Does memorabilia maketh a sports bar? No—or at least not in Portland.
Credit designer John Janulis for breaking the mold at Century Bar, the anti-sports dive. As part of the city’s Lightning Bar Collective, he constructed a space for fans that successfully eschews neon beer signs and kitschy liquor brand promos.
Instead, Century foregrounds its purpose in a different way: by bringing the stadium indoors. Housed in a former printing shop, the bar revolves around a central space reminiscent of a high school football field, surrounded on three sides by tiers of bleachers in hand-fashioned African mahogany. “The design is based on how high up the windows are,” Janulis says. “They remind me of climbing to the top of a stadium and looking out over the wall.” When a game is on, high-definition televisions 12 feet in diameter descend from recessed ceiling slots. The stadium arrangement is taken to its logical conclusion in details like the menu of quesadillas and popcorn, though with a decidedly Rip City twist—vegan cheese and nutritional yeast feature prominently, as do boozy slushie machines. The tequila-centric cocktails, made with fresh juice delivered daily from local mecca The Commissary, are 24 ounces, so patrons can watch a full quarter of an NBA game without making a trip to the bar.
Lightning Bar Collective is a fluid group of carpenters, bartenders, and attorneys who have pooled their skills to open five other drinking spots in Portland, although the Century concept is a first. “It was something that was missing in this town,” Janulis says. “There’s an audience in Portland that wants to watch sports, but they don’t want the ambience of a typical sports bar.” So much so that immediately after a game the TVs slide back into the ceiling, the DJ revs up, and occupants of the bleachers might find themselves in an ’80s hip-hop dance party.
The midcentury aesthetic helps with this transformation. The tables—made of a white, solid surface cork—pop against the burnished wood. Upstairs, in the private room, the walls are papered in an early ’50s space-age pattern, handmade by heritage specialists Bradbury & Bradbury and complemented with wood paneling. The backbar dates to the late 1800s, and belonged to an old brothel in Redmond, Oregon, before it was torn apart, stripped of lead paint, and reassembled in Century. The vintage industrial lighting and custom mahogany speaker cases further distance the bar from its counterparts, for whom loud noise and bright lights are distinguishing characteristics.
Century’s prime location in the lively nightlife hub of southeast Portland gives it an incentive to keep customers around once the final buzzer sounds, which was a factor in creating a space where sports fandom isn’t a prerequisite. “We’re more of a neighborhood bar that also shows sports,” says Janulis, although he adds that the games are a priority. Clients with minimal interest in the Trailblazers gather around the fire-pit on the sidewalk-adjacent patio, or converge on the rooftop, with its Adirondack chairs and views of downtown. The screens there remain off. In fact, the deck, where customers can watch the sunset with a Tecate in hand, is Janulis’s favorite spot, and it’s with considerable satisfaction that he says, “You wouldn’t even know sports were going on in the other room.”
General Manager Nate VanDeventer makes us a cocktail inspired by Century Bar.
“For this drink, I wanted to take a classic cocktail and add a modern twist. Century Bar’s mix of vintage midcentury details and the state-of-the-art equipment for showing sporting events was the inspiration behind La Madera, which is a variation of the classic Blood and Sand cocktail created in 1930. Thanks to the stadium-style mahogany seating, the space gives off a warm, old-school gymnasium vibe. For the modern element, I used our kitchen smoker and created smoked ice cubes. This variation uses mezcal in place of scotch. The flavor of the mezcal is enhanced as the drink dilutes and releases the smoke from the ice cubes. We also used pineapple juice in place of orange juice. The pineapple flavor plays really well with the intense, aggressive flavor of the mezcal.”