Friday, October 23, 2009

I Whine Hard about Henry's Tavern

On the previous post about the new taps at the Green Dragon, someone commented that their 50 taps must be one of the largest collections in the city. The Horse Brass just barely squeaks past them because of their 3 cask engines, and Patrick pointed out that the Dublin Pub in Hillsdale has over 50 taps (59 according to their website).

But the reigning champion in Portland is clearly Henry's Tavern, with about 100 taps. Let me pull out some cliches to describe Henry's Tavern. The large, well-chosen tap-list is like casting pearls before swine (most patrons order macro lagers or cocktails). A beer there will cost you an arm and a leg. Henry Weinhard must be rolling over in his grave to have Henry's Tavern using his name and his building.

Enough cliches. I would love to love Henry's, with its massive beer list and great historic location. The first bar I ever went into -- as you can see by my identification card -- was a tavern owned by my Uncle Henry. The finest honky-tonk in Austin used to be Henry's Bar and Grill on Burnet Road (now an AutoZone parking lot, grrrr...). But Portland's Henry's Tavern always manages to annoy me in one of the following ways:
  1. The servers know nothing about the beers.
  2. The beer list doesn't list prices or serving quantities.
  3. The servers don't know the quantities.
  4. The beer list is often out of date.
  5. The servers can't tell you any additions/subtractions to the list.
  6. The beer is expensive.
Every few months I torment myself with a trip to Henry's, but there's always some annoyance. Either the first three beers I order turn out to be unavailable, or a beer of normal strength comes to the table in a small goblet after the server assures me it is served in pints. One time when Brian and I were having lunch there, I pointedly asked our waitress if there were any new beers that hadn't made it onto the list. She said she'd check with the bartender, then came back and said there weren't. And yet when the beer buyer came by and recognized Brian, she recommended we try a new release from Ninkasi that was not yet on the list. Brilliant.

Henry's probably has the most expensive pints in town -- well, maybe Higgins or Rogue can beat them, but those places at least give a damn about the beer they're serving. And since the prices aren't posted anywhere, you just take your chances until the check arrives.

That's one thing, and I'll admit to being kind of a tightwad. Nevertheless, I would patronize the place more if not for the total lack of respect for beer there. It could be a kind of beer-geek heaven with just a little bit of creative management. For example, the Tap House Grill in Seattle is a similar establishment, but a nod is given to beer fans, and the servers know their stuff.

Don't hold your breath: I think Henry's has done the calculation on what kind of customer they are angling for, and it's corporate restaurant diners, not beer geeks. The giant beer list attracts a certain chest-thumping contingent, but they are mostly oblivious to the genuinely interesting variety on the list.


  1. I'd prefer Henry's Bar & Grill, myself.

  2. Oh yes! Thanks for reminding me, I added a mention to the article.

  3. Before I had my head held forcibly under the Waters of Portland Beer Knowledge, I actually liked Henry's the first and second time I went there.

    But then I found out about shaker pints. And other places in town that sold cheaper beer. And the servers who either don't care or are directed not to care about the massive beer list. And then my third experience was just this side of Punch The Bartender In The Face.

    It would be something one could probably deal with, but having two dozen places in town that do things better on a variety of fronts . . . I mean, why fight uphill at that point?

  4. You forgot to mention that every beer comes in a frosted cheater pint. Imperial stout in an iced shaker is mad lame. I'd rather hit Old Chicago on SE 82nd Ave. At least you get a mug club card and 16 liquid ounces there.

  5. Ben: The Waters of Portland Beer Knowledge, eh? I love it. Another sinner saved!

    Angelo: Since I wasn't totally sure about the cheater pints, and I'm annoyed enough as it is, I left that detail out. I probably should have mentioned the iced strip around the bar, to keep your glass of mad lame beer palatable.

  6. Late last year, Tammy (the 'beer buyer') at Henry's contacted me about hosting a BeerAdvocate tasting party at Henry's. I was a little leery, so I went over and met with her and was pleasantly surprised by both the willingness to accommodate our large group and by the beer-IQ she clearly has.

    We originally scheduled our party in December (the Saturday of the snowstorm) and rescheduled for a few weeks later. Marketing ploy or not, we had a whole string of tables (enough to seat our group of 20), free appetizers, all the tasting glasses for our (dozens) of shared bottles (brought in with her blessing) and probably their best server. She even arranged with Ben Love (HUB) to stop by - with 3 growlers in tow...all in all, it was a pretty great event and changed some notions I had about Henry' least for one afternoon.

    Been back a few times since (including that lunch when the server ignored that Ninkasi Spring Reign special...), service is always hit-or-miss and the cocktail crowd isn't my type. All your points are valid, Bill et al...the flaws may be many and glaring, but at least they're filling a certain niche, just not one most of your blog readers care for.

  7. i only do Horse Brass, it has everything you need.

  8. Despite the cheater pints, ice strip on the bar and clueless service, the biggest problem with Henry's is obvious the minute you step in and confront the sea of untucked dress shirts, euro-jeans, hair product and Axe body spray fumes: The place is an even bigger douchebag magnet than Deschutes.

  9. I used to be a naive craft newbie, and thought Henry's was a pretty cool gig. Unfortunately, too many posers drinking Macroswille-lite, worried too much about looking good. Arghh.

    That being said, Gwen is most definitely my favorite bartender in town. But short pours, the 8 oz in a snifter for strong beers, made me willing to search for a better venue.

    Tammy most definitely knows her beer, but I always got the impression that the servers were either bored or didn't care. Even 100 taps can't overcome a pour attitude- I mean most of the waitresses never smile, or are too busy chewing their gum to care.

    I've moved on to greener pastures. I'd rather have some NY attitude at the Brass and Fred in imperial pints than the Black Dream known as Henry's. Though I must admit, I miss Gwen:)

  10. Since you guys are supporting Tammy, I should probably back off on my claim that the tap list has no finesse. I especially like it that she brings in stuff from nano-brewers like Vertigo and Seven Brides, getting their names out beyond beer-fiend circles.

    Brian, thanks for the report on the Beer Advocate party. That was a nice gesture.

  11. Just a few words, thanks for the support Brian, you are a gentleman. I spend hours on our beer list and my menus have to last about 3 months on average.
    We purchase 10 cases a week of 16 ounce libby heat treated pints each week. Locally by the way from Bargreen. They will verify that we don't serve cheater pints. We serve higher abv beers in a 16 ounce snifter, 10 ounce pour.

    I apologize and will address the service, gum chewing, idiocy you describe with my team. It is never ok to serve an Imperial Stout in an icy pint, agreed on all accounts.

    Any suggestions or comments, whether positive or negative are always welcome as are you all at Henry's. Wait until you see our Holiday Beer Menu!

  12. Some good points made-and I don't envy your task, Tammy. Because Portland is such a haven for beer, getting people to come back to come back to a place where they've been discouraged for one reason or another is very, very difficult.

    I'll have to get around to checking it out again one of these days, just to see if things have changed.

  13. Tammy: Thanks for leaping into the fray. I apologize for the stupid line in the post about the tap-list lacking finesse. You do a great job with it. I've edited that out now.

    Since you asked for suggestions, here are a few things Henry's could do to make the serious beer crowd happier (and none of them require re-training the servers):

    1. Print prices and serving sizes for every beer right on the beer list.

    2. Ask your local supplier for glasses with a fill line. Belmont Station has 16 oz. lines on their glasses; Deschutes has 0.5 liter lines on their pints (other glasses have 0.3 and even 0.4 liters).

    3. Have a chalkboard near the bar to show changes to the printed menu. Or take a cue from the Tap House and print the current seasonals from the cash register on demand.

    If Henry's would do those things, beer snobs could get the information they need whether the servers know it or not.

  14. I could have written this post--it is very close to how I feel about Henry's. Still, I find myself in there periodically (as long as they have Storm King on tap, it's alluring))--less so now that Bailey's is just around the corner. It's also a decent place to take out-of-towners. The beer menu is well-designed and guides people to beers they might like. I don't know why no other bar arranges beers by style.

    But they could bring the prices back to earth and educate the staff.