The Victory Bar
Crossing the threshold at Portland’s The Victory Bar gives one a sense that they have entered into a fictional world colored in sepia from the lamps filtering light through the paper lampshades that hang from the tin ceilings. Colors are faded and muted; the lighting is dim, and although the patrons carry on spirited conversations, they seem to be guarded from prying ears. Retro imagery abounds from some imaginary wartime existence, from the colorless burlap curtains with newsprint slogans such as “Long Live the Proper Republic of America” to the paper stencil candle covers on the table that boast silhouettes of fictional political figures – The Victory Bar is a speakeasy where The Brotherhood convenes to talk of revolution in The Party.
References to George Orwell’s 1984 appear to be intentional, from the imagery to the menu offering of the Sloppy George (featuring “secret spicy BBQ sauce”) and the obligatory Victory Gin (which I didn’t try but undoubtedly would be a favorite of Winston Smith). As dark and faded as the decor is, thankfully the food is a far cry better than the black bread and synthetic meat provided by The Ministry of Plenty. The Victory Bar misses the literary boat on the menu – with a variety of international items such as gruyere cheese spätzle (reduced to the newspeak “mac-n-cheese”), the Victory Ruben and an Americanized poutine, the offerings are too interesting to be Orwellian. The inclusion of Freedom Fries is a nice nod of the hat to the Inner Party that the U.S. Republican congressmen appeared to belong to in 2003, although sadly Robert W. Ney and Walter B. Jones were not fictional characters.
Blending in with the other Proles that permeated the small dining room, I chose the house-cured anchovies imported from Spain to open. These fat, eel-like filets were draped unceremoniously over pyre-stacked fingers of focaccia and then smothered in a thick Dijon sauce that completely obscured the fish. Finished with sliced radishes and sprigs of cilantro, there was a proliferation of strong flavors, the least of which (unfortunately) was the anchovy. The slightly briny and acetic flavor peaked through occasionally and the fact that there was a little give to the flesh saved the dish, but the anchovies seemed to hide from view repeatedly much like the thought police.
The main selection was never in doubt. According to the Ministry of Information (Portland Monthly), The Victory Bar’s venison burger was selected as one of the top 30 burgers in Portland, narrowly missing the top spot in the Non-Beef category. The thick slab of Bambi arrived hot with slightly pink innards, and I was impressed with the juiciness of the patty (whereas venison is a lean meat, it tends to be on the dry side unless prepared with a more “richly marbled” animal flesh or marinated). The meat was mild with less of a wild taste than most venison and the fried threads of leek sticking up out of the Cheddar like a balding Mohawk added a nice, crispy texture to each bite. The sauce was interesting in a familiar way, and although the menu touts it as Worcestershire aioli, my server bluntly stated that it was a blend of aioli and ketchup.
Dining in an atmosphere that gives the impression that you’re a character in a dramatic social satire enhances the dining experience, where you can find yourself forgiving The Victory Bar for providing a dimly lit space that makes identifying your menu selection somewhat difficult. The room itself is a great conversation starter for the drinking crowd, who can find the strength in feigning ignorance that Imbibe Magazine voted The Victory Bar one of the 100 best places to drink beer in Oceania. On a cold and rainy evening, once the literary atmosphere set in I knew that I had won the victory over myself: I loved The Victory Bar.