Dive bar alternatives

Upscale drinking, high and low
By BRIAN DUFF  |  April 17, 2014


KEEPING IT SIMPLE Cheese, nuts, and olives complement MJ's interesting wine list.

Since the city council wants to shut down Sangillo’s Tavern, it might only be a matter of time before we’re required to start drinking in a manner dictated by our elected representatives. The point of a dive bar is cheap drinking for drinking’s sake, and perhaps some unpredictable conversation. One side effect, apparently, is an occasional bout of spontaneous violence. What the council members prefer, one begins to suspect, are drinking establishments that fit into a more upscale and corporate-friendly mold, catering to the folks who harm society in ways more refined and better calculated. I visited two such establishments, recently opened or reopened, to try to get into the spirit of things.

Dive bars are a crucial component of any urban bohemian’s personal mix of high and low culture. Within the paradigm of upscale drinking, however, we considered a different type of high/low juxtaposition: MJ’s Wine Bar at the bottom of One City Center, and the Top of the East Lounge, located on the top floor of what is now the Westin Portland Harborview hotel. The former allows you to drink under 13 stories of home-grown bankers and lawyers; at the other, you’re lounging above a dozen floors of business travelers and tourists.

MJ’s has some things in common with Sangillo’s, and in many of the best ways. The drinks (wine in this case) are not too expensive, the service is pleasant and unpretentious, and the focus is squarely on imbibing rather than eating. The space is appealing, with large front windows, a long bar, a comfy lounge area, and lots of wood. In summer there will be tables out front. 

The wine list is a rare mix of reasonable and interesting, with most bottles under $40, and several under $30. Glasses and half glasses are available for every wine. The Charles and Charles cabernet blend from Washington was pleasantly dry and full with a hint of licorice. A French Malbec called Les Fiefs D’Anglars was understated and pleasant, exhibiting hints of raspberry without being sweet. The Stemmari Nero D’Avola tasted of raisin and plum. 

MJ’s forgoes a full kitchen, and serves only cheese, nuts, olives, and chocolate. The cheese plates are thoughtful, each pairing a cheese and little toasts with some sort of fruit and a sauce or paste.  The buratta looked like a large egg, especially when cut open so its creamy interior could mix with a pile of super-sweet roasted corn and a tart raspberry syrup. A Geitost goat cheese had an unusual fudge-like look and texture, and slightly caramel flavor. 

So MJ’s is quite pleasant, though when the white-shirted bankers strut in through the back door — which means straight from the office — you do shudder a bit.

At Top of the East you squeeze into the elevator with the polo-shirt and sweater crowd, and try to outmaneuver them for a window table. The renovation is impressive: the room more spacious, the windows larger, and the appointments more attractive. Servers wear bridesmaid style dresses in black.  The view is still nice.

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