Stiff drinks and daily happy hour specials have kept this place popular — despite the bathrooms.
A night on the town in Portland’s West End, at least for me, includes three essential activities: dancing at Flask, rock ‘n’ roll sushi at Kushiya Benkay on Congress Street and last call at Down Town Lounge.
The last vestige of infamous Portlander Norm Jabar’s restaurant empire (R.I.P. Norm’s Bar and Grill and Norm’s East End Grill), Downtown Lounge (or DTL as it is more affectionately known) has been around for almost 20 years, and for good reason: It knows what it’s good at.
One of those things is happy hour, which runs daily from 5 to 7 p.m. Although I intended to take advantage of the $2.50 drafts, $3.50 well drinks, half-price menu items and $11 pitchers ($9 for Bud) on a recent evening, lateness is a vice that I hold near and dear to my heart, and I walked in the door shortly after 7 p.m. But knowing that those same specials would be right there every day of the week was enough to console me. The regularly priced Guinness I ordered (still cheap) helped too.
If you like dive bars, the charm of DTL is evident upon entry. Under the appropriately dim lighting, it’s red walls are covered with old photographs, old license plates and old road signs, all of which give a sense the bar’s, well, oldness. Eight cozy booths line the wall opposite a long bar, which is fully stocked. Cocktails come in pint glasses, and the bartenders are pleasantly generous with their pours. Seats can fill up fast and there isn’t a lot in the way of standing room, so have no mercy when a booth or bar chair becomes available.
The bar itself has seven taps that include the requisite PBR, Guinness and Bud, but also Allagash and Baxter for the fancy folks out there. A no-frills menu of burgers, salads and classic bar snacks is flushed out with specials listed above the booths promoting more exotic items like jumbo beef tacos. I went with wings because I have zero self-control, but I have no regrets, as they were excellent: hot, spicy and not drowning in sauce.
As we sipped our (mostly) $4 beers, my fellow patrons and I were treated to a playlist of Black Sabbath and Misfits while the 1998 summer blockbuster “Armageddon” played on the TV above the bar, a combination that will inspire many return visits to see what else this place has up its sleeves. Fingers crossed for more Bruce Willis movies.
Finally, there are the bathrooms. DTL’s bathrooms rival its happy hour in terms of notoriety. Upon entering either of the two, one must climb a small set of stairs in order to reach the toilet, a quirk that is either charmingly unexpected or potentially hazardous, depending on your level of inebriation.
In a town brimming with new places to drink fancy cocktails and craft brews, it’s nice to have a bar that truly sticks to the basics. As DTL’s identifiable orange sign says: Bar. Grill. Eat. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Samantha Schnare is a freelance writer and taproom associate at Bissell Brothers.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: 606 Congress St., Portland
PHONE: (207) 773-1363
HOURS: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Saturday
AMENITIES: Full bar, strong drinks, TV, juke box, booth seating, dim lighting for doing dark deeds, great happy hour specials, thought-provoking bathrooms.
BOTTOM LINE: Downtown Lounge is an essential Portland bar for a reason. With cheap food, cheaper beer and a cool no-nonsense vibe, DTL expertly walks the line between dive bar and diner.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes