I wasn’t a regular at Congress Bar & Grill, but when the old Arts District fixture closed a few months ago, it seemed I couldn’t walk a block downtown without running into a friend or acquaintance who was, and they couldn’t hold back on sharing their memories of the place, good or hazy. Or both. Almost everyone remarked that Congress Bar & Grill had a “strong pour,” that the generous bartenders added the booze with a “heavy hand.”
Don’t get me wrong: this wasn’t a grim gin joint like Rockin’ Rickey’s Tavern, the old dive bar down on Portland Street due to close a few days before Christmas, where it’s rumored you could cash in an AA chip for a drink. It was a warm and welcoming place, a home away from home where patrons inevitably became friends.
Congress Bar & Grill was also the go-to spot before or after concerts at the State Theatre, which is located in the same building (and connected by tunnels that are definitely haunted). I’ve had several great dates there (and one not-so-great date), and those strong pours in my vodka martinis were a godsend, as was the affordable menu.
Longtime owner Deb Glanville took to Facebook to bid farewell. “I have owned the business for 21 years, first with Norm [Jabar, proprietor of the Downtown Lounge across the street] as my partner and for the past 8 as sole proprietor. For the most part it has been a good run. I have loved meeting the customers and many have become good friends. I have also enjoyed the camaraderie with my co-workers. Restaurant people are a diverse and crazy bunch.”
Congress Bar & Grill closed at the end of August. By the end of October, it was reborn as CBG, under the ownership of Jason Loring (Nosh, Slab) and Michael Fraser (Roma, Bramhall), who also own Hunker Down, a restaurant at the base of Sugarloaf Maintain. The regulars I knew were skeptical: Could Loring and Fraser preserve the original place’s neighborhood feel?
As soon as you set foot in CBG, you know they have. The wood paneling and retro décor evoke the classic hole-in-the-wall taverns scattered throughout Maine and much of the Northeast. The kitchen got a long-overdue overhaul (though the menu remains affordable), and they removed a tall divider between the bar and dining area, opening up the room and giving it a communal feel.
I talked to Michael Barbuto, the general manager of CBG and Bramhall, about his approach to the paradoxical problem of creating a cocktail list for a new bar that strives to feel comfortably old.
“I’ve worked at a lot of places, in and around Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, Massachusetts,” he said. “Since I’ve come to Portland, I’ve worked at some places where the food is a little more elevated. A cocktail list can be intimidating for a cocktail novice, with five or six bottle pickups, multiple garnishes, and different levels of depth and creativity. However, the places I’ve worked at back home were more like neighborhood joints that used fresh ingredients and worked hard at pursuing a list that is more approachable and less confusing to the guests when they read it.
“I really want to just put together something easy, with a little bit of flair and a little bit of fun,” he continued. “It’s always nice to have a fun name for a drink or two, to riff off of some sort of cocktail you enjoy. Mostly, I want people to look at the list and have an idea of what they’re ordering.”
The cocktail list is simple and short. It includes CBG’s signature drinks, like the Movie Star (rye whiskey, house-made ginger syrup, and lemon; $10) and a good selection of drafts, tall-boy cans and wine.
Like its predecessor’s staff, the bartenders at CBG are down-to-earth and friendly, ready to make any cocktail you crave. And sometimes, especially this time of year, all you need is a good, strong drink. The house Old Fashioned is only $7, and a house Manhattan, Martini or Margarita is $8.
I got a Whiskey Sour with Four Roses Yellow Label, their house bourbon, for $8. Was the pour on the heavy side, or was I just happy to be spending time in a down-home neighborhood tavern in the middle of the city? The answer, of course, is irrelevant.