Every city has that one bar that everyone’s got a story about. Like the night Damian Lillard made that clutch buzzer-beater shot while you stood at the L-shaped bar, or the time you had a few too many Jell-O shots and Rainier tallboys and things got wild. Or maybe it isn’t one memory, but a decades’ worth, preserved in the tchotchkes lining the walls and the cadre of regulars who helped name the bar in the first place. Or maybe it’s just the place to get damn good fried chicken.
For countless Portlanders and tourists, Southeast Portland’s Reel M Inn is that bar. “It feels like a big hug in there,” says Carey Bolton, bar manager, owner, and chicken-frying master. The reliable and familiar red stucco building has been a neighborhood watering hole for more than 50 years. The bar has run through myriad names — Spill M Inn, Hogan’s, the Lion’s Den — but for many, it’s always (or since about 1994, anyway) been the Reel.
The bar closed temporarily on November 18 with no reopening date on the books, a choice made by the team after a new surge of COVID-19 led the state shut down dining rooms once again. “2020 sucks, but it’s not going to take us down,” the Instagram closing announcement reads. “This isn’t forever.” Still, after the bar’s staff posted the closing announcement, Portlanders swarmed the Reel, quickly knocking through the rest of the chicken inventory, and regulars have been mourning the — albeit temporary — loss of one of the city’s institutions, a remnant of an older Portland that was more casual, less buzzy, and friendly to its core.
Portland has changed around the Reel, but the Reel hasn’t changed much. Hogan’s Pub, as it was known in the early ’90s, was purchased in 1994 by Bill and Sheri Purdy, a couple who at the time also owned George’s Corner Tavern on North Interstate. They renovated the space to what you see now, invited bargoers to help name it, and created the easygoing atmosphere the Reel became so beloved for. And maybe most crucially, the Purdys brought in the famous fried chicken recipe, one so adored it’s been publicly praised by food personalities such as celebrated Southern chef Sean Brock and writer Danny Chau.
But even before the pandemic, the existence of the Reel has seemed precarious in recent years, as many of Portland’s former beloved bars and food cart spaces have been razed to make way for condos; this is particularly true on SE Division, one of the city’s fastest-developing neighborhoods and the site of Reel M Inn. In 2015, then-owner Paul Meno was unsure of the future of the bar, as the landlord seemed unlikely to renew the lease once it expired in 2018. In 2017, to the relief of many Portlanders, the Reel was purchased by Carey Bolton, “quite possibly the hardest-working bartender in Portland,” according to a 2017 Willamette Week story. Since taking over the bar, Bolton has changed very little about the space, preferring to maintain the bar’s seemingly eternal glory. “Living here for 15 years and being a dive bar fan, I would say that it has emerged over the past decade as probably the sort of essential Portland dive bar,” says Oregonian critic Michael Russell.
At the end of the day, it’s not the chicken or the wall art or the cheap tallboys that make the Reel so great. It’s the people who work there: Bartender-turned-owner Carey Bolton, her husband and minority owner Alex Briggs, or faithful bartender and right-hand-woman Mel Gonzales. These are faces people know, people who — in their years behind and in front of the bar — have been able to absorb, study, and contribute to its magic. In the wake of the closure, we asked Carey, Alex, and Mel to reminisce about the bar’s glory days, its national buzz, and the regulars who keep it going.
“Don’t screw up, don’t burn the chicken…”
“I moved to Portland with a girlfriend of mine, and we got a place on Division. We woke up that first morning and started walking down the street, looking for jobs. We stumbled across the Reel — it was the very last stop, at 10:30 in the morning — ordered a bloody mary, and asked, ‘Do you know anyone hiring?’ The bartender said, ‘We are, I’m leaving, can you start tomorrow? It was insanity, I was just given a key and an alarm code with no instructions — don’t screw up, don’t burn the chicken. To no fault of anyone — that’s just how it works at the Reel. If you can hack it, you can hack it. If you can’t, you leave crying. It’s baptism by fire.” — Carey Bolton
“A glimpse of the way Portland used to be…”
“I grew up five blocks away from the Reel, so it was my first stop when I got a fake ID at 19. I was so curious about what was going on in that bar with no windows, and I wasn’t disappointed. That is really just a component of both of our favorite moments of being able to buy the bar from the previous owner. Carey having worked so hard as a bartender to then become the owner and essentially save the place from a wrecking ball of development, and me being a local kid having a hand in being a part of a bar that held such a special place in my heart, as it represented the old SE Portland I had grown up in. The moment we got the keys officially was an overwhelming moment in every sense of the word.
