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The Birth of Besaw's, Where Slabtown and NW Trendy-Third Collide

Amid the rapid-fire restaurant openings and steady stream of transplants, it's easy to loose the thread of Portland's culinary history. So as we continue our Classics Week celebration of the city's stalwarts, we decided it's time for a few history lessons. We asked local writer Heather Arndt Anderson, author of the recently published culinary history book "Portland: A Food Biography," to school us on the some of the people and places of the past. Next in the series, she shines a little light on Besaw's one of Portland's oldest restaurants.

Courtesy of Besaw's

After retiring from logging, French-Canadian lumberjack George Besaw Jr. ran a gentlemen's bar on the corner of NW 23rd and Savier called The Oak. In 1903, when the grocer across the street moved out to take up poultry farming, Besaw and his old logging buddy Medric Liberty, another French-Canadian logger, opened up the saloon Besaw & Liberty with a bit of capital provided by Henry Weinhard. Medric Liberty sold his half of the interest to Besaw during Prohibition.

With booze off the menu, Besaw introduced a home-style food menu to the saloon and renamed the business the Solo Club. The food served at Besaw's was the typical kind of saloon fare expected by foundrymen, sawyers and other neighborhood working stiffs. The "truck driver sandwiches and longshoremen soup" — slabs of fresh bread with thick piles of sliced ham and a hearty navy bean soup — were the house specialties, sold at working men's prices.

Besaw's had already been open 40 years when George Besaw's husky, fast-talking son Clyde took over. Once Prohibition ended, the Solo Club was renamed back to Besaw's, and Weinhard's beer once again flowed freely from the taps — a bit too freely, if Clyde got to talking with a customer. Clyde had to jury-rig the tap handles with rubber bands so they would shut off automatically if he started chatting and lost track of what he was doing.

In the 1960s, when The Oregonian threatened to give him a good review for serving the city's "biggest and juiciest sandwiches," he protested. He preferred serving honest fare to blue collar guys — guys with names like Yakima Jim, Scappoose Joe and Jungle Jaimie. "God sake don't write anything about me!" he scolded journalist Ralph Friedman. "I don't want publicity. ... You put in something about me I'll have all those rich people come here. I don't want foreigners. I just want the people from Slabtown, the working stiffs who live close around here."

Besaw's, of course, is still thriving on the same corner 111 years later, and it's still getting good reviews. But these days the cozy neighborhood joint happily accepts all comers.

Besaw's

1545 NW 21st Ave. , Portland, OR 97210 503 228 2619 Visit Website

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