Tucked up high in the hills with staggering views, towering evergreens, and outdoor barbecues, the saloon-like Skyline Tavern had all the potential to be the dive bar of everyone's dreams. The only trouble was it had crap beer, even worse food, and took cash only. Service didn't usually come with a smile, either.
When it went on the market in December, complete with 2.2 acres, everyone feared the worst: All that promise would be torn down to make way for a McMansion. Well, Portland, we dodged a bullet. Environmental filmmaker Scott Ray Becker, whose own mother used to hit the tavern after sneaking away from Miss Catlin's School (as Catlin Gabel was once known), has purchased the nearly 100-year-old tavern and the only thing he wants to do is, well, make everything better.
"People always say, ‘I love that place but the food is awful and it needs somebody to make it better,'" says Becker. "Now I'm that person. The name's the same, but the food is better, the wine and beer are way better, the prices are lower, and the people are friendly."
Becker says he was motivated to buy the tavern in part by nostalgia, but also because he's been looking for a venture that could support his nonprofit, the Black Dog Art Ensemble, which uses the arts to explore environmental issues. "They priced it for a vacant lot, so like everything else it was about to close and be torn down," he says. "So we raced and put together an offer. I've been working in non-profit art and ecology groups for over 25 years and I've always wanted to raise money for our progressive programming through the act of drinking beer." He plans to be able to gift the tavern to the nonprofit by July, at which point, "all profits after expenses will run our program. So people eating and drinking up at Skyline will be drinking beer for social justice."
Since taking over in January, he's been power washing away years of mold and moss, and getting rid of the bad canned chili and "shit ass Merlot." In their place, he has Terminal Gravity and Ecliptic beers on tap (he used to brew beer with John Harris at Full Sail), and a selection of wine from importer Casa Bruno.
"Our main challenge food-wise is this is a 1924 tavern and cabin. It's septic. We don't have a million dollars to put in a brand-new septic to handle grease traps." So he's keeping the menu simple with bread from Grand Central Bakery, charcuterie from (ahem) Olympia Provisions, and treats from Gluten Free Gem, which his sister owns. And, of course, everyone is still encouraged to bring stuff for the community grills, or you can buy meats there to cook yourself. "We're working with FoodHub to find sustainable suppliers," says Becker. "We'll sell you organic, Carmen Ranch burgers or hand-stuffed Romanian sausages, and we'll even provide the condiments."
By summer, his friend Margot Leonard, former restaurateur and the head of sales at Grand Central Bakery, will help him offer something delicious from the slow-cooker and panini press. Her brother John Leonard, a wine sales rep, is the Casa Bruno connection, and Becker's friend John McBarron, who has 23 years in the hospitality industry, will run the place. "It's all in the family," says Becker. "We're all ancient friends."
Becker, who's never run a restaurant, admits SkyTav is a grand experiment. "We're just making this up as we go," he says. "We're going to bring it back to the glory days, what Portland used to be like in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Portland's a way more interesting town than when I was growing up, but we're losing something."
And as part of that experiment, he's planning to add a turntable and records, turn part of the sprawling grounds into an outdoor amphitheater to show films, let kids and dogs run free, and promote the tavern as a destination for trail runners, hikers and cyclists. "It's unbelievable it's never been promoted that way," says Becker. "The Waterline Trail (a branch of the Wildwood Trail) pops out in our parking lot. You can start on Thurman and never see a car. We'll figure out a shuttle system to drive back people down. This summer it's going to be the greatest destination."