“Business seemed to move, with a lot of Portland and Division Street becoming so popular. It really seems as Portland has gotten more cute and ‘developed.’ People are more interested in finding spots like the Reel, which offer a glimpse of the way Portland used to be and are priced in a way that everyone can enjoy. There has been quite the fried chicken boom around town, with lots of great options, but it seems like it has only made our chicken more popular.” — Alex Briggs
“The chefs would bring their chef buddies…”
“Right when I started, we were awarded ‘dive bar of the year’ by some nationwide dive bar association. That got us some good coverage, but I really feel like what happened was we had so many great chefs come into Portland, and then they would give such cred to the Reel. And then Feast would come into town, and those chefs would bring their chef buddies. Sean Brock, Andy Ricker — we’re so fortunate that those guys were as kind, are as kind and complimentary as they are about our tiny little spot that could barely hold their line.” — Carey Bolton
“That’s when I knew that I had the greatest job ever…”
“[Me and my friends] went to this honky-tonk called Hanks [in Indianapolis] and on their menu they had fried chicken. We’re at the bar, we get there, and we need to eat dinner. They have fried chicken, I want to try it... So I ask the bartender, ‘Hey, are you serving chicken?’ And he said, ‘No it’s only during the week.’ So we start chatting and I say, “Aw, I work at a chicken spot in Portland. I work at Reel M Inn.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh my god, I love it there, it’s such a rad place.’ So we ordered drinks, sat down, all of a sudden he came out and fed me and my seven friends fried chicken. He had turned the fryer on for us and didn’t charge us a single penny because we worked at Reel M Inn... The guy was a brewer, so he used to go to craft beer conferences, and any time he went to Portland, he came to Reel M Inn... That’s when I was like, ‘Holy shit, I work at a legit-ass spot. That’s when I knew that I had the greatest job ever.” — Mel Gonzales
“You’re solo and have to tend bar, bus, cook, bounce, the whole nine…”
“Watching Carey being able to handle that bar solo, when it was packed and raucous with a two-hour wait on chicken, with her level of charm, grace, hospitality, and logistical skill, just seemed to continuously create such a great vibe in the place. The best nights were always when it was jumping and several groups of strangers would get caught up and start singing together to the jukebox or break out in an impromptu dance party.
“This leads to why the place is so special: It’s a place where anyone and everyone can feel welcome. The fried chicken brings everybody in, old or young, rich or broke, any race, but the age-old charm, the genuinely welcoming bartenders, the pricing make it so it can be enjoyed by everyone… I also feel that being majority women-owned and -operated makes the bar special on many levels. It’s an incredibly tough bartending job as you’re solo and have to tend bar, bus, cook, bounce, the whole nine, and the women we have doing it just really excel in a way that I don’t think many men could or have. Having a strong female owner and manager helps create a dynamic, empowering, and safe environment for all the people involved, which is obviously a major problem in this industry.” — Alex Briggs
“When you gotta pay the bills, we had to figure out something…”
“It was March 16, we closed our doors during the day shift, and we just needed to sit and wait. We were caught so off guard, we didn’t think it was what it was. We didn’t know how horrific it would be. And it just came down to safety: The girls sat down, and we talked: Nobody wanted to work, but nobody wanted to not work. We were closed for two months, we all got together, and we figured out what our precautions would be. We put in outdoor seating, we put a Dutch door on the Reel so nobody could come in, and we did walk-up service — no Caviar and DoorDash… When you gotta pay the bills, we had to figure out something. We make a very narrow profit margin with our chicken — it’s fresh chicken, it’s local chicken — so we had to find a way to make money off of food. Our sales reversed: We sell a ton of booze and a little chicken, but now we needed to sell a ton of chicken and a little booze. A sandwich makes a lot of sense with that. The sandwich really allowed us to keep the doors open, get people back in — it got a little buzz on the street. ” — Carey Bolton
“In all of this, it’s been interesting, because we’ve met all sorts of people who moved to Portland during the pandemic and are coming to Reel M Inn for the first time, fell in love with us, and kept coming back. [They] don’t know the pure magic Reel M Inn holds when you’re trying to eat chicken, trying to not get hit with a pool cue while waiting in line for some Jell-O shots. So many first-timers during this pandemic. We can still have this community feel, regular feel. This is a home base even for people who have never waited three hours for chicken.” — Mel Gonzales
“...It’s like a damn family”
“It’s so cliche, but it is like a damn family. You see these people, they’ll come in every day or every week for years, and then you won’t see them for two, three months, and you’ll worry about them. You’ll text them. That’s the heartbeat of that place: the regulars. We have such a wide variety of regulars, from a 21-year-old to a 91-year-old, nobody bats an eye.” — Carey Bolton
“There’s this gentleman, Dave, who comes in — he’s the first person who comes in. Tequila shot and ice water, gambles. It had some sort of feeling normal that he was there [when he came back after reopening]. He’s not around as much, but he still makes a point to come in and visit us a couple days a week. He’s tequila Dave.” — Mel Gonzales
“Try and describe the Reel to someone, it doesn’t do it justice...”
“You just have to experience it. It’s an experience. If you try and describe the Reel to someone, it still doesn’t do it justice. I think it’s an experience... we are cheap, we are kind. We are friendly and we have a great product. We pour deep and we’re one of the cheapest bars in town. Everything we serve is consistent, whether chicken, booze, or Jell-O shots. And our smiling faces.” — Mel Gonzales
“I don’t want to sound cliche here, but that place has magic of its own.” — Carey Bolton
Samantha Bakall is a Chinese-American freelance journalist and photographer specializing in diversity-based food issues.