on Hawthorne led me to believe the motto of the new owners is "have it OUR way."

    The aforementioned group now meets a short distance away, at the new Lucky Lab branch.

  5. The Lucky Lab has taken the opposite approach, going for a style that is quintessential (and therefore timelessly) Portland. I've heard that they do less business than they'd hoped at the new place and that the BridgePort does more. Question is, whose business model will look smartest 1, 2, or five years from now?

    I've poked my head into the new LL, but haven't sat down with a pint. I'll do so, and put up a review by way of comparison.