Bit House Saloon opened July 31 with a staff of veteran Portland bartenders and perhaps the most ambitious bar program of 2015. To create it, Jesse Card teamed up with Robert Kowalski and Jayson Criswell, the men behind Lutz Tavern, Crow Bar, and Clinton Street Pub. Card previously co-owned a restaurant on Saint Croix and managed The Knock Back, and at Bit House Saloon, he's bringing rare and expensive spirits to the thirsty masses.
To do so, he's developed an in-house single-barrel program featuring rare spirits from distillers from Chicago to Brazil. By buying whole barrels of spirits, he's able to obtain whiskeys and tequilas that he otherwise couldn't, and he doles them out in single servings to customers. Additionally, 250 bottles of booze grace the bar shelves, which, built to hold 600 bottles, will soon grow heavier, says Card.
What makes the cocktails at Bit House Saloon stand out is that they feature homemade ingredients like coconut cream. That's right: Bit House employs three full-time barbacks who turn coconuts into coconut cream and nectarines into fruit-leather garnishes. The bar uses liquid nitrogen to freeze its boozy versions of Otter Pops to order, and it fills a beaker with smoke to serve smoked cocktails.
We could continue to list Bit House's liquid-focused activities but that wouldn't leave room for the food. "We're quickly learning that we're going to be more of a restaurant than we thought," said Card. Dustin Clark, the former Wildwood's executive chef, consulted on the menu, and Jeremy Sturm, formerly a chef at Nedd Ludd, heads the Bit House kitchen. In general, the restaurant revamps pub food. Buffalo chicken wings are smoked and come with a blue-cheese fondue, and hot links are served with tangy pickled quail eggs.
And now for the decor, the remodeling of which was overseen by Elk Collective. As the photos above show, the Bit House space is an important part of Portland's history. From a pure nicotine-yellow smoke detector to the booths, tables, and light fixtures, Bit House retains a lot of the character of the former tenant, East Side Saloon, which operated for nearly four decades. The upstairs used to house a boxing ring, so there are remnants from that, too.
Most interesting for Portland history buffs is that the 1896 building was built by Nathaniel West, who championed the construction of the Morrison Bridge. According to Card, West was a cunning businessman, or hustler, if you will. Sitting beneath the classic lighting, one can almost hear the walls talk. But maybe that's got something to do with those boozy Otter Pops.