The Portland Palate
Ruski’s Tavern – Still a Neighborhood Bar?
Sometimes it’s the patrons who best define the zeitgeist of a business rather than the business defining itself. Ruski’s Tavern seems to be such a place — and a special one. But is it still as special as it was in its yesteryear? This is the question I’ve been grappling with since my most recent visit. The answer, of course, is a subjective one.
A friend and I wandered over for an uncharacteristically-for-us late-hour dinner on a weekday night. Ruski’s advertises they serve food until 12 Midnight, yet when we arrived at 10:45 p.m., we were told the kitchen would be closing in 15 minutes.
The harbinger of this news was a pleasant, conversational young woman who was both server and bartender. She was very competent, and one of only two staff on duty that night. The other young woman was the cook, and spent her time keeping a steady pace in the kitchen.
Where are the 60-somethings?
A dozen or so patrons dotted Ruski’s one large room, sitting at bar stools or at high-top tables. I noticed that nobody, and I mean nobody, except my dinner companion, looked familiar to me.
I hadn’t been to Ruski’s, a favorite neighborhood dive bar of mine (and of so many) for many months. So, I guess I had naively assumed it would always be the same: a peculiar and diverse blend of neighborhood lunch lushes, lasses and other locals. But you know what they say about making assumptions! And yet I felt more confused than asinine over this.
I asked our server, whose name we didn’t get, ‘what was up’ with the new demographic? She willfully began to point out who was local and who wasn’t, an interesting gesture, never apologizing for any of it.
Most were locals, she explained, “They–” nodding over to a quartet of 40-somethings, “are not from here.”
I wondered aloud, “Where are the familiar faces of people my age? I’m sure I’m the oldest one here, and I’m not quite 60 yet.”
Where was Bil Harrison, the accomplished resident-painter who frequented here faithfully? Oh that’s right. He died. In fact, what hit me later, is that this city isn’t the city I moved to 25 years ago. It is different. It has changed and will continue to.
You can’t stop progress.
I’ve heard the saying a lot, especially growing up, ’You can’t stop progress.”
No, you can’t, but the word “progress” is subjective, and seems really to be “code” for “you can’t stop change.” It is spoken with chagrin and humor, but causes discomfort. Change: it’s what we humans, more than anything else, resist most.
Give me back the old Ruski’s: slightly seedy, friendly, and inviting. It had a real sense of “community.” The city has changed, and so has the West End and its populace. Us boomers… we are dying out, or moving to Florida. I don’t plan on doing either- ever.
To the food.
Feeling a sense of urgency under the duress of the kitchen closing, I hastily ordered from the specials board. I ordered an app of steak & cheese egg rolls with sour cream on the side. For my main I had a buffalo chicken tenders wrap with lettuce, tomato, bleu cheese and fries, side of mayo.
My friend ordered a Pabst and the Ultimate Burger: topped with onion rings, grilled peppers & onions, mushrooms and cheese.
All our food came up at once, and it didn’t take long. The burger was undercooked (more rare than medium, as ordered). Perhaps, this was a sign of an eagerness to shut the grill down, or perhaps just a fluke, as the food here is usually consistent and also as good pub food as you’ll find anywhere. Staff were on the wind-down from the day, and who can blame them?
I liked the greasy egg rolls well-enough, though the sour cream on the side was boring. Portions here are generous, and I took home half my wrap, which tasted great the second time around, too.
I don’t know what we spent: not much…. This is inexpensive, comfort-food fare.
Ruski’s Tavern is a nostalgic throwback to a previous era; a slower, simpler time. Music on this night was a bit loud and it was decidedly 2000’s rock, an odd pairing given Ruski’s vibe. But not so considering their mostly-millennials demographic.
Despite the men’s room wall (and I presume women’s, too) being stripped of all its 1950’s Life Magazine recipes…. there remains autographed vintage TV series’ posters and kitsch all over the main room.
A dart board, juke box and other oddities define the ephemerality of the establishment, which has been serving-up good food since 1892. Ostensibly, this tavern, rumored to be elder sister to Rosie’s Pub on Fore Street in the Old Port Exchange, is among the oldest in the city.
125 years and counting…
Ruski’s has staying-power, and it’s easy to see why — adapting to a constantly changing demographic for 125 years. Only now I need to adjust my mindset, in that, I should ‘chill’ more about the changing demographic and pace of things in Portland: lament what was, and move into acceptance of what now is.
Ruski’s is located in the West End at the intersection of Clark Street with # 212 Danforth, on the #8 METRO bus route. Parking is on the street for those who insist on driving, though the tavern is walkable from downtown at Congress Square, about 15 minutes. Ruski’s is open 7 days/week from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., serving breakfast all day and night, until 11:00 pm apparently, sometimes, not Midnight. So be aware.
And to answer honestly, and get back to my critical question: “is Ruski’s still a neighborhood bar?” Well, yes it is and it fulfills its mission as such. Though for worse, better or a mixed bag of both, the West End has changed, and it will continue to: all in the name of progress, of course.
James has a background in monogramming, grant writing and driving a pedicab. In his spare time he enjoys a fun night out with friends and questioning authority. James can be reached at ThePortlandPalate@gmail.com.