The Knightville neighborhood of South Portland was sleepy on a recent workweek evening. Stores and cafes were closed (even the popular Taco Trio was dark); the block looked more like a retired movie set than an up-and-coming hood for 30-somethings. But halfway down on Ocean Street (the main drag), lights were on and music blared – someone was open for business.
Upon closer inspection of the freestanding 200-year-old house with a changeable letter sign that reads “open to the public,” Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” boomed from within what’s known as The Griffin Club, a bar many South Portlanders (and New Englanders alike) hold dear to their hearts. It just so happens the bar opened the same year that song was released (1973).
Aside from the shiny digital jukebox and arcade games, walking into The Griffin Club is like stepping into a time capsule. From the stained green carpeting, to the portrait of JFK on the wall, this place is as good a museum as any. Laminated on the bar counter are old newspaper clippings and vintage postcards from Ireland. Two of the newspaper clippings are from 1994, when original owner Eddie Griffin passed away from cancer. Griffin was known as a huge professional sports fan – the Celtics team in the 1970s used to frequent the bar, as well as Jim Rice of the Red Sox (his autographed baseball bat is displayed on the wall).
A major sports promoter in town, Griffin funneled thousands of dollars to youth and adult sports teams, and even held boxing shows in the basement of the bar up until his death. While the boxing “club” aspect of The Griffin Club is no longer around, there is an unmistakable family feel to this bar. The many regulars from the 70s and 80s are older, many have died, but a younger generation of Griffin Club regulars has pulled up a seat. Some sit at the bar with an Italian sub brought in from outside, others don’t even need to order anymore – the bartender knows their drink and has the bottle cap popped before they’ve even unzipped their coat.
Most nights, the bar is setup with Styrofoam bowls filled with snacks (cheese puffs were on the menu recently), and a basket at one end of the bar was filled with matchboxes and an assortment of hard candy. There isn’t really a drink list, but a full bar. The usual suspects are on tap and Geary’s HSA is the only Maine beer (also, everything’s about a $1 cheaper than the Old Port area).
The bartender is incredibly welcoming, especially to newbies, and while The Griffin Club is a downright dive, there’s nothing rough about this place. In fact, as ironic as it may seem because of the bar’s boxing past, there’s no bar fighting allowed.
Most nights you can find a seat at the bar, but expect crowds on Saturdays and keep in mind that St. Patrick’s Day is their biggest day of the year – a line out the door. Regulars from the 70s come in to see old friends, or remember those who have passed away. Owner Scoti Parker often posts obituaries on Facebook and even lights a candle at the bar when someone from The Griffin Club community passes on.
By nine o’clock, the bar was as sleepy as the rest of the block. The bar cat Missy was curled up on the carpet next to the radiator and Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” rang loudly – the bar would be open for another few hours.
The Griffin Club
WHERE: 60 Ocean St., South Portland
AMENITIES: ATM, pool, darts, arcade games, digital juke box, snacks, candy basket, bar cat named Missy
PARKING: Parking lot and on street
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: NO
BOTTOM LINE:It’s been 43 years since The Griffin Club officially opened to the public in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood. While not a boxing club anymore, the bar serves a steady stream of regulars, many of whom have been returning since day one. The drinks are cheap ($2 to $6), the music is loud, and the bar games – pool, darts, arcade – keep folks occupied. There are free snacks and even a candy and matchbox basket. The Griffin Club is a testament to South Portland’s close-knit community, and original owner Eddie Griffin’s dream of a good ole American bar.